Let’s talk about the Great American Pastime…shopping…and how to find good furniture. First of all, I’ll start with 3 axioms. Everybody wants a bargain. Value is made up of both price and quality. And, lastly, you should buy the best quality piece of furniture you can afford.
Of course, there are exceptions to this last one. If you’re moving every year, or on an extremely tight budget, you may want dispose-a-furniture, but for your sake and the sake of the environment, it’s better to get something that lasts. It’s better to give something away than to throw something away.
We’ll start with case goods. These are chests of drawers, vanities, dressers, sideboards, armoires, entertainment centers, think anything big and rectangular.
Low budget case goods may be made up of particle board or Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF). Their finishes will be paper or vinyl veneer with the grain painted on or covered in house paint or enamel. The joints are butt-lapped (end to edge) and held together with staples. The back is likely to be cardboard (glued or nailed on) as will be the bottom of the drawers. The drawer fronts will be attached with glue or screws. If it’s an armoire or entertainment center, the doors won’t open all the way back to the sides of the case. The carved details will be plastic or resin rather than carved wood. Based on my own experience, expect three to five years of use.
Middle of the line pieces will be made out of plywood with multiple ply veneers and have a finish of colored lacquer or Formica. The joinery may be a mixture but the best joints will have dovetails, dadoes or mortise and tenon joints. The back will be recessed in a rabbeted joint and be nailed or screwed on. Only the back of the piece will look different than the front or sides. The drawer bottoms will sit inside a dado joint ( a little groove) and be either masonite or thin plywood. The drawer fronts will be attached with a mortise and tenon joint. The drawers will use metal glides and you’ll be easily able to access the back of the drawer. The inside may be sanded and finished. Depending on use, you’ll have these items for ten to fifteen years.
Heirloom pieces, those which you can pass down to your grandkids, will be a whole ‘nother cat. They’ll be made out of solid wood or may have up to 7 plys in the veneer. The look will be a hand rubbed finish, although, truth to tell, most commercial finishes are sprayed on with a high volume low pressure (HVLP) sprayer these days. The inside of the cabinet should have blocks in corners to increase stability. The blocks should be at least glued and may be screwed. Almost all the joinery will be dovetails, dadoes, some mortise and tenon and even some miter joints. Like before, the back will be rabbetted in and sometimes will have a finish (although since this is rarely seen, not all do). Under the drawers, which set inside a dado groove, you’ll see corner blocks and the bottom will be made of plywood or solid wood. The quality of the drawer glides should be noticeably better and allow full access to the inside. The inside of the drawers may be stained and finished. The doors should have either piano (long) hinges or slide back into the cabinet (pocket doors) or be double hinged so they’ll open all the way to sides of the cabinet.
It’s worth noting that these are really ideals and you’ll frequently find a mix of better and lesser qualities (hey, just like me) in the same item. A visit to an antique or used furniture store (shameless plug) is a good way to see a variety of techniques, woods and finishes.
And I highly recommend talking with your customer sales associate (aka salesman) if you have any questions. Shopping is all about trust. You trust that what you’re buying is worth your money. The salesman trusts your check is good.