Furniture 101 : Q&A
I keep seeing repeated posts here asking how to tell quality....which brand is best, what will last the longest, etc. I thought perhaps it a good thread to address the basic things to look for, under the premise that an educated consumer can make a wise decision. So let's give this a try and not target "brand names" so much as general questions on furniture. This could be a LONG thread and make take quite a few posts to cover topics, but let's get started!
First off, my name is Duane Collie and I own a small home furnishings store in Alexandria, VA. I've been in business since 1979 and specialize in high-quality, American-made 18th century furnishings. Because of the nature of my business, I have learned hundreds of things about what makes a good piece, or a bad piece, or even a mediocre piece (just don't overpay for mediocrity).
Let's start off with something easy, the basic building block of all furniture..>WOODSolid wood is preferable to veneers (which are laminates over a secondary wood) Wider boards are more expensive than narrow boards in solid woods, and more desirable. There are different grades of wood within a type. For example, there are over 200 species of pine and while Southern Yellow is not very good for furniture making, Eastern White Pine is. A cabinetmaker selects his wood based on his project and costs. If he is using an aniline dye and shellac coats, he needs a higher grade of lumber than if he is using covering stains that mask the wood flaws and mineral deposit variables.
Which wood to get? This varies by price and characteristics. Just because a wood is soft, doesn't mean its not suitable for a project. Here's a rundown of some common woods in the USA that are furniture grade:
Pine. Soft, but relatively stable. Eastern White has good, tight knots that will not fall out. Shrinkage and expansion is moderate. Dent resistance is poor. Takes stains nicely.
Poplar. Great Secondary wood (drawer bottoms, etc.) and very stable. Inexpensive. Halfway between a soft and hardwood. Takes paint well, but never stains up nicely.
Cherry. A great lumber! I personally find it more interesting to look at than most mahogany. Its a hardwood, but not as dense as maple. Takes aniline dyes beautifully and requires little or no sealer. Cherry will darken and 'ruby up' with age and exposure to sunlight. If you use it for flooring or kitchen cabinets, expect deeper and more red dish colors to develop over time nearer the windows of your home.
Mahogany. Poor Mahogany! So misunderstood! Mahogany grows in every part of the world, and varies greatly. Figured mahogany is highly desirable (aka as 'plum pudding' or 'crotch' mahogany) but you rarely see it outside of veneers due to the cost of those logs. The very best furniture grade mahogany is from Central America and Cuba, but is very hard to source. African mahogany is decent, and the stuff from China and the Philippines the least desirable. Mahogany can be done in open pore, semi-closed pore, and fully sealer finishes. Mahogany is a favorite for carvers, as it carves easily and is not prone to splitting when being handled.
Maple. Both hard and soft maple is an industry standard. Very durable, very dense, accepts many colors nicely and stains up well. Excellent for the best upholstery frames. Stable, and plentiful.
Figured Maples. Sometimes called Tiger Maple, or Curly Maple (one of my favorites). A small percentage of maple will be highly figured and is pulled off at the mill to sell to furniture makers and musical instrument makes for about 2x the price of regular maple. Tiger maple MUST be board matched and typically a single log will be used to make a project, rather than taking a board from this pile and another from another pile. Consistency is key, and you will hear the term 'bookmatched' used frequently in figured maples. Figured maples look best with aniline dye finishes and hand-scraped surfaces. Birdseye maples are in this category as well, but are so unstable that most shops only use them veneers.
Walnut: A hard wood to work with. Not many walnut forests, and most cabinentmakers loathe making walnut pieces for two reasons. First it much be bleached before it can be finished, otherwise its ugly. Secondly, it has to be filled and sanded. Very time consuming to do properly, but quite a handsome wood when done right (3/4's of all walnut pieces I see is NOT done right)
Oak: Another mainstay wood. Very durable, and dense. Not widely used in fine furniture because of the grain pattern.
There are other woods as well, but those are some of the mainstay furniture woods.
Wood has to be milled to make is usable. It is run through planers, joiners and wide belt sanders to get it to size. The larger and thicker the board, the more expensive it will be. Bed posts and pedestal bases on tables are very expensive to do as solid, non-glued-up pieces. So if you buy a bed, check to see if you see a vertical seam in the lumber which signifies a glue-up. Nothing wrong with glue-ups, just don't pay the price of solid 1-board.
Industry standard is 4/4 (pronounced four quarter) lumber, which when milled will finish out to 7/8" thickness. Anything thicker - or even thinner - requires more expensive wood or more planing time if being thinned out.
Once the wood is planed, it either goes to a wide belt sander or is hand-scraped. If hand-scraped (much more desirable) you will feel a slight ripple when you run your hand over the surface. Belt-sanded items will be perfectly smooth. Cutting the surface of the wood gives you a brighter finish over a sanded surface in a completed product.
Solid wood MOVES. The wider the board, the more it will move with the seasons. Expands in the summer, shrinks in the winter. The art of the furnituremaker is to build to allow this movement, without sacrificing joinery strength. Narrow board furniture does not move nearly as much, and plywoods and veneers don't move at all.
Joinery. The gold standard is Mortise and Tenon. That's the strongest joint where you have intersecting pieces of wood. All mortise and tenoned pieces will have one or two distinctive wood pins visible from the outside of the piece that secure that joint. Next up is Dowel joints. Not as durable as mortise and tenon, but superior to a bolt-in leg. Dowel joints look like M&T joints, but don't have the cross pins. Last choice are legs than bolt on, or are held on by screws. Plastic blocks, staples, nails, hot glue and the like are unacceptable as joinery methods.
I've reached the character limit for this post. More later. Hope you like this thread and will ask general quesions!