Real wood furniture is the most popular furniture in existence. It’s been around for hundreds of years and probably existed when the cave people got tired of squatting on the dirt floor of their caves and looked around for a better way.
The woods that are fashioned into furniture fall into three categories:
Even the term ‘hardwood’ or ‘softwood’ is deceptive. Hardwoods aren’t necessarily harder, denser material. For example, balsa wood is one of the lightest, least dense woods there is, and it’s considered a hardwood. Technically, lumber is classified based on how the tree reproduces. As a general rule, though, softwood trees are evergreen year round while the hardwoods create the gorgeous autumn foliage that we all love so much.
Hardwoods are considered the highest quality and are the most expensive. Their natural colors vary from the darkest woods to the lightest ones and and they can be stained or painted for even more variety. Hardwood furniture is least likely to warp or bend and is prized in all high quality homes. The five woods most commonly used in furniture production are cherry, walnut, oak, maple and mahogany.
Softwoods are less expensive than hardwoods, but they require extra care. Because they are less durable, it’s much easier to scratch or dent softwood furniture. In addition, they often don’t have the beautiful grains of a hardwood, and therefore don’t stain as beautifully.
Pine is an example of a softwood that is commonly used for furniture. These woods are often used in construction as well so the choicest pieces are reserved for furniture. In construction, knots and splits are common. Lots of construction lumber will not accept paint and this kind of wood is used for shelves or packing crates.
The softwood used in furniture is designated as “Appearance” lumber and includes most softwood lumber that has been custom milled to a pattern or otherwise surfaced on all four sides.
Composites are the cheapest form of wood and are literally manufactured, rather than grown.
1. Plywood: multiple layers of thin wooden sheets are glued together and pressed. Plywood is strong and resists swelling, shrinking and warping. There is some furniture made directly from plywood, but generally it is only used as a support when incorporated into furniture.
2. Particle board: sawdust and small wood chips are mixed with glue or resin which is then shaped and pressure treated. When used for inexpensive furniture, particle board is usually covered with laminate or veneer. This is necessary because particle board splits easily and the laminate prevents splitting. However, the downside is that the laminate may separate from the wood because the particle board responds to temperature and pressure changes by swelling and shrinking.
3. Hardboard: is made like particle board but it’s placed under higher pressure so it’s stronger.
4. MDF or Medium Density Fiberboard: wood particles are bonded with resin and compressed. It is harder than particle board or hardboard, and can be cut like plywood although it isn’t as strong as plywood. Some MDF is covered with melamine which is a durable plastic in a variety of colors. The exposed edges of MDF are rough and need covering with molding or some other decorative material.
Technically, furniture made from all of these wood products is “real” wood furniture, even the composites. Prices and quality range from the hardwoods down to the composites. The higher you go up the spectrum, the more you can expect to pay for your wood furniture. The good part, of course, is that with proper care hardwood furniture will last for decades or even generations. If you can afford it, always choose hardwood furniture.