How to Know Whether You’re Buying Quality Furniture

One of the legacies I hold dear is a lesson I learned from my mother, Niki Leodas, who was born in Egypt and raised there and in Greece:

…buy fewer things and always buy the highest quality you can afford. Also, if you can make it yourself (sew your own dress, bake your own cake, build your own furniture) it will mean more and give you greater pleasure.

My parents were educators and so it goes without saying that they didn’t have much money. But because of this cardinal rule that my mother applied to almost all purchases, they had beautiful things—furniture, art, clothing, tools. They just didn’t have more of them than they needed. Due to a tragic house fire, I inherited almost no things from them. But I inherited the value of quality over quantity, a far more precious gift.

Whether you buy Kitizo Furniture kits or another company’s product, we want to encourage you to buy less and buy higher quality furniture. It’s good for your pocketbook and for the planet, too. It may help you to know something about how quality furniture is built:

Know how to spot quality wood furniture. When made with high-quality materials and solid construction, wood furniture can last for decades and sometimes even centuries. But not everything you see in stores is built to last. We’ve all been there — you bring home an inexpensive piece of furniture that falls apart after only a few months of use. Identifying quality wood furniture can be difficult these days. Many pieces look great in the store, only to prove flimsy once you get them home and start to use them. Here’s what to look for, and what to avoid, when shopping for your next piece of wood furniture.

The first thing to pay attention to is the wood itself.

Solid North American Hardwood

The highest-quality material for wood furniture is solid hardwood. Hardwood comes from slower-growing trees and the wood is denser and more resistant to dings. Solid hardwood construction is extremely long-lasting and can be easily refinished and repaired down the road. Common hardwood species that are sustainably harvested in the United States include maple, cherry, walnut, oak and ash. Choose these. Common softwoods are pine, fir and cedar. Avoid these. Typically, furniture is made from single pieces of wood or wood boards that are glued together to make panels — trees are only so wide, after all. If something is described as being made with solid hardwood, find out if that describes the entire piece or just certain parts.

While solid hardwood is the best choice for furniture, it’s not without downsides. Solid hardwood naturally shrinks and expands in response to changes in climate, meaning it may crack or warp. It’s a living, breathing material. But that’s where good design comes into play. At Kitizo we take great care to design furniture in ways that minimize the possibility of warping or cracking. And, we strongly advise against buying your kit and then storing it in your basement (or some other damp space) for a year before building it. That would be a recipe for failure!

Imported wood

A lot of imported furniture is made from tropical wood species such as rubberwood, teak, mango or rosewood. These species are eye-catching and can produce a sturdy piece of furniture, but they may be susceptible to cracking if they’re coming from a humid environment to a drier one. And they may be harvested in ways that contribute to the destruction of important environmental resources.

Plywood

Plywood is made by gluing together dozens of thin layers of wood, with the grain of each layer opposed to the grains of the adjacent layers. Of the many varieties of plywood, Baltic Birch is regarded as the best because it is made from only top quality birch (hardwood) veneers, laminated together with no filler wood. If you purchase our kits in this material, you will find that it doesn’t bear much resemblance to the plywood you’ll find in stacks at your local big box store. It’s cleaner and less splintery, and when you look at the cut edge, there are no spaces or voids. The main benefit of plywood is that it’s stable; when the climate changes, it is less likely to warp or crack.

Baltic birch plywood takes stain and paint well and can give you an economical, attractive and sturdy piece of furniture that will last for decades. In the middle of the 20th Century, furniture design “greats” like Charles and Ray Eames and Alvar Alto bent and played with it to great effect, and its popularity hasn’t diminished much since then.

Medium-density Fiberboard (MDF)

Medium-density fiberboard (MDF) is made from wood waste products (basically sawdust) that have been mixed with resins. It requires a lot of chemicals to make and is the highest-formaldehyde-emitting wood product out there. The mixture is compressed to create large, flat boards. Sometimes, cheap furniture is made from MDF, to which a layer of real-wood veneer has been glued, thus disguising the actual makeup of the product. The only positive thing you can say about MDF furniture is that it’s inexpensive. Otherwise, it is easily damaged by water, difficult to repair, doesn’t hold glue or screws well and it weighs a ton. Avoid it.

Particle board

Made similarly to MDF, particle board is made by laminating together larger wood chips, sawmill shavings or sawdust to create boards. A lot of the cheap furniture on the market that falls apart quickly is made of this material, including those bureaus that begin to wobble within a few months of your bringing them home. That’s because the hardware doesn’t really have anything to grip onto. Particle board emits formaldehyde, requires a lot of chemicals to produce, is susceptible to moisture damage.

Veneers

A veneer is a thin sheet of real wood (typically 1/42nd of an inch) that is applied to the outside of a piece of wood furniture. It can be added to any of the wood products mentioned above. Veneers are used when you want to match up wood grain to create a design or, sometimes, to cover a lower-cost piece of furniture. A lot of beautiful mid-century modern Scandinavian furniture was, in fact, veneered (most typically teak veneer on plywood). It was and still is beautiful, but once the veneer chips, it’s a bear to repair.

If you must buy veneered furniture, try to find pieces with veneer that is 1/16” or even 1/8” thick, as repairs may be possible with sandpaper and finish. And always make sure that both sides of the inside material are veneered; applying veneer to just one side of, say, the plywood, will cause the piece to bend or bow.

Taking a little time to research your wood furniture purchase will ensure that you’re buying something that will last a long time. As always, purchase the best piece you can afford. It will save you money in the long run since you won’t need to repurchase again and again. And, for maximum satisfaction, consider making it yourself!

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