One of the things that I see on ads all the time when I am looking for old furniture to refinish is “Solid wood… SUPER HEAVY!” In most cases, it IS very heavy… but weight doesn't make it solid. I've learned to tell a quality piece of furniture from something that isn't worth my time, and I usually ignore what's written in the ad.
Solid wood isn’t always heavy.
Take teak, for example. It’s a very strong, durable wood that is the gold standard for use on crafting sailboats because it resists fungus and rot unlike a lot of wood. But it’s SUPER light. Like… my 3 year old can carry a teak dining chair across the house, no problem. I can pick it up with one hand and throw it across the room. (Just seeing if you’re paying attention… I would never do that to my MCM chairs, I’m obsessed with them.)
Solid wood is coveted because it’s all natural, durable, and can be refinished over and over. It’s not always the strongest, or the best option though. Even if a piece of wood is solid wood, it can be further categorized into “softwoods” (like spruce, pine, fir, and cedar) and “hardwoods” (like maple, oak, or walnut). Softwoods are, well, soft. They dent easily and aren’t great for high traffic surfaces, like a dining table. There’s also the cost to consider. For more exotic wood, it would be incredibly expensive to build a whole piece of furniture out of solid pieces. So then what?
Wood veneer, that’s what! Another common misconception is that a wood veneer is “fake.”
It’s actually a very thin piece of real solid wood, glued onto a less expensive substrate, like MDF, Plywood, or Particle Board. Here’s a quick breakdown of what those commonly used materials (called substrates) are:
- MDF (Medium density fibreboard) is made up of wood particles that have been blended up into fibres, then mixed with wax, resin, and any chemicals required for it to become fire, bug, or water resistant, and pressed into panels with high pressure and temperature. You can’t take it apart again and again, because the screw will eventually strip. It swells and discolours if water gets to it and isn’t very eco-friendly because of the chemicals used to make it. It’s REALLY dense and heavy. There are varying grades, so some are better quality than others. - Particle board is made from wood particles, but they are not as refined as MDF. It often has large wood chips along with shavings and sawdust. It’s still mixed with wax, resins, and chemicals. It’s not as heavy or dense as MDF (some solid woods, like oak can be heavier) and also not as strong. It can’t support heavy weight, but it stains and looks nicer. There are varying grades.
- Plywood is actually layers of wood veneer that are glued and pressed together (again under high pressure). It has a visible grain pattern and since it’s pieces of real wood that are in tact (not shredded up like MDF) it can hold a screw nice and firm. There are varying grades of plywood and some are higher quality than others, but even the lowest grade plywood is usually better than MDF or particle board. It’s strong, less susceptible to water damage, can be stained nicely, and doesn’t require a ton of nasty chemicals.
What about the IMPOSTERS?
Sometimes when you see a veneered furnishing that’s cheap, it’s actually not wood at all—it’s a laminate material made from plastic, paper, or foil printed with a wood grain pattern. It can be put on top of a substrate like MDF, particle board, or plywood… I’ve even seen it on top of corrugated cardboard. Talk about garbage.
So… how can you tell what is what?
Keep in mind that high quality substrates with a real wood veneer over top can be tricky to differentiate from a solid wood, but there are still ways.
1) One easy way is by looking at the edges and corners. If there is a laminate material covering a substrate, it will usually wear away quickly and show the substrate underneath, or there will be a seam where two pieces meet. If it’s a wood veneer over a substrate, the edges will be super sharp and straight because veneer cannot bend. Better quality veneers use a technique called edge banding where the veneer is placed on the edges, to cover the exposed ends that would show the substrate… you’ve got to have a practiced eye to see this sometimes.
2) Get down, get down, and move it all around... I mean, under the furniture. Often you can see a wood veneer sitting on top of a substrate by looking at the underside, where edges are exposed. Or, try opening the dining table up and check the edge where the leaf goes in. Sometimes the plywood is completely exposed underneath the furniture, because who lays on the floor staring at the bottom anyway?
3) Do she got curves? If the furniture is super curvy, check and see if the woodgrain lines up. A solid wood piece can be carved into tons of curvy shapes and you will see the grain throughout. Veneers will snap if they are curved too much. Plastics can bend, but it’s harder to line up the lines, so you’ll often see imperfections.
4) Get touchy. Real wood has varying grain patterns that don’t repeat themselves perfectly like a printed pattern and you can feel the bumps and texture.
5) Is it BUILT? How is it put together? Good quality furniture will have joints that are screwed, or doweled. The very best joints are dovetailed, mortise-and tenon. Re-enforcing block attached at an angle should be used on corners. Indications of poor quality would be joints that are nailed, stapled, or will have visible glue. You won't usually SEE the screws on high quality furniture.
Real or fake… does it matter?
High quality furniture is either solid wood, or a real wood veneer over a high quality plywood. Sometimes a good high quality substrate is better because it’s engineered to be stronger and more consistent than solid wood. The key is quality. Is the piece wobbly? Does it function well? Are there visual chips or parts that peel or bubble? Do the drawers slide smoothly? Do the doors open and shut properly? Do all the pieces line up? Is it durable? Are screws, glue, nails, or staples visible?
So the answer is... it doesn't matter, as long as it's quality.