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How To Select Solid Wood Furniture

Tuscany Dining Collection

Real, solid wood is the exception, not the rule, in today’s home furnishing market.  China is by far the world’s largest exporter of furniture products (93 Billion USD in 2014). 

Even Ikea furniture is made not made Sweden, only designed there, and manufactured in China and other Asian countries. 

The mass-produced furniture industry typically uses high volume and low-cost materials that are designed to hit low price points. The result is a lot of products of throw-away quality, with millions of tons of furniture ending up in landfills of the world each year. 

While buyers who are acquiring furniture for offices, institutions and schools may not care about the lasting quality and beauty of real wood, acquiring furniture for a family’s personal use is a different scenario. If well-made and valuable, furniture pieces can become heirloom keepsakes of family history.  In today’s world where few families still have farms or land to hand down, and almost everything else changes (even the houses themselves), quality wood furnishings are among the fewest of things that have a chance to be saved and passed down. Perhaps this why the Amish communities in the US produce the world’s best solid wood furniture: they have very strong family traditions and consider their work to be a reflection on their families.

 But how do you find, spot and select a good quality furniture piece among a sea of cheaply made products?  Here is a primer on what to look for in authentic solid wood furniture. 

Items Available in Solid Woods

Items that can still be found made of solid wood are tables, chairs, cabinets, kitchen islands, occasional tables, bookcases, desks, bedroom suites, bathroom vanities, couches/recliners, rocking chairs, kitchen accessories (like butcher blocks, bowls, silverware chests), or seating benches.   Entertainment centers are almost always a hybrid with veneer, and for a good reason we will soon explain. 

The Best Woods for Furniture Making

The best kinds of wood for the job are hardwoods. They offer strength, and wear-in beautifully. For some country-style furniture, pine, a soft wood, is also used. Using pine lowers the cost, and since it is less durable, it is often given a distressed or textured look to hide a lot of the wear and tear it will quickly show.  Now, let’s take a look at what woods are best suited to different types of home furnishings.

Dining Sets

The type of wood selected should depend on how heavily used the piece will be.  This is because finer grain woods show wear and tear more readily, which looks out of place with the rest of the smooth finish.  Therefore, for the heaviest to lightest use in dining tables (ranging from something for a kitchen table in a family with kids,  to a rarely used dining set in a parlour), we recommend

Hickory 1/4 Sawn White OakMaple  Oak Walnut Cherry

Heavy use to light use (Hickory, 1/4 Sawn White Oak, Maple, Oak, Walnut, Cherry)

Traditional styles include ornately carved table bases and chair backs, and tables with leaf expansions. Common hardwoods used to make these traditional dining table sets include oak, maple, cherry, quarter-sawn white oak and walnut.   

Santa Fe Dining Collection in 1/4 Sawn White Oak:

Santa Fe Dining Collection

Branson Dining Collection shown in Barnwood Oak:

Branson Dining Collection

Today’s solid wood tables cover the same wood types, with the addition of hickory, and reclaimed wood.  Modern designs are sleeker and simpler, while a “barnwood” style look has also become a popular trend in reclaimed wood.

Desks and Workstations for the Home

Oak and Cherry are the traditional hardwoods for desks.  A quarter-sawn white oak shows beautiful patterns, and rarely seen in most furniture stores today, unless made in Amish communities who have mastered this technique.  Cherry has a rich tone and grain pattern as well that makes it stand out over the other tight grained options.

Colbran Office Collection shown in 1/4 Sawn White Oak:

Colbran Office Collection

Paris Office Collection shown in Cherry with a London Fog Finish:

Paris Office Collection

Today’s styles include quarter-sawn white oak, cherry and maple. The classic looks haven’t gone out of style. The addition of maple is due to a modern trend looking for less wood character and more neutral grey tones or even painted furniture.

Occasional Tables (Coffee Tables and End Tables)

Occasional tables come in a variety of woods: oak, maple, cherry, quarter-sawn white oak, walnut and pine.  If a table is mainly decorative, cherry or walnut can be good choices.  If it will be in heavier use, a distressed or heavier grained wood will wear better.

It used to be more common to see inlays of other woods and unique joints.  Today’s styles have slimmer legs and are generally smaller and lighter.

Sierra Living Room Collection:

Sierra Occasional Tables

Timbra Living Room Collection:

Timbra Living Room CollectionBedroom Collections

Solid wood furniture makers used to produce sets for bedrooms that were made only in oak, maple, or quarter-sawn white oak.  These were simplistic budget bedrooms for functionality, or designed in a more impressive mission style, for making a statement.

Craftsman Bedroom Collection:

Craftsman Bedroom Collection

Durham Bedroom Collection:

Durham Bedroom Collection

Today’s Bedroom  Collections still use the traditional hardwoods, but also have added  hickory, cherry and walnut.  Many now feature a padded headboard to facilitate sitting up in bed comfortably. Also, some have added charging plugs  (USB/Network) and night lighting for nightstands.

Compared to tables, bedrooms furniture is low-use. People generally only wear out the mattress, not the bed itself, so you can feel free to pick the wood character and colour your heart desires!

Cabinetry & Entertainment Consoles

Entertainment Cabinets have traditionally been made of oak, maple, cherry, quarter-sawn white oak and walnut. In the past it was common to have ornately carved details or inlays that flowed through the whole house. Many of these were built in and part of the houses themselves!

West Lake Living Room Collection:

West Lake Living Room Collection

Today’s consoles are usually made of the same wood types (plus the addition of reclaimed wood), but with more streamlined styles and fewer inlays.  They feature better hardware and functionality too; as consumer televisions have gotten bigger and sound systems smaller, the focus now is on hiding cables and using the smallest amount of space to make room for those mind-blowingly large television screens.

Timbra Entertainment Center:

Timbra Entertainment CenterMost consoles are NOT solid wood. Even the cabinetry in our store makes use of quality plywoods with veneers. This reduces the stress on interior dividers, which if they were hard wood, would shift with humidity over time and fail to lay flat – as shelving is vulnerable to expansion and contraction.  The use of a veneer technique makes the television consoles we sell the most durable solution in the long run for this application.

A Final Thought

As explained, choosing the type of wood for your furniture will depend on the level of use, and the complexity of construction.  The best solid wood furniture can always outlive one lifetime, so remember to choose wisely, as what you buy today can be a treasure for generations to come!