Here at the Koke-Long house we’re in the market for some furniture. Our living room is currently semi-furnished with a comfortable but deteriorating Ikea couch and some leftover dining chairs; we’d like a nice armchair or two and some tables.
I’ve mostly gone for Ikea ‘cheap and new’ furniture in the past, but I’ve been disappointed by its (understatement alert!) lack of durability. This time I’d like to try buying used but higher-quality. As I began to look around, though, I realized that I knew very little about what makes for a strong, long-lasting piece of furniture.
Anyone can identify a rip, scratch, or stain, or decide whether they like a certain color, without special knowledge. But judging whether a piece is likely to last two years or twenty — just by looking at it — is harder stuff. Time to research! Here’s an overview of what I learned, with a checklist at the end.
Wood furniture — composition
I used to think hardwoods were hard and softwoods were soft. Silly me! Actually, hardwood just means ‘from a deciduous tree’ and softwood means ‘from a coniferous tree’, and some hardwoods (like aspen) are softer than some softwoods. What you want on exposed surfaces is a wood that’s reasonably scratch-resistant. You can test this easily enough by attempting to draw a thin line with your fingernail across the wood; if it makes a visible dent (use a flashlight here if necessary) you know it won’t stand up to much use.
Structurally, any kind of solid wood or sturdy plywood will do the trick. If plywood, look for at least nine layers. Check the wood for knots, even on unexposed pieces; all knots are susceptible to cracks. Some woods, like pine, are ‘knottier’ than others, and therefore less desirable. Avoid particleboard, pressed wood, or fiberboard.
Veneers — a thin piece of premium wood covering a lower-quality piece of wood — are often used even in very high-quality furniture. As long as the base piece is solid wood or plywood, the only drawback to veneer is that it limits the number of times an item can be refinished.
Wood furniture — construction
Joint construction is the main determinant of quality furniture. Anything held together with staples or nails is shoddy construction. Ditto if it’s glued and you can see the glue. Dowels (wooden pegs slotted into two opposing holes) are good, as are screws. The best joints are either dovetail (interlocking squarish ‘teeth’ — see photo) or mortise-and-tenon (narrowed end of one piece inserted into a hole in the other). Corners should have a reinforcing block attached at an angle.
Look for thin sheets of wood between drawers in a chest of drawers or desk. While not necessary, these ‘dust panels’ improve structural strength as well as protect drawer contents. Drawers should run smoothly on glides and have stops to prevent accidentally pulling them all the way out. The best drawers have bottoms that are not affixed to the sides but ‘float’ in a groove, allowing for minor expansion and contraction caused by changes in humidity and providing extra strength.
Lift the piece at one corner — it should not twist or squeak. Check that all legs are touching the floor. Press on various corners to see if the piece rocks or wobbles.
Upholstered furniture — composition
For a sofa or chair with removable cushions, unzip a seat cover and have a look inside. You should see a block of foam wrapped with dacron, cotton, or (for very high-end cushions) down, preferably with a protective inner cover (usually muslin). Foam-only cushions are both less durable and less comfortable. If you’re buying new furniture, inquire after the density rating of the seat foam: you’re looking for 1.8 pounds or higher.
Removable back cushions may have foam as well but are more often loose fill. In the latter case, multiple internal compartments are preferred as they prevent the fill from settling.
If there’s a tag or label, look for a cleaning code: ‘W’ means water-based cleaners, ‘S’ means solvent-based cleaners (‘dry cleaning’), ‘X’ means no liquid (vacuum only).
Upholstered furniture — construction
According to Consumer Reports, the oft-touted “eight-way hand-tied coil springs” don’t have a corner on comfort; coil, cone, sinuous, and grid springs can all work well. Best just to test the feel of the specific piece by sitting in various spots to see whether you tip or sink. If the cushions are removable, lift and press down on the deck underneath: you should feel even spacing and resistance to pressure.
Squeeze the arms and back: ideally you should not be able to feel the frame through the padding. Lined skirts and ones with weights will hold their shape better over the long run.
Are the cushions reversible? You’ll get twice the wear if they are. Flip them around and make sure any upholstery patterns match up both ways.
Tip: Consumer Reports has a nice diagram to help you assess upholstered furniture construction.
Quick Furniture Checklist
That’s a lot of information. If you’re like me, you might find it difficult to remember all of these factors while you’re actually shopping at the furniture store. To make things easier, I’ve created a basic furniture shopping checklist. You may download the 35kb PDF or simply print the list below:
good: solid wood or 9+ layer plywood
bad: thin plywood, particleboard, pressboard, fiberboard
bad: knots, cracks
bad: soft, easily scratched surfaces
great: dovetail, mortise & tenon
good: reinforcing corner blocks
good: dowels, screws
bad: staples, nails, visible glue
great: dust panels, floating bottoms
good: metal glide rails, stops
bad: wood-on-wood sliding
good: even, level with floor
bad: twists, creaks, wobbles
great: hand-tied coil springs
good: close together, even resistance
bad: any springs more than a few inches apart
good: firm foam wrapped in padding
good: protective inner cover
good: reversible cushions
bad: bare foam
bad: loose fill without internal sectioning
good: aligned patterns
good: skirts with lining or weights
bad: skimpy padding along arms and back
Armed with this information, I feel much more confident about approaching future furniture purchases, both new and used. I hope you find it helpful too. Happy hunting!