Buying wooden furniture for the first time can be a confusing and intimidating experience. Customers are bombarded with confusing and often misleading jargon, with terms such as MDF, LVL, particleboard, chipboard, fiberboard, plywood, 'Real' Wood, 'Natural Wood', 'Laminate', and 'Veneer' casually thrown around in order to make the furniture seem quality at the expense of your understanding. Terms such as 'wood solids', 'real wood' do not mean a piece is made of actual, unprocessed lumber.
This guide is intended to put power back into your hands by arming you with some quick tips and tricks so you can make sure what you're paying for is the absolute real deal.
Simply speaking, solid wood is original wood cut from trees, brought straight from nature to your home. In the old days before manufacturing methods made Engineered wood products such as plywood and chipboard more common, this was the only type of wood furniture. In modern times however, solid wood furniture is increasingly a mark of luxury as most of the big, old trees that used to be abundant on our planet have been cut down, and the remaining ones marked for preservation and protection.
The majority of wood products sold on the market nowadays aren't true solid wood at all, but Engineered wood, which is a wood derivative. While they are made of wood in the sense that they contain wood, some of these products only contain wood shavings or sawdust, are are certainly not solid wood.
That's not to say that all engineered woods are bad. Like all man-made material such as plastic and fiberglass, there are varying tiers of quality, and Engineered woods also have their applications. There are various types of solid wood, and a piece of furniture made of high-quality MDF with a well-done solid wood veneer can look and feel just as good as a solid wood piece while in some applications even performing better.
Many people try to knock on the wood and rub it in order to try and figure out the composition and quality. While it's the right idea to get your hands and eyes on the wood, it's also important to know what to look for.
There are a few key differences that will let you ascertain just what you're looking at. While high-quality imitations improve by the year, and it can sometimes be very difficult to tell the difference, these tell-tale signs are helpful in helping you figure out the real deal.
When buying furniture, we strongly, strongly recommend you be physically present to touch and feel the piece you are buying. Images online, if not misleading, often only show a product from the most flattering angles, conveniently ignoring badly done joints, unfinished surfaces, and uneven stitching for example. Pictures cannot tell you whether or not an item is sturdy and well-constructed, you have to be there yourself in order to tell. We believe that if you're going to be investing in a piece that you will use every day, you should meet it in person first.
Test #1: Form
Laminates and chipboard tend to be used for more flat surfaces and angular shapes. Even though the thin plastic is flexible and can be curved, the textures don't line up as well on pieces with more complex forms, resulting in a compromised aesthetic.
Veneers are also difficult to work with when making rounded, curving shapes, as the flat pieces of wood are nearly impossible to bend without snapping. Smaller, finer details are economically unfeasible to recreate with veneer. If you see a piece with many smaller parts such as a chair with a picket back containing multiple shafts, it's much likelier to be solid wood.
Hans Wegner's famous Round Chair is extremely difficult to reproduce with anything but Solid Wood due to its curved, organic profile. Veneer simply wouldn't work in this case.
Test #2: Weight
Most of the time, solid wood is heavier than engineered wood - but only most of the time. Cheap substitutes like particle board can be easily detected by their lack of heft and substance, but other types like good quality plywood and fiberboard can feel just as heavy and dense as solid wood. So the weight test isn't conclusive - but can help you eliminate a few suspects.
Test #3: Finish
In most varieties of solid wood, you will be able to see the pores and imperfections in the wood surface. You can run your fingertip and/or fingernail gently over the surface to feel for resistance. If the surface is perfectly smooth and flat like plastic, you're probably looking at a laminate surface over a chipboard or particle board core. Laminate is a thin film printed with a wood print, overlaid with a layer of plastic. This is often seen in very low-priced furniture and is the cheapest possible option.
Some types of laminate have a shallow wood texture printed into the plastic layer in order to give the look and feel of wood. Even if this is the case, the material will still have a more smooth feel, and the surface will feel harder and more rigid to the touch than real solid wood.
Visually, the wood grain patterns used in laminates can closely imitate the look of wood. One way to tell real from artificial in this case is to check for the repetition of patterns. If you find the pattern repeating in the same piece of furniture, or across two dining chairs for example, it's extremely likely to be a laminate surface, as natural wood is always different plank to plank, tree to tree. The randomness of wood grain patterns is difficult to realistically counterfeit.
Take note that some woods such as Walnut and Oak have more distinctive grain patterns. You can see the characteristic whorls and curves in the cross section of walnut pictured below. Other woods such as Beech tend towards a more regular grain, and therefore are easier to imitate. Here at Picket&Rail we use primarily Oak and Walnut because we appreciate and want to showcase the natural beauty of the wood.
This method of inspection can easily tell apart laminate from wood. However, the surface of a solid wood piece and that of an engineered wood core covered in a solid wood veneer are impossible to distinguish based on a quick once-over, since they are effectively the same material (the veneer is a thin slice of real wood over a different material, after all.)
Test #4: Corners & Edges
Veneers have their limits however. Because they are flat pieces of wood, veneers cannot cover the entirety of a wood piece. Notably, cannot easily bend around corners, meaning that those are the best places to look for a seam where the two pieces of veneer meet. If the corner has a seam, then it's not solid wood, which is one continuous piece and will not show a seam in that particular part. For laminated pieces, this is a dead giveaway, as the corners are often very pointed, and there may be a narrow area of exposed plastic that betrays the nature of the material. There may also be whitish strips which are where excess glue has been extruded.
Better quality veneers use a technique called edge banding where the veneer is placed on the edges in order to blend the two perpendicular surfaces seamlessly and give the piece a more polished appearance. This makes it extremely difficult to distinguish from actual solid wood, requiring a very close inspection - it will take some effort and sharp eyes to spot the seam. Such a piece is very likely to pass as genuine solid wood in daily use.
Like any other material, solid wood has it's own strengths and weaknesses, and a smart craftsman knows how to make best use of them. In some applications, Engineered wood can actually be superior, as its structure is much more uniform. Read more about Engineered Wood here.
Bear in mind that no method is absolutely foolproof - and if you find yourself doubtful of a piece's quality, you probably shouldn't be considering it anyway. Good quality should always speak for itself.
If you're still unclear, feel free to head down to any of our Showrooms. While these tips can help you with some peace of mind, they're no replacement from shopping with a retailer that you know and trust. We don't believe in misleading or hard-selling, and promise to be clear and transparent. We believe in the quality of our products - why else would we give you all that information?
Picket & Rail doesn't deal in smoke and mirrors, just good ol' wood.