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How to identify different types of wood in your furniture

Furniture today is made from a variety of materials to create different styles and control cost. The most popular choices today are still a variation of solid wood and some kind of laminate. Each has a set of benefits and were designed with specific uses in mind, but if you’re not careful or if you don’t know what you’re purchasing, you could end up with a lot of problems and some money thrown out the window.

If you’re shopping for new furniture (or looking to extend the life of what’s already in your home), here are a few tips on how to identify the type of material your furniture is made of, the pros and cons for each, and a few important things to remember.

Solid wood

Solid wood is a way to describe furniture that’s made from solid, thick cut slabs of wood that are assembled into one panel, usually with glue. It’s definitely the most expensive option, but it’s worth the investment if you’re in it for the long haul. Furniture made from solid wood is durable, easily repaired and almost always a good investment if your budget allows.

Domestic or exotic?

When shopping for solid wood furniture, you’ll have a choice of domestic wood (from trees that grow in North America like oak, pine and walnut) or exotic wood (like mango, acacia or sheesham). The only difference between domestic and exotic is that if a certain type of tree grows in a humid climate, it may find our North American winters a little harsh and dry. To prevent it from drying out and cracking, you need to make sure to keep a stable level of humidity in your home (but that’s a good rule of thumb to follow no matter where your solid wood comes from).

Hardwood or softwood?

Hard wood and soft wood logs

While solid wood in general is very durable, some are more dense and therefore harder because they tend to grow more slowly. Hardwoods like maple, oak, poplar and acacia are used to make flooring, cabinets, furniture, building lumber and even baseball bats. Softer woods like pine or cedar have their own advantages: they are easier to work with for decorative finishes, veneers (which we’ll get to later) and since they grow faster, they’re used to make affordable furniture.

Important notes to keep in mind about solid wood:

Veneer and laminate

Walking down the aisles at IKEA, you may wonder what the difference is between veneer and laminate. Not to worry, the difference is actually really obvious. Both veneers and laminates are thin sheets of material glued to a solid, cheap surface underneath. The difference is in the material itself. Veneer is a thin sheet of real wood, whereas laminate is made of several sheets of paper compressed together and treated with resin which is then printed (it could be wood grain, a colour, or anything else).

Veneers on furniture

Veneers are useful when you want to create a unique pattern using the wood’s grain or if you want to create a piece of furniture using a rare type of exotic wood without breaking the bank. Laminates are used because they are more durable to stains and general wear and tear (they’re basically plastic, after all) and because they are super duper cheap.

What’s underneath?

What’s lurking underneath the veneer or laminate is what will determine the quality and longevity of the piece of furniture you buy. It’s not uncommon to discover older furniture with a pine frame covered in a mahogany veneer, but these days you’re more likely to find plywood or particle board underneath the surface.

Plywood is made up of several layers of thin sheets of wood (or particle board, in some cases) to create a thicker, sturdy slab. It creates solid furniture, but can be a little expensive. Particle board on the other hand is less sturdy and even less expensive than plywood. Wood particles or different sizes are glued and compressed together to form sheets. The quality of the board depends on the size of the particles: medium density fiberboard (MDF) is made with sawdust and therefore denser than boards made with bigger particles.

Important notes to keep in mind about veneer or laminate:

  • You can still sand and refinish veneer, but it takes a very gentle hand as the sheet of veneer could chip or you could sand completely through it.
  • Particle board and humidity don’t mix well - steer clear of these materials in bathrooms and kitchen as much as possible.
  • Particle board also don’t hold screws very well.

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