How to recognise quality furniture
Anyone can see the color, size and shape of a piece of furniture, and oftentimes it is but a matter of personal taste. When you want to identify quality pieces however, you will need to look for less obvious characteristics and - especially - details. But what exactly do you look for then?
In this post I will list a few guidelines that may help the layman separate craftsmanship from assembly line work. The more boxes you can tick while looking at a furniture piece, the higher your chances of having spotted quality furniture that may last a lifetime.
Choice of materials: the last few decades a lot of new materials arrived on scene, of which some are more suited to quality furniture than others. And even within one type, the differences can be huge. “The heavier, the better” can be a rule of thumb here. While there are exceptions like carbon fiber or titanium, high-end furniture pieces are often not the lightest of their kind. The strength of solid wood, high-quality plywood, and steel tubing are generally correlated with their specific weight, and therefore usually yield stronger furniture. A pretty important footnote here is the joinery used, which brings us to the next item.
Joinery: traditional joints have been used for centuries and with good reason: interlocking wooden parts still are the strongest possible connection for furniture making. Nearly every joint has its own purpose: mortise and tenon for frameworks, breadboards for keeping large tops flat, dovetails or box joints for drawer cases and other boxes. Well constructed joints are one of the most obvious signs of craftsmanship in furniture making, because they are easy to spot and difficult to do well.
Furniture fittings: while often less visible than the joinery in your piece, the fittings should not be overlooked. Smooth operating, quality door hinges or drawer slides are of key importance in quality furniture, ensuring decades of use. As with most things though, quality has its price and saving money on fittings will often cause frustration in the long run, with out-of-square doors and squeaky drawers. Make sure to open doors and drawers to look at the in- or underside. Ball bearing operated drawer pulls are mostly the better choice compared to nylon-wheel drawer pulls, and pot hinges tend to run better in the long run than the regular screw-on type. Any play, both in drawer pulls and hinges, should be minimal at best.
Metal furniture: metal furniture should be welded instead of mechanically joined, with the welds ground down so they are less evident - unless it is part of the design (a "stacked coins" TIG-weld, for example). Vent holes should be inconspicuously placed around the frame so no volume is left welded shut. This way air can flow through the frame, which allows for a longer lifespan. Cracked welds are a definite no go!
Finishing: while the type of finish of a furniture piece will be largely dictated by the material, the environment and the intended use of the product, a few general guidelines can be given. Finish should always be inspected for good adhesion. Any blistering or colorisation below the finish is a very bad sign. Other things to look out for are dust specs or hairs embedded in the finish, and “fish eye” or “orange peel” finish. Run your hand over the surface. It will tell you a lot about the quality of the finish. Dust specs, hair, or inconsistencies will immediately be felt. Very high-end pieces will often have their finish “rubbed out”. Rubbing out a finish is a very labor intensive process that aims to remove microscopic high and low spots in the finish, resulting in a silky smooth surface.
While it takes some practice to know what to look for here, it may be easier to spot the things you don't want to see in quality furniture:
- Cheap or inappropriate materials: if it feels cheap, it probably is! Particle board or plastic for example is used a lot by manufacturers of cheap, "consumer furniture" like Ikea. It will probably not survive disassembly and is therefore oftentimes sent to the landfill once you move house. Bad joinery: if simple joints need to be mechanically reinforced by metalwork (screws, nuts and bolts), you probably need to look elsewhere for your furniture. If you do see traditional joinery, mind gaps and crevasses and look for symmetry.
- Cheap fittings: you will recognize a cheap drawer runner as soon as you have tried a good one. The difference is just that big. Look for ball bearing type runners and listen to the sound when you open the drawer. Nylon wheel runners are functional, but nothing more.
- Metalwork and welding: look for thick gauge pieces. A light tap on the frame will tell you a lot, just by the sound. Unless the piece is specifically designed to be disassembled, try to avoid nuts and bolts in the frame and go for a solid, welded one. Inspect the welds and look for inconsistencies in the surface. Dents are a no go, as well as ugly or cracked welds. Vent holes should be inconspicuous and may be well hidden, but they should definitely be present!
- A piece can be unfinished, if the type of wood allows for it. Composite materials like engineered wood often do not need finishing either, but in most cases, the way your piece is finished is a huge determining factor of quality. A good finish will not eliminate but decrease wood movement to a significant extent, and protect the wood from staining and general wear and tear. For steel, finishing is evenly important. Mild steel will always need a surface treatment, and a weathering treatment for outdoor purposes. 2K coatings, a powder coat, or hard anodizing are generally the most durable.
While it is very easy to loose myself in elaborating on the why and how of all possible aspects here, this would be far beyond the scope of this article. I believe the above can be a decent guideline for anyone looking to buy good furniture. While it is often true that you get what you pay for, knowing what to look for will at least help you separate the good from the bad!