Wood Furniture… or Case Goods

Do you walk through antique shops and furniture galleries running you hand over the wood furniture? DO you love the natural beauty of the woods used to make furniture?

Wood furniture has a timeless beauty. Styles may pass in and out of favor, but a well cared for piece of furniture will endure for many years. The grain and stain is slightly different on each piece of real wood furniture…making each piece unique.

Originally the term “case goods” referred to pieces of wood furniture that offered storage. The term has now come to mean any piece of furniture made of wood that you don’t sit on.

The materials used and the construction details will determine the quality of the wood furniture pieces you’re buying.

Certain woods are better suited for case goods. Better quality furniture manufacturers will use woods that are durable, easy to work with and easy to stain. The six most commonly used for their durability are mahogany, cherry, oak, maple, walnut, and birch. As “hard” woods, they are resistant to scrapes and dents. Under normal humidity conditions they do not swell, shrink or warp.

Historically, “hard” wood meant wood from leaf-bearing trees and “soft” wood came from cone-bearing trees. This frequently led to misunderstandings because there are “soft” leaf-bearing trees and “hard” coniferous trees.

OAK: Oak is the most extensively used hardwood. It is heavy, strong and light colored. It’s course texture and prominent graining distinguishes it from other light colored woods. Because it is so hard, it is generally used for styles that need little carving. American and English country designs as well as Gothic and William & Mary reproductions utilize oak wood.

MAHOGANY: One of the reasons mahogany furniture is pricey is that it is not native to North America or Europe. Furniture quality mahogany is indigenous to South and Central America and Africa. It is strong with wonderful graining. Manufacturers love it because it is easy to work with, stains evenly and ages well. It has a unique look and its reddish-brown color improves with time.

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However, it doesn’t wear any better than cherry, oak or American walnut. So, if you are interested in high-quality beautiful wood furniture, but not interested in the unique look of mahogany (or the additional cost), then cherry, oak and American walnut will serve the same purpose.

Caution! “Philippine mahogany” IS NOT real mahogany. It isn’t even from the same botanical family.

It is not as resilient as the real thing and is known to have problems with shrinking, warping and swelling.

Real mahogany comes from various species of the botanical family Meliaceae. You may read tags that use the terms: American, Cuban, Honduran, West Indian, African or New World mahogany. These are all real mahogany. Sapele, African scented, and cedar mahogany are also the real thing.

Philippine mahogany is from the botanical family Dipterocarpaceae. It is an adequate substitute IF you are not paying the same price as real mahogany. A better investment might be an imitation mahogany made from birch.

The birch imitation is stronger than Philippine mahogany and resists swelling, warping and shrinking…an all around better investment.

The salesperson or design consultant should know from which country the manufacturer of the furniture they represent imports their mahogany.

CHERRY: The eastern half of the United States supplies most of today’s furniture quality cherry. It is high quality wood. It is a moderately hard; close grained and strong wood that resists warping, and shrinking. It carves easily and its reddish- brown color will greatly improve with age. Cherry, with a deep stain, has long been used for formal furniture.

MAPLE: There are almost 120 species of maple. Only 5 commercially significant species grow in the United States. You will hear the terms hard rock maple, sugar maple, black maple, tiger maple andbird’s- eye maple.

Maple is a hard wood with a fine texture and an even grain. Some species are so hard and resistant to denting that it is often used for bowling alley floors!
A wood that hard is great for bowling alleys, but it makes it a little difficult for carving. As a result, it is usually used for furniture styles with simple, unadorned lines.

In spite of its hardness, it will stain deeply and evenly. It resists warping, shrinking and swelling. Maple was widely used by colonial American craftsmen because of its abundance and durability.

Cherry and maple wood share many of the same qualities. Both stain a similar color and have a wonderful “cathedral” pattern. As a result, occasionally ill-informed salespeople will try to pass maple off as cherry. The problem with that is cherry is usually the more expensive wood… you don’t want to pay for cherry and receive maple.

Look carefully at “cherry” furniture. If you see dark, horizontal streaks (running perpendicular to the cathedrals) mingled with the cathedral graining, you are looking at maple. “Tiger stripes” are unique to maple wood.

WALNUT: Walnut is one of the most versatile furniture woods. It remains one of the most popular due its strength, durability and hardness. An added advantage is that it is NOT extremely heavy. Both English and American walnuts wear well, stain evenly and resist shrinking, swelling and warping.

English walnut is a slightly lighter color and finer texture than American walnut, but otherwise similar. Both are noted for the wavy and burl grains that are produced.

BIRCH: Birch is not considered as desirable by manufacturers because it is not as easy to work with. It is unlikely you will see delicately curved or carved pieces made from birch. For this reason, birch is increasingly being used in Scandinavian style furniture where the emphasis is on line and function.

However, it is strong and resistant to warping, shrinking and swelling. This makes it an excellent choice for furniture frames and the base for veneer applications. You have most likely heard the term birch-core veneer. Wood veneers from more expensive and more interestingly grained woods are applied to a birch boards. It’s a great union. You have the strength and anti-warping qualities of the birch combined with the beauty of the more expensive wood veneering. Using the mahogany, cherry and walnut only as veneers also helps to keep the price down.

Keep in mind that terms “cherry finish” or “mahogany finish” (or “xyz wood” finish) do not always mean the wood is cherry or mahogany. It often means the finish has been made to mimic the more expensive woods.

This is a good point to discuss veneers. Veneer is a thin sheet of wood split from a wood plank or rotary peeled from the trunk. Over the years veneers have been greatly misunderstood and have received an undeserved bad reputation.

Lets set the record straight…veneer is not a sure sign of cheap, poorly made furniture.
On the other hand, it can be…so you have to know how to tell the difference.

Most of us have seen veneer finishes from the late 1800s and early 1900s. The veneer is often chipped and lifting. This is not the fault of the veneer. Most of the blame falls on the adhesives used at the time. Today’s adhesives are far superior.

If you are purchasing furniture from a reputable company, you don’t need to worry about the veneer. A reputable company will use “real wood” veneers as opposed to “printed” veneers and high quality adhesives on appropriate wood bases. Ask what type of wood the veneer has been applied to. Good choices are maple, birch, ash and gum trees. If the answer is fir, poplar or particleboard, avoid the piece. These are inferior base woods that are prone to warping, swelling and shrinking. So even if the adhesive is good, the veneer could shift due to the poor quality of the wood.

Veneers are used for several reasons. Cost-cutting incentives and decorative purposes top the list. Veneering allows for the application of relatively small amounts of an expensive wood to a less expensive hardwood base, therefore cutting the cost. The rotary-cutting method allows the wood to come off the trunk much like cloth off a bolt of fabric.

Veneers also allow furniture manufacturers to create decorative patterns with several different expensive, exotic woods. You will often see ebony and satinwood trim used on mahogany tables. Of course, this utilizes both cost-cutting and decorative reasons.

Look at veneer finishes the same way you would solid wood finishes. Is there variation in color and graining? Remember, wood veneer is real wood and the finish should reflect that. Many of the beautiful pieces would be impossible without the use of veneers.

Don’t be afraid of veneers.

Other Considerations

The type of wood used isn’t the only important consideration when purchasing wood furniture. It’s easier to judge the quality of wood pieces because padding, cushions and fabric aren’t covering what you want to look at.

Pull a drawer out…all the way out. Is dovetail joinery used in all four corners? (Dovetails are triangular, interlocking pieces that join like a puzzle). Some manufacturers will also glue the joints.

When you pulled the drawer out, did it wobble? A well made piece will have a drawer guide that keeps the drawer centered and allows it to open smoothly. If the drawer guide is also made out of kiln-dried hardwood, it will also adjust to slight changes of humidity with the rest of the piece.

A piece built for office use, may have metal drawer glides to handle the heavier load.

When you pulled the drawer out, was the inside of the drawer sanded smooth? It may sound unnecessary, but it prevents clothing from snagging. A high quality wood furniture maker pays attention to the little things.

While you have the drawer out, notice if you can look into the next drawer or is there a panel between the two? This panel is refer to as a “dust panel” and prevents dust and other minute particles from dropping down on the contents in the lower drawer, as well as adding to the structural integrity of the piece.

Stand back and look at the entire frame. Is the piece square? Are the sides and back properly joined so the piece doesn’t wobble and twist when moved? Have they been joined with glue and screws or the cheaper, less durable staples?

Are all doors aligned at top and bottom? If the piece has side-by-side drawers, do they tops and the bottoms of the drawers line up?

These are the major points to consider. Any sales consultant will be happy to explain the quality points of the manufacturer you’re interested in.

Now you know what to look for and the questions to ask the next time you furniture shop.

It shouldn’t be a frustrating experience. Enjoy browsing through the showroom. Fell free to run your hand over the finish. Pull out the drawer; open the doors…check the back of the case good. The pieces you select will probably be in your home a long time. Make sure the quality you receive is equal to the investment you are making.

Enjoy your wood furniture for many years to come!

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