Complete Guide to Buying New (Or Old) Furniture
By Pamela Cole Harris
If you are like me, your investment in furniture has to last! It
has to be durable, beautiful and a good buy for my money. You all know that a
good buy doesn't necessarily mean cheap, but it does mean that the value in
years of problem-free use. I want to know that the furniture will last at least
as long as it took to make the money to buy it! (And in some furniture I have
seen, it was a distinct possibility that it wouldn't survive the trip home!)
There are two types of furniture, upholstered furniture and case
goods. "Case goods" refer to furniture that is not upholstered, but has a basic
box or case construction (with many elaborations and variations!). Case goods
are usually used for storage or display. Upholstered furniture has
fabric-covered cushions or padding and is usually used for seating.
When buying case goods
1. Make sure you know the difference between hardwoods and
softwoods. Hardwood comes from a broadleafed, or nonneedled tree, like maple,
cherry or mahogany. These woods have strength or stability; but those qualities
can make hardwoods difficult to work with for intricate carving and detail work.
Softwoods come from needle-bearing trees such as pine or cedar. They are easily
carved or worked. Since their surfaces are often soft, they are more susceptible
to marks and dings, which may result in a weathered or worn quality that is
appropriate or appealing in certain pieces.
2. Make sure you know what "solid wood" means. "Solid wood"
means that all exposed pieces of the piece are solid, but those areas hidden
from view may be something else.
3. Make sure you know why using plywood may be your best bet!
Solid wood has a tendency to expand and contract as the humidity changes and
does not offer the needed stability when constructing the large flat panels
(like table tops or cabinet sides). Plywood or particle board (made of ground up
wood) is significantly more stable and less apt to warp or split. These panels
will often be framed in solid wood and covered by veneers to recreate the look
of one large piece of wood.
4. Make sure you know what "veneering" is. Veneer is the use of
thin layers of highly decorative woods on top of plywood, particle board or
medium-density fiberboard (MDF). Veneering makes it possible to match grain
patterns or use inlays to create designs that mother nature can't produce in
solid wood. But beware of cheaper furniture which reproduces wood grain
photographically. If it is photographic, the grain will be perfect, with none of
the flaws of nature, and the grain will have no natural variations.
5. Make sure drawers are dovetailed and jointed securely, have
glides and stops, glide easily when, have dust panels and are smooth and snag
6. Make sure doors swing open easily without squeaking or
rubbing and that long doors are attached with study hinges.
7. Make sure tables have a heavy balanced feeling when rocked,
that the leaves fit properly and that the leaves match grain and finish of
When buying upholstered furniture
1. Make sure that the piece has adequate padding with no harsh
underlying wood edges, especially on the arms. If the fabric is directly
touching the wood with no padding, the piece will quickly wear at that point.
2. Make sure the patterns are matched at the seams, on front
edges and on back cushions. Matched patterns are usually a sign of higher
3. Make sure the stitching is tight and that no areas are
separating (and no stuffing is hanging out!).
4. Make sure the frames are constructed of a kiln-dried hardwood
5. Make sure the frame is joined using dowels as well as corner
blocked, glued and screwed together.
6. Make sure you check the type of springs. Eight-way hand-tied
springs are used in the base of better quality pieces. These springs are
three-dimensional coils attached to webbing on the bottom of the upholstered
piece and tied with twine at the top to each of the eight adjacent coils to keep
them from shifting. The result is an even comfort level which never
"bottoms-out" even when your linebacker friends sit on it. Sinuous springs are
two-dimensional "S" shaped wires that are fastened to the top of the front rail
and run down the back of the piece every few inches apart. The result is a
somewhat "mushier" seat and is less costly.
7. Make sure that you chose fabrics that will wear well if you
have a family. Keep in mind that, as a rule, tightly woven fabrics wear best.
For durability, chose a high thread count fabric - meaning that the number of
threads per square inch is high. Another general rule is that fabrics which have
their pattern woven in wear better than printed fabrics.
8. Most important, make sure you sit in the piece. It may be
beautiful, but can you bear to sit in it for any period of time?
Before buying furniture
1. Make sure you know how it will be used and how long. You
don't want to spend a lot of money on a baby crib you will use for only a short
time, while budgeting just a little on table that will be used for many years.
2. Make sure you know how much space you have. Don't chose
furniture that will overwhelm a small space or get lost in a large one.
3. Make sure you decide what style you want. Casual (overstuffed
sofas, earthy colors, and softwoods, such as pine); contemporary (bold colors,
sharp lines, metal and glass); country (soft cushions, floral prints, distressed
and painted wood); traditional (damask and chintz, cherry and mahogany woods);
or a combination of all?
4. Make sure you know how much you can spend. (This is always
where I trip up!)
5. And make sure you do some planning before you go shopping.
Decide what colors you like, what texture would work best for your family and
whether you want patterns, stripes, checks or solids. Look at design websites
for tips on what furniture would look best for your room size and lifestyle.
Buying furniture should be fun and creative! Just make certain
that you know what you are buying and why! And another tip: Ask yourself if you
will still like this piece ten years from now? If not, it will probably not be
worth the investment today. Now, I'm off to follow my own advice! Hmmm...will I
like that purple velvet plaid with the orange trim in 2014?
Pamela Cole Harris is a writer with over 35 years experience (Gosh! Has it
been that long?). Her expertise on decorating on a budget comes from her own
experience (Is Early Graduate Student a style?). Visit her website,
, for her unique view of home decorating and remodeling
(and a free monthly newsletter!).