You probably know what clothing you like best, but do you recognize the trends, styles and construction that make well-built furniture stand apart from the competition? We’ll show you a few secrets from the experts.
Most homeowners don’t shop for furniture like they shop for clothes.
Over time, women and men learn what clothing brands they like to wear, what styles fit their body type, what colors they look best in and what quality they prefer – mostly because they’re buying a new article of clothing every few months, if not more frequently.
But shopping for furniture is much more rare. Understandably, many homeowners aren’t as well versed on the trends, styles or, perhaps most importantly, the quality of furniture available on the market.
That’s why you should browse some of the furniture stores in your community before committing to a new purchase, says Robert Wozniak, owner of Strode’s Furniture in Huntley.
“We welcome browsers – really,” says Wozniak. “You need to get out, you need to look and see what’s on the market and see what you’re comparing to. At least this way, you know what we’ve got and what type of quality we’ve got, too.”
Kathy Fincham, furniture sales manager for Mayfair Furniture and Carpets in Crystal Lake, adds that many customers have an idea of what makes a quality piece of furniture, but they don’t necessarily know how to pick one out from a crowd.
“When customers think of quality furniture, they want something that lives up to the test of time, is a good investment, has good workmanship behind it and has a good warranty to back up the product,” she says. “My views are similar.”
There are several basic craftsmanship rules that can help you make an educated purchase that will last for years to come.
“If it’s not built properly to begin with, you’re going to have problems with it,” Wozniak says.
On the contrary, if you choose your piece correctly, certain furniture items will last a lifetime. That’s why heirloom and antique pieces are so valuable, Fincham says.
Here are a few lessons to learn about quality furniture:
Lesson 1: Look for Solid Wood Pieces
Most people know that solid wood furniture is better than a veneer. But what makes them different?
Solid wood is exactly that – solid pieces of wood used to craft a piece of furniture. A veneer is a thin decorative layer of wood covering another material – often particle board, which is just sawdust glued together.
Don’t bother knocking on a piece of furniture to try to determine whether it’s real wood or not, Wozniak says.
“You can knock on a piece, and it may sound like wood,” he says. “But a lot of times, particle board is heavier than solid wood products. Fiber board is even heavier.”
Instead, look at the top of a piece of furniture, he says. In products made from subpar materials, you’ll be able to see the seams where individual boards have been glued together, and if a piece has a veneer top, you’ll see the edging used to cover up the core material.
Sometimes, a piece may be made of solid wood and additional materials, Wozniak says. But the highest-quality products use wood backs, not Masonite board, and the backs are screwed on, not stapled.
Another advantage to solid wood furniture, besides being sturdier than veneers, is that if you want to refinish a piece, you can.
“With veneers, there’s not much you can do with it if it’s damaged,” Wozniak says. “Veneers are a 32nd of an inch thick to 64th of an inch thick. Most solid wood tops in our store are three-quarters or seven-eigths of an inch thick; some are an inch-and-a-half thick. You can do a lot of sanding with that.”
Lesson 2: Recognize a Quality Finish
There’s a difference between a manufacturer that uses a one-step finishing process and one that uses a multi-step finishing process.
Imported products, in particular, often undergo a one-step finishing process. The color looks just like a real wood stain, so at first glance, it might be tricky to spot.
But because the finish is just sprayed on once and then sent off to a customer, you can easily pull up the finish with your finger, Wozniak says.
Strode’s Furniture works with 30 Amish woodshops because the quality is second-to-none, Wozniak adds. Amish-made furniture is finished in multiple steps.
“The key to a nice finish is a lot of hand sanding,” Wozniak says. “Then they spray the stain on, then they hand wipe it down. Then they use a sanding sealer on it to seal the wood so that way your main finish takes consistently. They lightly hand sand that coat once it dries, then they apply a lacquer so there are no runs on it. The finished product has a real nice, smooth touch to the finish.”
Another way to spot a poorly finished product is to take a look underneath.
Some manufacturers will finish the top of a piece with care, but the bottom of a table or dresser won’t be finished at all, Wozniak says. Amish products can be flipped upside down and every which way, and the whole piece will be finished – even the backs and bottoms.
Lesson 3: Check for Dovetail Joints
Inspecting a furniture piece’s joinery, where two pieces are attached to each other, is another way to test quality. Interlocking dovetail joints are a tried-and-true, traditional method of fine joinery, Fincham says. The alternative is stapling the joints together, which is not as sturdy, she adds.
“People like to open a drawer and see dovetail joints because they know it’s a sign of good quality – and it is,” she says.
Lesson 4: Choose Supportive Spring Systems
When it comes to sofas, big-box stores don’t have much to say about the framework of their selections because there’s not much to the spring systems.
Top-of-the-line sofas, however, are eight-way hand tied, meaning each seat has a single spring that is hand-tied in eight locations to keep the spring from shifting. Furniture by the Sherrill and Massoud brands is built with just such a spring system.
“You get a little more wear and tear out of it, so if little kids are jumping up and down on it, it’s not going to break,” says Kelsey Haas, co-owner of Strawflower Shop and Rug Merchant, in Geneva.
Sinuous springs are another, slightly less-effective, seating spring system in which the spring coils stretch in a zig-zag pattern from one end of the frame to the other, perpendicular to the front of the sofa.
“Our biggest thing is really just talking to customers about how long they expect it to last and how long until they want to change the style or layout of the room,” Haas says. “If their kids are 2 or 3, and they want it to last until they’re out of high school, I’ll recommend something eight-way hand tied so they can jump on it and have their friends over, but mom and dad can still have a cocktail on it and feel like it’s still stylish.”
Lesson 5: Cushion Support Matters
High-end sofa/chair cushions are wrapped in foam and layered with goose down on top so that, when you sit, the foam doesn’t take a direct hit from your backside, Haas says. Because the foam has the protection of the goose down, it should last longer.
Lesson 6: Quality Doesn’t Always Equal More $$
It’s a given that a quality piece of furniture should cost more than a poorly made product, but that doesn’t mean all quality pieces will break the bank.
“When the market crashed in the 2000s, we had to bring in a little bit of a lower-end product so our customers could afford it, but we still didn’t want to jeopardize the product for them,” Haas says. “We still have mid-range and high-range selections. We never went to low-range because we didn’t think the quality was there, or that our customers would be happy with it. We didn’t want them to come back in three years with a broken spring. We wanted something that would still last.”
If you can’t afford a top-of-the-line, eight-way hand tied Sherrill or Massoud sofa, Mayo Manufacturing Corporation – a small, family-owned company in Texas – offers quality sinuous-spring furniture at a slightly lower price.
“If you want quality but you don’t know if you want it to last 15 or 16 years, you can choose sinuous furniture,” Haas says. “We like supporting companies that are smaller like we are, too, and Mayo pieces are beautiful. There’s a lot of style to them and they’re very well-made.”
Lesson 7: Customization = Quality
While it would be nice to find the exact piece of furniture you’ve been looking for on a showroom floor, that’s not always the case. That’s why some stores help you to create the perfect piece.
“We do a lot of customization,” says Haas. “We have so many fabrics and choices. We like to show what is trendy at the time, but it might not fit at your house. We can always change certain features; we are an interior design house.”
Mayfair works on a number of customized pieces, as well, and it’s easy to understand why: customization oozes quality.
“Customers like not having to settle on what they see,” Fincham says. “When they can make something specific that fits their home, that’s quality.”
It’s important to recognize that furniture stores can only showcase a small sampling of what they have available, Wozniak says.
If you don’t see what you’re looking for, simply ask whether configurations can be changed, if items come in non-standard sizes or if a particular fabric can be switched out for something more suitable to your style.
Keep in mind, however, that if you’re going to spend the money on a quality piece of furniture, it’s smart to stick to more classic styles rather than the latest trends.
“Classic is not old-fashioned,” Fincham says. “Classic will stay in fashion. It has clean lines, nothing too trendy. You can play with fabrics, but keep it simple and neutral. You can always use pillows for a trendy spin.”
Where to Learn These Lessons
Craftsmanship is best learned from the experts – those who have a hand in the purchasing process.
It takes a good deal of education and experience for furniture store owners and managers to bring quality products to customers, says Haas.
She studied interior design at North Carolina’s High Point University, which has one of the few furniture marketing degrees in the country. She returns to High Point for about a week every year because the city is known as the “Furniture Capital of the World,” Haas says.
“All manufacturers have a wholesale store there,” she says. “We can see new furniture, sit on it, see how it’s made. That’s how we decide what to bring back to our customers.”
What truly sets apart quality furniture stores from those that sell cheaply made products is the dedication employees show to educating their customers, Wozniak says.
“If you’re going out shopping and it’s your first time in our store, I will take the time and show you what to look for in quality-made furniture,” says Wozniak, who has been in the furniture industry for 38 years. “I’ll explain how to tell if it’s solid wood or not, if it’s veneered, how it’s finished.
“If you go into a store that’s selling cheap stuff, they never talk about construction,” Wozniak continues. “Big-box stores, they don’t have anything to talk about. It’s all imports and veneers. Whether you buy something from us or not, at least you’ll know if things are built properly.”
Fincham agrees, going so far as to say she and her associates aren’t doing their job if they don’t explain the building process behind the furniture they sell.
“We’re a nice source of information on how to learn how things are put together,” she says. “Go online to do research, too – knowledge is so accessible right now – but know that we’ll help you make the right decision.”