Buy New or Renewed? With Furniture, It’s a Question of Quality

We all want furniture that’s built to last, but we also want it to be stylish. When it’s time to hit refresh, buying high-quality replacements is only one option.

(Strodes Furniture Photo)

It’s time to update your furnishings. So, do you refresh it or replace it with something that’s built to last? It depends on where you’re starting.

If you don’t have any heirloom pieces to speak of, perhaps it’s time you looked at something you could pass down to the next generation – or two.

“If you’re buying something that’s built well and finished well, you’ll have that piece as long as you want,” says Robert Wozniak, owner of Strode’s Furniture, 11707 Main St. in Huntley. “I have customers who don’t go anyplace else because they know what we carry is quality.”

If you already have grandma’s furniture, but it doesn’t fit your style, there are ways you can make it suit your own taste.

“A lot of times people will bring in pieces they have and say, ‘It fits perfectly in this spot, but I hate how it looks,’” says Susan McCabe, owner of Refreshed Furnishings & Makers’ Market, 175 Northwest Hwy. in Cary. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that. The furniture functions for them really well, and they want it to live on.”

(Strodes Furniture Photo)

Shop for Quality

How can you spot quality furniture from an inferior product?

“You have to take the time to look at the construction and how’s it’s finished,” says Wozniak. “Some things have a nice appearance on the outside, but when you get to the guts of an item, they’re really put together poorly.”

The problem with furniture at the big-box store is that it’s often comprised of veneer – a thin layer of wood applied to its surface. While the technique has been used for ages, many manufacturers place this veneer on high-density particle board. The veneer is often 1/32nd or 1/64th of an inch thick.

“You can’t sand it out and refinish it – you’d get right to the core of what they’re using,” Wozniak says.

In contrast, solid wood furniture can be sanded and refinished time and again. That’s why Wozniak’s store puts a heavy emphasis on the work of Amish craftsmen.

“First of all, you’re getting solid wood. Then, they take the time to sand the piece so you have a nice piece before it’s finished,” he says. “Then, the stain is sprayed on, it’s wiped down and sanding sealer is applied.”

Once the sanding sealer dries, it’s lightly sanded again and coated with a catalyzed lacquer finish, which makes the piece more durable. With imported furniture, it’s all done in one step.
Good craftsmen leave their mark in other ways, too.

“If you have a quality piece, they use a lot of joinery in it,” Wozniak says. “All of our drawers in store have dovetail joints, which is one of the strongest. When they’re gluing up boards, like a dining tabletop, they use biscuit joints or mortise and tenon joints, so they’re locked together.”

Amish builders usually use solid hardwood that is 5/8 inch thick, whereas imported furniture drawers are often thinner plywood – only 3/8 of an inch, or sometimes just particle board with vinyl wrap, Wozniak says.

If you’re shopping on your own, pull out a drawer. The backs of Amish products are wood and they’re screwed on. These, too, will be finished, Wozniak says. Imported furniture usually has Masonite board or a hard cardboard back that’s been stapled on.

When it comes to dining room tables, find the seams where the planks are joined together. Follow the seams to the table edge.

“A veneer top will have a strip of wood running in the opposite direction to cover up what they’re using for a core,” Wozniak says.

Wood furniture does require maintenance at some point. Older wood tends to dry out, which not only loosens joints but causes wood to split, Wozniak says.

If the piece is solid wood, you can simply clean out glue joints, reglue and clamp the split pieces back together.

That’s where McCabe steps in.

“We’ve done a lot of bringing back to life,” McCabe says. “Sometimes we need a new joint or some new part; we might be fixing hardware, or we may need to put in some new wood. We paint a lot of furniture. Sometimes things take longer to fix than others, but honestly, we just like to see it go on.”

Sometimes, the older the piece, the better, Wozniak says. Veneer pieces were made better decades ago.

“Veneer back then was 1/8 to 1/16 inch thick, so you could sand it out,” he says.

McCabe agrees. Her grandparents and father owned a lumberyard, and the furniture then was built to last – which often is not the case with box-store furniture today.

“I think more people are finding out that refurbishing it is cost-effective,” says McCabe, “and you’re getting a much more unique product.”

(Refreshed Furniture photo)

Freshen It Up

Quality furniture gave McCabe and her husband, Dennis, a fruitful retirement business. They had amassed old furniture from family and didn’t want to see it thrown away. So, they gave it a new look.
“It was sentimental to use my mom’s and family members’ furniture, but even after giving it to kids and grandkids, we still had so much,” she says. “It was so nice to see pieces go out that were my mom’s, and customers loved the business.”

Today, her 12,000-square-foot store also has a “makers’ market” for area artisans to sell handmade decor, gifts and food.

There are many ways to get a different look out of furniture. The easiest is with paint.

“I have people bring in colors that are in the room, colors they’re trying to match or coordinate,” McCabe says. “People like being able to pick how it’s going to look. With our finishes, you can change the color and the look; it can be a plain clear polyurethane finish or glazes, metallics, paint washes or wax.”

McCabe and her team have taken old dry sinks and turned them into changing tables; created benches out of headboards; and refashioned armoires into coffee stations or bars that stand more than 6 feet tall and have chicken wire doors.

“Some people don’t want cookie-cutter cabinets, they want to use more character pieces, like a dresser in their bathroom,” McCabe says. “They come in with an idea and a vision – ‘I want my bathroom to look like this’ – and they often have a piece they want to use. And we help them accomplish that goal.”

That’s the thing about well-built furniture: It’s built to endure, no matter how you use it.
“Just because it was a dresser doesn’t mean it has to stay a dresser,” McCabe says. “If there’s a use for it, it’s much better to place it in somebody’s home than a landfill.”

A quality piece of furniture can last for generations, but it requires upkeep.

Avoid furniture polishes that contain silicone.
“The silicone starts breaking down the finish,” says Bob Wozniak, owner of Strode’s Furniture in Huntley. Guardsman Furniture Polish doesn’t have waxes that will harm the wood.

Maintain proper humidity.
During the colder months, aim for 35% to 40% humidity in your home, Wozniak says. “Otherwise, wood starts shrinking down and you have a chance of getting season split.”

Protect your surfaces.
If you decorate with accessories, use felt glides underneath. “A rubbery glide starts breaking down the finish,” Wozniak says. Use cloth placemats on the dinner table and put your drinks on a coaster, preferably a ceramic piece with a cork back.