Most people believe in being responsible with the environment. But there are those that think of themselves as conservationists who are anything but. What they really are at heart is mostly anti-people, not pro-conservation. They use conservation as a front to increase their control over man's actions. A true conservationist accepts the fact that man, when we do our jobs correctly, is better at taking care of nature than nature is. See for instance the picture here of the National Volcanic Monument near Mt. St. Helens. The wonderful green forest full of living creatures is the result of human effort and the ugly, barely productive desert is on the 'natural' side.
Anti-mankind, power-hungry conservationists use conservation ideas to attack anything man does. Listen carefully long enough and you can detect this pattern yourself. The anti-man people hate man and do everything they can to disrupt or corrupt any effort by men to use any natural resources no matter how responsibly. They create non-existent species and use lawsuits to sue for 'protection,' which drives up the cost of logging and eventually the forest products we buy to build houses and furniture.
The primary reason for using the term 'old growth' as applied to forests was to downplay the success the lumber companies were having in managing and logging their company forests. Except for perhaps Joshua trees and maybe a few redwoods, there are no forests anywhere older than about 400 years. But increased interference with lumber operations adds significantly to the cost of wood related items. The furniture you buy, paper you use or read, and products that contain cellulose fibers, such as medications, food and clothing all go up because of environmental extremism.
Conservation can best be served by buying quality furniture. It lasts a long time if cared for properly, often handed down from generation to generation. It can be repaired and refinished economically, and it is very strong with a beauty unmatched by any manufactured wood product such as particle board. If you really want to be green, buy quality new or used furniture instead of the inexpensive throw-away stuff.
The first rule in buying furniture applies to most things in life: you get what you pay for. Buying quality furniture is like buying oats. If you want fresh clean nutritional oats you will have to pay a reasonable price for them. But if you want oats that have already been through the horse, those cost a lot less.
There is a lot of post-horse furniture out there, but it has its place. Sometimes a person just cannot afford the nice pieces they want, and have to settle for the best they can get for the money they can pay. Young couples just starting out frequently find themselves in this position. However if this is the case then I recommend buying used furniture. If you can find good wood furniture in the 'previously owned' market it is a much better value than buying schlock furniture at any price.
Schlock is okay in the right situation (I have some of those cheap molded plastic chairs on my patio) but not very many situations are right for it. If you have to choose schlock, a lot of times people are giving it away. Just be patient and keep your ear to the ground. Or, another option is to access your local freecycle group by going to www.yahoogroups.com and searching for your city name and the one word freecycle. You have to join, but it's free, and so is all the stuff on there. If you really have to go schlock, go freecycle. But frequently there's great stuff listed. Another purchasing option is unfinished furniture.
Over time most of us figure out that if we want beautiful furniture that will last perhaps generations we will have to pay more, and so we eventually take the plunge. Sadly, some of us never learn.
Price is a general guideline for quality, but not absolute. You can find clearance prices on some really nice pieces, and sometimes the post-horse stuff is way over priced. But in general particle board is cheaper, plywood is next (and there are combinations of plywood and particle board) and quality solid wood such as oak, maple, and cherry are the most expensive, even on sale or clearance.
It's been said that there are people who know the price of everything but the value of nothing. Value is not the same as cost, and is harder to discern than just looking at a price tag. A quality piece of furniture costs more but lasts longer and is more satisfying to own. Imported six-chair dining sets can cost as little as $600.00, but if you have to buy four or five of them over a period of 20 years they end up actually costing more than the $3,000.00 oak set that should've been purchased in the first place. They also cannot be repaired or refinished cost-effectively, and will not be the kind of furniture you can hand down to your children.
Quality wood furniture also has character that cheaper furniture cannot match. Part of its character is the warmth, tone, and depth of real wood, and the implicit idea of longevity. That means it looks great and is going to last a long time. Usually the quality furniture also has unique designs as opposed to the mass-produced sterility of inferior quality pieces.
What do I mean when I say 'schlock' furniture? Well, the word is Yiddish and means something of shoddy or inferior quality. Particle board, for instance (also called MDF or medium density fiberboard), compared to whole wood, is schlock because it is easily damaged, doesn't have any natural beauty, cannot be refinished economically, and will not last as long. It also has to be thicker to approach the strength of whole wood and so is much heavier, and it irreversibly swells when wet (although there is a moisture-resistant version). MDF is also usually put together with urea formaldehyde glue which can off-gas for months. There are some benefits such as it doesn't warp or split, it doesn't need prep for painting, and there are no natural defects. The facts that it's ugly, smells funny, and doesn't last long sometimes doesn't outweigh these benefits.
Plastic is common in schlock furniture, both as fasteners and as integral parts. But it just doesn't hold up as well as wood and certainly doesn't even approach the beauty. There is also some furniture made with cardboard, although it is very dense stuff and similar to particle board for it's benefits and drawbacks. So watch out if the salesman tells you the piece has no particle board. He might be telling the truth, but only part of it, because instead of particle board they might be using cardboard (sometimes called 'pressed wood').
God really outdid Himself when He designed the tree, because it is extremely workable, strong, renewable and beautiful. Just the sort of excellent balance and perfection that I expect from Him.
Manufacturers have gotten better at hiding particle board (usually a product called MDF which stands for medium density fiberboard) by shaping it and painting it to look sort of like antiqued wood, or frequently covering it with paper made to look like wood grain. For a while they even veneered the bottoms of tables in order to hide the MDF. I think many of them have gotten out of the habit of this lately though, and if you look underneath a table or chair you can probably see the telltale sawdust look of MDF or particle board.
To check for the presence of MDF you can look underneath table tops, the backs of headboards, or the back edges of a cabinet. For table tops you can also look at the edges of leaves or the inside edges of the table where the leaves go. No grain = no whole wood. If there is wood grain going different directions it might be veneer or something called photo-paper (thin paper that looks like wood grain).
One of the major ways of telling if something has MDF is cost. If you see a large heavy-looking dining table with four heavy-looking chairs with fancy designs on the table top for $1,800.00 you can bet it has a lot of MDF. A whole wood table and four chairs made with thick pieces of wood will probably cost 50% to 100% or more higher than that, especially if the fancy designs in the table top were whole wood instead of veneer over MDF.
It helps to break the cost down in your mind. Remember that the retailer is likely using at least a 100% markup, so an $1,800.00 table and four chairs cost him $900.00. The manufacturer made some money too, so his costs are going to be at least a few hundred less than the price he or she sold the set. So in an $1,800.00 set there is maybe $700.00 of parts and labor. Now, overseas labor is very cheap (and a whole bunch of this type of furniture is imported), so maybe $200.00 is labor (and this is probably over estimating). So to be generous, there might be $400.00 to $500.00 worth of wood products and paint or finish in our $1,800.00 example.
An eight foot by 42 inch dining table top (one-inch thick) requires about 28 board feet of wood not including the apron (vertical board under the edge) and the legs or pedestal. Oak can be purchased for around $4.00 per board foot at this writing (maybe less in large quantities), so the wood for the top alone would cost about $120.00. Remember this doesn't include labor for gluing it together or shaping it, or applying finish. A 4 x 8 sheet of MDF can cost as little as $50.00 retail, and it needs less labor because strips don't have to be glued together as with oak. So using MDF allows more money for some of the fancy veneer or paper design work, which it desperately needs because without it MDF is just plain ugly. Still, you can see that MDF costs at least half as much as whole wood, and this is reflected in the retail pricing.
If you are going to try and save money, in my opinion it is much better to buy used furniture over most new choices, especially those in the schlock category. Look for good woods (oak, maple, mahogany, cherry, walnut etc.) and older pieces from motivated sellers. You might have to take some time to find what you want, but in the end it is a much better deal than buying the post-horse pieces in the store. Those might have a little more up front appeal (newer design and shinier finish) but out the back end (pun intended) they just won't hold up.
The drawbacks to buying used are it's harder to find complete sets or matching pieces and sometimes it might be pretty well-used. The furniture might also need maintenance such as re-gluing of wobbly or loose chairs or pedestals, or even refinishing. The wobbly part is more of a concern because there's no telling how close to falling apart or breaking it is. But you can pick up an older quality piece for little money, and if you have to bring some chairs or something to us it will generally be worth it ($600.00 to $800.00 to reglue a set of six dining chairs, with a lifetime warranty). Refinishing you can do later.
Auctions and estate sales are okay as sources, except that it's kind of hit-and-miss. I'm not a fan of auctions because frequently people bid too high for stuff. That's why sellers like auctions! But if you are diligent and keep going and watching, and restrain yourself from bidding too high, you can occasionally pick up some good deals. Remember that if pieces need repair or refinish it is probably going to cost a lot more than what you paid. But the idea is to pick up something of quality for a reasonable price, then put some money into it knowing you will be keeping it for a long time.
The cost of a nicely made furniture piece is really not in the material but in the labor, and in a huge amount of unseen taxes and regulations including restrictions on logging and reforestation. For instance, the glue we use was for a long time about $180.00 for two gallons. After Obama ascended to his throne, suddenly the government decided that one of the components was hazardous. Low and behold the cost of our glue jumped to $275.00 because of added shipping requirements. Another example is that over the last ten years or so our utility rates have doubled. This is due mostly to an idiotic Colorado constitutional amendment requiring the utility to obtain 20% of its power from so-called "renewable" sources (which are not really renewable).
I've mentioned it on the site before, but it's good to repeat often - businesses do not pay any taxes. The buyer pays everything. Every time a new tax is invented or raised, every time you vote for an increase in the minimum wage, every regulation that the bureaucrats you vote for make up, the person who pays is you. Remember this when you vote, and whenever anyone says "let's tax the profits of business."
Labor costs of manufactured items are affected by inflation, competition, medical insurance, workman's compensation insurance, unemployment insurance, liability insurance, training, turnover, time off and taxes. There are also a certain amount of, shall we say, boo boos such as mistakes in the work or what is called shrinkage (theft). All of this is included most of the time one way or another in the prices you pay.
This is why there is no such thing as free delivery. Either the cost of delivery is figured in to the prices of the merchandise or service, or it is charged separately. Somewhere the client or customer has to pay for it. Anytime we have to leave my shop we still have to be making our hourly rate. Instead of charging everybody for delivery by raising my rates or charges, We prefer to charge people separately for the services they use. That is much more fair in the long run, and much more honest.
Many imported furniture items are made of rubberwood. A rubberwood tree is in the maple family and exudes a sap from which rubber is made. But the wood is not rubbery itself; instead it is very sturdy and can be beautiful if finished well. I've heard rubberwood called 'Chinese oak' but it isn't necessarily Chinese and it sure isn't oak. Lately the furniture industry has taken to calling it para-wood in an effort to downplay the negative perceptions of the other name.
Rubberwood doesn't have a very good reputation partly because of the name and partly because much of the furniture built with it is constructed poorly. Joints don't fit tightly, not very much glue is used, most pieces are nailed together, and pieces are usually thin, all of which encourages breakage. Frequently the pieces are even finished with lacquer before gluing, which means the glue just won't stick as it should. So the furniture falls apart or breaks prematurely, and since it was usually low-priced to begin with no one wants to repair it. They just buy new furniture, which isn't a very good approach to conservation.
It's hard to define an antique. Some people say if it's older than 30 years it's an antique. Others think of antiques as just really old. It doesn't matter if the piece isn't made anymore, that just means it's out of style. Furniture manufacturers change all the time, so if it's not made anymore it might just be 'unique' instead of 'antique.'
A lot of solid wood furniture (of the usual varieties like maple, cherry, oak, walnut, etc.) with any age to it at all, like say about 20 or 30 years, is much better built than even good modern furniture. Or at the very least it would probably now cost about double if you had to buy the same piece brand new, comparing apples to apples.
Most antiques, though, have more sentimental value than intrinsic value. Grandma's rocker, mom's table, the chair dad had when he was a boy or the cabinet that granddad built might have a tremendous attachment for the owner, but that's usually about all the value there is. Sometimes you can find a rare piece that is worth a lot of money. The reason for this is there are not very many out there, so chances are you or I will not find such a piece. Some people worry that if they refinish it will reduce the value of the antique. Most of the time this is not true, because you are not planning on selling it anyway, and that is when you really find out how much something is worth. Another reason this isn't true is because most people plan on using their furniture instead of just looking at it like a museum piece, and using it will cause the value to decrease too. Usually people want to keep old furniture for sentimental reasons, not because of some antique value.
If you are a collector and like living in a museum where you can't touch what you have worked so hard to buy or can't refinish or repair it because you are afraid of it losing value, more power to you. However, if you want to use old furniture (with sentimental value or not) and enjoy its beauty, then get it fixed and refinished. In the long run you'll be glad you did.
Another option is unfinished furniture. Like the name says, you buy it without a finish and then you can finish it yourself. Most unfinished furniture that I know of is well built, mostly with solid wood although there is a lot of plywood used too. The nice things about unfinished is that it is less expensive than finished and for the price it has higher quality construction than a similar finished piece. The not-so-nice thing is that it still has to be finished and the quality is not the necessarily the same as even a factory-finished piece. You have to shop at a reputable store that tries to stock mostly quality pieces and does a good job with finishing if you don't want to do it yourself. Check carefully and remember that cost and value are two different things.
If you buy unfinished you will probably be looking for economy, so it's best if you refinish it yourself. If you do it yourself you will probably only brush one or two coats of polyurethane on it and unless you know how to wet sand or polish it you will leave it at that. This is the least expensive option. The next option is more expensive but not excessively so. Usually the person you buy it from will offer a finishing service which will be better quality than if you do it yourself. The difference will be in a sprayed-on finish and at least a sealer and one or two coats. But, if you want a high-quality finish that will last years and years come to the Chair Doctor. We are probably more expensive, but the reason is that we are not a production shop, we generally put at least three or more coats on depending on your preference or what the piece needs, the colors we use are more fade resistant than older colors, and on large areas we can polish out any defects.
If you really want to save yourself some grief in buying furniture, check the web for the reputation of the furniture store before you even go shopping. A little homework will save you a ton of bad experiences. Use the name of the furniture store in a search engine with the word 'reviews' or something like it. If it's a big store chain you should find plenty of information. Some places to check are also listed below.
What's said on some of these review sites is not always the truth either, but if you see a large number of complaints or many similar complaints you can bet the information is valid. When you search the web try using different phrases in the search engines, and try several different search engines. You will probably get different results each time.
Don't be fooled by a store advertising for 'solid wood.' Plywood can be considered 'solid,' and so can balsa wood. Usually a retailer who advertises solid wood means there is no particle board, but that doesn't mean the furniture is good quality. It's better if they say 'solid cherry' or 'solid oak,' but even then plywood might be a part of the piece. If the sales person tells you it is solid oak, make sure to question him or her on what it means to them, and get it in writing.
Price still determines much of the quality issue, so if you see a 'solid wood' six-foot dining table and six chairs for $600.00, you can pretty much bet that it isn't one of those pieces destined for antique greatness.
Remember too that what the salesperson says never counts either with warranties or any other promises. ALWAYS GET IT IN WRITING. A lot of store sales people are ethical, but many are not. It's not that they intend to lie, it's just that between communication misunderstandings and new sales people and that person's desire to take home a paycheck, frequently things get lost in the translation. So always, always, always get it in writing, read what the paperwork says, and make sure you understand it all thoroughly before you buy. In Colorado there's a three day cooling-off period, but once past that the thing is yours.
Branding can work in your favor for finding quality furniture, but it's not a concrete certainty. For one thing many brands have a "low-end" line and a "high-end" line, meaning less expensive and more expensive. So price is still a big factor. Another problem is that manufacturing processes have gotten more automated, which isn't always good. I don't blame the factories, especially American factories, because they have to try and compete with the cheaper imports.
Lots of manufacturers play the 'percentage game.' This means that of the pieces they sell, they know a percentage will fail, and of that percentage only a few people will complain. This is the game that is played when you buy an 'extended warranty.' Name brands generally don't play that game because their name is on the line and they prefer to build quality stuff. In the long run this is better for their continued existence. If the piece you are considering buying is not a name brand and has a fairly low cost extended warranty, buy it because you will need it. A name brand probably won't need an extended warranty because they already have a pretty nice one. But in any case, if it makes you feel more comfortable, buy the extra protection.
Manufacturers such as the Amish have a solid reputation for building fine furniture at pretty reasonable prices. Many of the pieces we've seen and worked on are first rate. A lot of hand made furniture is very good quality. However, just because something is 'hand-made' does not mean it is higher quality. It just means it was made by hand.
Way back when everything was made 'by hand' there were good craftsmen and bad ones, just like now. True, there might've been a larger percentage of good to bad, but just being hand-made is not a vote for quality. We've worked on a lot of hand-made furniture that was very frustrating because pieces were not uniform size or shape, holes were not properly spaced or drilled the same depth, the material was a poor choice for the application, pieces weren't square or flat, the overall design was deficient and other similar problems. On the other hand, if the piece was made by Grandpa and brought west on a covered wagon, these shortcomings are inconsequential. The real value to that kind of 'hand-made' piece is Grandpa's hand.
One time a client was bemoaning her inability to find 'craftsmen' anymore. But having conversed with her a little bit, we were aware, and told her so, that it wasn't that she was having trouble finding a craftsman, but that she was having trouble finding an inexpensive craftsman. There's a difference, in case you didn't know. We are craftsmen, it's just that we're not cheap craftsmen. Lots of people charge less than we do, but most do not stand behind their work for very long if at all and none of them offer a lifetime warranty on their wood repairs as we do.
Lots of newer furniture is made with particle board. There are different grades of particle board, and it comes in many styles. Some people divide it into commercial and industrial grades, others divide it into particle board (the least expensive and the most like sawdust), medium-density fiberboard (MDF), and high density board or hardboard. It comes with a variety of glues and surfaces, and each grade has different particle sizes.
MDF is used in more showroom-type furniture than particle board. It has less variability in market specifications than particle board, and the edges can be exposed and finished without edge banding (like plywood). It can have routed (shaped) edges and can even be embossed. The real inexpensive type of particle board (low density) is used for shelving and garage cabinets and the like. It is easy to spot because it looks like glued-together sawdust. MDF is much denser (finer particles) and so is more durable than regular low-density particle board.
On the bright side, manufacturers are doing some nifty things to make particle board look like wood, and unless you look close and know what to look for it can be hard to detect. Using MDF brings down the cost of new furniture while still giving it an appealing look. Below is a queen headboard that has a combination of veneer and painted edges with some antiquing thrown in for added hiding benefit.
It looks like a nicely made wood piece, and the MDF is hard to detect. That is, until you look on the back side.
The back side of the queen headboard shows the obvious MDF substrate (meaning the base wood under the veneer) and some solid wood support (the vertical board at the lower middle edge). On older particle board pieces (and a few newer ones) a cheap veneer is sometimes used to cover this, but manufacturers are getting a little lazy anymore. We guess you can't blame them because they are under such pressure from lower priced imports that it is hard to compete if they don't resort to these tactics. On the other hand, if they made a stand for quality wood pieces, we think we'd see the market responding.
On the not-so-bright side, particle board is very easy to damage and very hard to repair, and even when a repair is desired it is usually not cost effective. For instance, a six foot real wood dining table top is about $600.00 to refinish, but much more than that to buy new (if a matching one can be found). A particle board (MDF) dining table top, on the other hand, even if veneered nicely, can cost as little as $300.00 to $400.00. Plus, an MDF top will usually take more money to refinish, because the edge is usually not veneered but just painted and brushed to make it look like wood.
It is hard to match colors and textures of MDF, or to repair the veneer on top. Repairs can be fairly close but are rarely perfect. Unless there is a very strong reason for repairing, or the repair is small, it's generally just not worth it. Some minor touch up can be made, and sometimes the finish has enough variation so that the repair blends in, like in the second picture below.
The movers must've dropped something on this edge. The top is veneered, and the surrounding edges (of the dents) were puffed up as is typical with crushed particle board.
The above picture is after the repair. The repairs blend in just enough that they are not really noticeable. What you can't see from the picture, however, is that even with strong clamping pressure the edge of the damage is a little 'puffed up' because of the way MDF collapses when struck. However, in this case you had to look hard and know what you are looking for to see it. This repair cost in the neighborhood of $160.00, and there were several other areas that needed similar attention. If it hadn't been an insurance job we doubt the client would've wanted it repaired.
Particle board really isn't a good choice for furniture that you want to keep a long time. For tight budgets, and to compete with the cheap imports, it's okay. But for truly beautiful, tough, and long lasting furniture, nothing beats real wood.