Types of Wood for Furniture: Why natural wood?

Safety Bed in blue room

One of the questions we hear all the time here at Beds by George is what materials do we use in our beds.  Of course we use materials other than wood as you can see in the picture above.  But the core material is natural wood, not manufactured wood products.   Specifically our standard woods are Oak, Maple, and Poplar.  Unfortunately, people don't understand the significance of that so below is a quick primer on common furniture woods, natural and manmade.  

Common furniture woods

Some of the most popular types of wood used to make furniture are Pine, Oak, Poplar, and Maple. The cost to buy wood furniture is not as costly as you might think. It's sturdy, strong and doesn't require too much maintenance. Wood furniture is very durable, and built to last a lot longer than furniture made with lesser materials. It's also easier to touch up scratches or gouges on wood furniture; furniture made of synthetic materials requires more intricate repair work if they can be repaired at all.

The difference in appearance with real wood

Every type of wood has its own unique grain patterns, making certain types of wood furnishings more desirable. Oak wood is somewhat porous along the surface, and stains and finishes pool into the pores leaving darker marks that appeal to furniture collectors. Maple has natural patterns in the wood grain that appear like magic when the furniture is sanded and finished. It's these kinds of unique characteristics that make wood furniture such an enduringly popular choice for furnishing the home.

Wood furniture is also very versatile.  Connoisseurs of wood furnishings typically refrain from buying painted wood grain furniture, but it can often be quite charming, especially in a child's bedroom.

High End Furniture Made from High Quality Hardwoods 

 It may cost more to buy furniture made with the high end woods on our list, but they'll last a lifetime or longer. High quality wood furniture will become an heirloom that you can pass down from generation to generation.

When you buy cherry, mahogany or oak wood furniture, you often have options available to customize your purchase. Hand finished and handcrafted furniture give you more alternatives for colors and shading. This comes in handy if you need the piece to match your existing home decor. 

Cherry Wood Furniture Charms with Old World Splendor

Cherry wood is a hardwood, strong and built to last. A lot of the best antique wooden furniture is made of cherry wood and it looks as good today as it did 100 years ago. Cherry wood and cherry stains for wood furniture often have a warm red hue. Don't be afraid to mix and match cherry furnishings with furniture made of different woods or with varying finishes. Cherry wood complements most woods, working well with other furniture pieces and décor in your home.  Cherry will darken with age to richer reds and browns.   One of the most expensive native woods, it also tends to show use a little more than other hardwoods.

Oak Wood Furniture Gives Any Room Timeless Beauty

Oak is among the most popular hardwoods used to make furniture. Red Oak often has a red or pink tinge, and White Oak tends to be greener, though both take different colors of stain really well. The best wooden furniture made of oak tends to be more costly than other hardwoods, because of its enduring reputation for strength and beauty. Oak's lovely open wood grain easily mixes with the other furnishings in your home.

Maple, an American Standard of Quality

Maple is a hardwood, and it's more durable and heavier than most woods. Maple is often used for bedroom furniture- and even bowling alley floors- because of its strength. Maple wood is moisture resistant, so it has a long life span. The rare burled (swirls and twists in wood grain that occur naturally) and birds eye (a small repeating pattern in the wood grain) maple woods were used to manufacture American furniture in the early 1900's and are considered highly collectible antiques today. Maple wood's natural pale color, like ash and birch woods, easily accepts any type of stain or paint.

Pine Wood Furniture Doesn't fit every application

Pine is a soft wood which makes it a less durable wood than maple or oak. Pine is lightweight and furniture made of pine is easier to lift and move. Pine is inexpensive and prone to denting on furniture that sees a lot of use. Eastern White, Ponderosa and Sugar Pine trees are often used to make wood furniture in the United States. Pine woods usually need a primer before painting or a sealant before applying stain to achieve a more even finish.   Not an ideal candidate for long lasting furniture, but its inexpensive nature makes it popular nonetheless.

Wood "imposters":  
    One of the really sad facts about furniture building today is very little "wood" furniture is made from natural woods.  Engineered Woods, Plywood, MDF, Fiberboard, particle board, laminates, composites, and more have largely replaced natural wood.  More and more we see molded plastic be used with wood grain stamped in. Most of the reasons are cost related which is fine, but we feel you the buyer should know that you aren't getting "solid wood"

Before we begin its only fair to note that manufactured wood has its place and in some ways and applications is it superior to natural wood.  Further there are enormous quality ranges in manufactured wood products.  This article is intended to address indoor fine or heirloom furniture.

Solid Wood vs Wood Solids.
Its hard to determine from brochures and even from salesman if the item you are considering is made from real wood.  Many of the products mentioned above are made from wood chips or sawdust that is mixed with glue and pressed into boards. That is why the brochure can say "X is made from real wood."  Most common even among fine furniture is laminates or veneers in which a low cost backer is covered by a paper thin sheet of solid wood (Oak, Maple, etc).  

There are some significant performance differences between natural wood and manufactured wood.  Manufactured products look like real wood until something cracks the thin laminated sheet and the backer is now exposed.  They will tend to dent more because the backer is almost guaranteed to be softer than its natural counterpart. Repair of these issues is nearly impossible.  They don't stain the same because there isn't the normal stain penetration in a highly processed paper thin strip of wood which also means refinishing is unlikely to go well.
Fasteners and connectors won't hold the same.  In general the wood product itself won't have the same long lasting characteristics as wood because most are 50% glue and other chemicals.  Furniture grade veneers and plywoods have been around for a very long time, and you can see that over time the layers tend to seperate as the glues age and break down or humidity causes the layers to expand differently and split apart.

How do I spot the imposter?
Turn the items over to the unfinished side.  Find the edges of the boards - do you see anything other than natural end grain?  Does the manufacturer have caps on every edge to conceal the man made board behind?  Is the grain too perfect in its repitition across the surface?   

Is this common?
Walk through a furniture store today and examine a dresser.  It is likely you will find the back to be an 1/8" thick pressboard tacked on with staples.  The bottoms, back and sides of drawers are unlikely to be solid.  Even among the handcrafted furniture makers, they are starting to switch to these products as a necessity to compete with their lesser manufacturers.  In beds, often the structural supports tend to be metal brackets with wood only as fascia because the man made wood product is too weak.

There is nothing wrong with buying a bookcase, bedroom set or dining room set made from manmade materials.  But adjust your expectations.  If you plan to actually use it, don't expect it to last no matter what you paid for it.