All About Wood Furniture

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If you’ve been around for awhile, you’ve become accustomed to my frequent trips to the thrift store in search of the perfect project piece. Over the years I’ve had my fair share of mishaps, but I’ve learned a lot along the way. One of the keys to success with refinishing, bleaching, and painting furniture is making sure that you’re choosing quality, solid pieces that will stand the test of time (and all the wear and tear that comes with refinishing)!

While it can be difficult to distinguish between solid and manufactured wood, I have a few foolproof tips that can help take the guesswork out of searching for the perfect project piece. In this post we’ll dive into categories of wood, popular types of solid wood, old vs. new furniture, and tips to identifying solid and manufactured wood so that we can ensure a successful outcome to any DIY furniture refinishing projects in your future.

This post contains affiliate links, please read more about my disclosures. Image credit: Caitlyn Motycka Photography.

Identifying natural wood grain for furniture.

Wood Categories

There are a few different categories when it comes to wood furniture. Knowing the difference between hardwood, softwood, and manufactured wood will help you choose a quality piece for any project.

Hardwood

Hardwood is denser, higher quality solid wood that typically comes from slower growing decidious trees with broad leaves. The most common hardwoods include oak, cherry, maple, mahogany, and walnut.

Solid wood furniture with desk made from mahogany wood.

Softwood

Softwood is a dense solid wood that typically comes from evergreen trees that grow more quickly. The most common softwoods include cedar and pine.

Manufactured Wood

  • Plywood is made by taking several sheets of thin wood and combining with adhesive; stronger and more durable than particleboard, but often rough in appearance.
  • Particleboard: made of tiny fibers from a wood chipper and pressed together with adhesive; inexpensive and less durable.
  • Veneer: in the furniture industry, a thin slice of natural wood is often used to cover the surface of plywood of particleboard pieces to give the appearance of a solid wood piece.
Manufactured or particle board furniture from Ikea.

When determining what kind of wood furniture you have, you’ll find this quick guide helpful. I’m often asked which type of wood I love the most in furniture and I have to say, I love a beautiful oak piece. Now that I know how to bleach wood furniture, mahogany is also a favorite!

  • Mahogany: lightweight but very strong; can come in reddish brown tones or lighter shades.
  • Oak: very durable, typically used for flooring and very good for furniture.
  • Walnut: hardwood typically used for fine furniture, butcher block, and live edge pieces; a darker wood that gets a beautiful patina as it ages.
  • Maple: non-toxic, ages well, and is extremely durable.
  • Cedar: a soft wood that is naturally weather-resistant, making it ideal for outdoor furniture; also good for closets as it repels bugs.
  • Pine: a soft wood that is easy to stain with a prominent grain and dark knots; typically a cheaper option for wood furniture as it’s not as long-lasting.
  • Cherry: darkens with age; very durable and scratch-resistant, non-toxic and has an even grain.
Different types of wood used in furniture with wood grains.

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Old Furniture vs. New Furniture

Furniture making has changed significantly over the years, with quality pieces becoming more obsolete as mass production has become the status quo. Manufacturers typically make furniture in large quantities to keep costs down while antique furniture is handmade and lovingly crafted with high quality materials that can stand the test of time. Not only is older furniture typically better quality, it’s also better for the environment and more socially responsible. Another added bonus? Vintage or antique furniture can become more valuable with age and has a uniqueness that mass produced pieces often lack. While I love shopping for new pieces at some of our favorite retailers, I really enjoy the character and story that comes with incorporating antique furniture into my home.

Natural wood grain up close of oak bed.
Solid hardwood refinished antique bed with natural wood grain.

How to Identify Types of Wood

If you follow me over on Instagram, you know that I love frequenting all the local thrift shops to find quality pieces for DIY projects like painting and bleaching. Over the years, I’ve discovered some helpful tips to ensure that the pieces I’m bringing home will make for successful projects. If you’re just starting out and want to bleach or refinish a piece then I’d recommend looking for solid wood. Not only will these pieces last much longer, but they’re much easier to handle than veneer and are easy to redo should you run into any problems along the way.

Here are my best tips for distinguishing between solid and manufactured wood:

  • Look for a wood grain on the end: if you look at the edges of a piece you can typically see if there are growth rings. If you see what looks like small woodchips pressed together or something that’s not consistent with the rest of the finish, the piece is manufactured and most likely made of particleboard or MDF. This won’t make for a good DIY unless you plan on simply painting it.
  • Check for unique patterns and knots in the wood: manufactured furniture has the wood grain printed on the surface whereas real wood has character such as knots and a noticable grain. You may even be able to feel the grain of the wood if it’s a solid piece. The only exception to this is veneer, where a thin piece of real wood is used to cover manufactured wood.
  • Look at the bottom and inside the drawers: if manufacturers use veneer, they typically do not cover the bottom of the piece or the inside of drawers. If it’s veneer, the material will not be consistent with what’s on the top and front of the piece.
  • Inspect the drawers for dovetails: pull out any drawers and look at where the front meets the side-if you see an obvious tongue and groove construction then chances are the piece is solid wood. If there are no drawers, check the corners and edges for joints that are held together with screws or dowels. Staples or nails are indicators of a manufactured piece.
  • Pick it up! Solid wood tends to be much heavier than manufactured wood. If your piece has some weight to it, there’s a good chance it’s solid.
Manufactured or particle board with chip wood pieces glued together.
Chip or particle board that’s manufactured wood.

How to Spot Manufactured Wood

Check the edge of drawers, look for water damage like bubbled up spots. These are almost always signs of particle board hiding beneath. Check for inconsistencies in the wood grain and thin strips of material glued on the piece.

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Helpful Posts

If you’ve read this post and are feeling ready to tackle your first DIY refinishing project, I’ve rounded up my top tutorials below. Be sure to tell me all about your own DIYs in the comments and happy thrifting!

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6 Comments

  1. Very helpful information thank you. Are You able to use the oven cleaner method on a vintage mahogany dresser, and then bleach it? If it has veneer?

    1. Hi Tanya, I would use caution with veneer and oven cleaner. When you get veneer wet, it’s more susceptible to damage and I fear it would cause it to bubble or chip away.

  2. Hey I just have a question about the final coat of polycrylic. Are you supposed to sand the final coat? Or do you only sand in between?

    1. Hi Caitlin, you don’t have to per the instructions from the company, but I usually do a light sanding to ensure an even coverage. It’s most important to have multiple applications to guarantee it is sealed.

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