We have all seen beautiful antique wooden furniture that causes our eyes to glisten and hearts to beat a little faster. But with new methods of creating furniture available (including new types of wooden materials), it can make you wonder what the life expectancy is on your favorite piece.
The longevity of wooden furniture depends on the type of wood used, wear and tear, and climatic conditions it is exposed to. In general, wood furniture made from particle board or MDF will last 10 years, 10-20 years for plywood made with veneer, and a lifetime (over 100 years) for fine hardwood furniture.
Of course, there are ways in which you can help to extend the life of your favorite piece of wooden furniture. However, there are natural age limits on most wooden furniture sets considering the type of wood that is used to construct them (as well as a few other factors). Let’s take a closer look at the ins and outs of wooden furniture and what makes a high-quality statement piece truly last a lifetime.
How Long Should Furniture Last?
Perhaps you are looking to make a decision on a long-term investment for an heirloom furniture piece that you would like to be passed down in your family for generations. Or, maybe it seems like just yesterday that you were purchasing your most recent piece of furniture and all of a sudden you have begun to notice some sagging or warping of the wood. In either situation, you might be curious about the industry standards and what to expect from your wooden furniture.
So, how long should furniture last? Assuming you are not putting extraordinary wear and tear on your piece of furniture and that it is not exposed to extreme conditions (heat, cold, water, etc.), you can estimate the furniture’s longevity based on the material that it is made from.
In this case, you can expect particle board or MDF (medium-density fiberboard) furniture to last 10 years furniture made with plywood with veneer to last 10-20 years, and furniture made with authentic hardwood to last over 100 years.
Of course, these are general estimates, so it is important to consider that your piece might fall a bit out of range. But, if you have recently purchased a beautiful piece made of what you thought was high-quality wood and are noticing a bit of damage already, this could raise a few concerns. However, if you cheaped out and bought a piece of furniture that was meant for lower budgets, then it should not be surprising that this piece might begin to show its age within a few years.
In addition to the type of wood that furniture is built with, there are other components that will yield higher longevity for your favorite furniture piece. This includes any cushions that are added (such as high-quality dense cushions on a sofa), and how the structure is fixed together.
Ideally, whoever crafted your furniture should have known what they were doing and will have built the piece to last. But, unfortunately, with large manufacturers, you will often not find the same type of workmanship that local woodworkers are able to achieve.
After all, woodworkers have often spent years, decades even, perfecting their craft. It is no wonder that their work will last for longer than the local home improvement store or large furniture manufacturer that uses low-grade pieces or types of wood.
What are the Different Types of Wood?
As you know now, there are several different types of wood- all which will largely affect the overall quality and appearance of any project they are used for. While some of these types of wood are less expensive, you usually get what you pay for in terms of quality and longevity. That said, there are different types of wood that can meet the needs of various home projects you might have in mind.
A few of the main different types of wood (especially those used to build wooden furniture) include particle board or MDF (medium-density fiberboard), plywood or engineered wood, and solid (hard) wood. Generally speaking, the less authentic the wood is (i.e. the more manpower had to go into “making” it), the lower the quality of wood it will be.
Let’s take a closer look.
Particle Board or MDF (Medium-Density Fiberboard)
If you were to picture the type of furniture that you used in your college dorm, you know, the kind that has a million screws, steps, and frustrating instructions and lasts about as long as it took to put the piece together, this was probably built with particle board or MDF. This is a lower quality type of wood that was designed for easy construction, consistent packaging and delivery, and was never intended for longevity in the first place.
Interestingly, you will find that furniture that was built with particle board or MDF can last up to 10 years- although you might begin to see some wear and tear a bit sooner than this considering how soft and malleable this type of wood is.
Particle board is different from MDF, but both can be found on similar projects. While particle board is literally made from wood particles that have been pressed tightly together, MDF is made of wood fibers that have practically been transformed from a powder to a tightly compacted piece of wood.
Because of the compact particles found in MDF, you will find that it offers a much smoother edge than particle board that appears more like a closeup version of a sponge. Interestingly, particle board and MDF are both heavier types of wood- even though they are not as structurally sound.
A few benefits of using these types of wood include an easy ability to sand it down (creating the shape and structure that you so desire), the possibility of using long screws and glue as a way to hold them together, and limited upfront cost.
If you are looking for an inexpensive way to meet your immediate needs with furniture, then particle board or MDF can work. But, if you are looking for a type of wood with higher longevity, then this is not the type of wood for your project.
Plywood or Engineered Wood
Plywood or engineered wood is much more stable than the particle board or MDF discussed above, but it does not quite offer as high a quality as natural hardwood. Consequently, you will find that this type of wood runs in the middle of the road as far as longevity and structural soundness are concerned.
Using plywood or engineered wood for your wooden furniture is a great choice for many do-it-yourself projects at home. You can make some really beautiful pieces with this type of wood- everything ranging from an outdoor swing set to an interior shelving unit. Furniture that uses plywood or engineered wood and experiences typical wear and tear will generally last between 10-20 years before showing signs of aging.
So, what exactly qualifies as plywood or engineered wood? Plywood is a type of wood that comes from natural sources (think pine, fir, spruce, etc.) but is engineered by placing flat layers of this type of wood on top of one another and sealing the board with a veneer (adhesive).
When you walk into just about any home improvement store, you are going to find plywood from various sources of wood. Typically, these are the pre-cut boards that you will see people struggling to navigate between aisles with as they head to their truck and haul off the wood for their project at home.
You can recognize plywood by looking at the end of a plywood board. What you will find is several layers of wood that have been compounded together. Then, on the edge, you will notice that there is typically a casing that “seals” off the wood and creates the clean edging. This is the veneer.
Interestingly, plywood can actually be found to be “stronger” than natural wood, but this has more to do with the thickness of the wood that has been engineered. If you imagine karate-chopping a piece of plywood that is 3-4 inches thick compared with a piece of hardwood that is 2-3 inches thick, you can see how even one inch of wood can make a huge difference in the density and “strength” of the wood.
Contrarily, hardwood is a natural piece of wood that, when treated correctly, can turn into a masterpiece that will last for centuries. It is less prone to warping than engineered wood and it has an incredible structural soundness. Additionally, higher grade hardwood typically has fewer knots than most pieces of plywood. This makes it less prone to cracks and warps and enhances the overall quality of the wood.
Consider the wood that comes from a beautiful walnut tree. It is prized for its natural beauty, it comes in its natural form (though it has typically been chopped, planed, and sanded), and it is extremely durable. This type of hardwood is built to last and will inevitably hold up when used in different types of furniture.
Because of this, hardwood is going to cost you much more upfront. But, when you think about the fact that this wood is going to last you for decades (practically forever), it is no wonder you are paying such a higher price compared with man-made/engineered types of wood.
Furniture pieces that are made from hardwood are made to last- and this has just as much to do with the durability of the wood as it does with its natural beauty. Typically speaking, when you use a high-quality piece of hardwood, you can expect the furniture piece to last for a lifetime.
There are so many different types of hardwood available, but you will often find these sold by specialty shops as compared with the industrialized home renovation and home improvement stores. While you may find hardwood at a home improvement store, it is more likely that you will find a higher quality piece at a local retailer or even some lumber yards.
Either way, whether it is an heirloom china cabinet that has been passed down from your great great grandmother, or it is a bedroom set that you are planning on passing down to your own children one day, if it is built to last, it is probably hardwood.
How Can You Tell if Wood Furniture is Solid Wood or Particle Board?
There is almost nothing quite as disappointing as beginning to refurbish a piece of furniture that you thought was real wood only to find out that it is made of particle board and veneered on top or covered by another type of wood. However, there are some telltale ways to ensure that you know what you are purchasing when you choose to do so.
Pay Attention to the Grain
To tell if wood furniture is solid wood or particle board, be sure to pay close attention to the grain. Particularly, you can look for an area on the piece of furniture that is not covered in stain as this will showcase the type of material much more clearly. Ideally, you can find a spot on the bottom of a drawer or the back panel to more closely examine the “bare” material.
Consider the Weight
In addition to checking the grain of the wood and noticing any strange patterns (such as the wood being much wider than it likely would have been found on the original piece of wood), you can also check the weight of the piece of furniture.
Particle board as well as plywood are known for being strangely heavy compared to their dimensions. The reason for this is because when particle board or plywood are constructed, they have dense layers of glue or other adhesives (veneer) that hold them together. This adds substantial weight in comparison with solid wood that does not have any additional materials associated with it.
Observe the Edges
Finally, you can check the sharp edges of the piece to see if there is a veneer or another type of coating that is covering it up. If you are looking at a piece made of particle board, then you will likely be able to see the particles that it is made of in an indent or scratched surface (or the edge where the adhesive might be a bit loose). With solid wood, however, you will not see discoloration or particles as the wood grain would be continuous.
What is the Difference Between Engineered Wood and Solid Wood?
If you are new to the world of woodworking, then it might be a bit confusing to tell different types of wood apart. Even though you might know what the differences are theoretically, how do you tell them apart? Fortunately, there are many ways to do so.
The difference between engineered wood and solid wood has to do with the structure of the overall piece. With engineered wood, layers of (real) wood are compacted and sealed with veneer on the outer edges. Engineered wood becomes thicker as more layers of wood are added. Contrarily, solid wood is just one piece of wood and has no layers or a need to be sealed to keep the piece together.
Often, you will find that engineered wood is heavier than solid wood because of the additional veneer that is added to keep the multiple layers of wood together. On the other hand, solid wood is one piece of wood, so it is not as densely packed.
When choosing to work with engineered wood or solid wood, you should closely consider the different projects you are attempting to work on. Some forms of engineered wood (such as engineered wood floors) have been designed to withstand higher impacts than traditional solid wood can uphold. But, using solid wood on other projects like a beautifully ornate dresser or dining room table would likely be your best bet.
How Can You Tell if Furniture is Good Quality?
The world of marketing has done wonders for a variety of fields, and it is not without limits. In fact, you can easily be swooned by a captivating marketing strategy that encourages you to believe that a piece of furniture is high-quality when it might, in fact, not be as great as you think. Before you spend hundreds (or thousands) on your next piece of furniture, you need to do your research to ensure that the furniture is good quality.
So, how can you tell if furniture is good quality? Primarily, you need to know what type of wood has been used to make your furniture. Next, you should pay attention to the details such as how multiple components have been attached to one another. Finally, pay attention to the overall structure and notice any layers that have been secured.
Determine the Type of Wood
As discussed above, there are several different types of wood that furniture can be made from, and these have drastic implications for the quality of the piece of furniture that they compose. Specifically, furniture that is made from particle board or medium-density fiberboard is going to be the lowest quality type of wooden furniture.
Particle board furniture is great for small spaces or when you are working with a lower budget. It has been crafted to be able to withstand some pressure, but it is better used for decorative purposes than for actual furniture use such as being sat on or being used for storage.
Next, you will find furniture made from plywood or engineered wood which is medium quality and should last for quite a while before you begin to see any noticeable signs of aging. Furniture that is crafted from this type of wood can look beautiful, especially when stained and finished correctly. You can even find some pretty ornate pieces made from plywood or engineered wood that are of decent quality.
Finally, hardwood is the highest quality of wood that can be crafted into heirloom furniture pieces to be cherished by you and your family members for years to come. The odds are pretty high that if you are admiring your grandmother’s end tables and the ornate details that were designed into the piece, it is probably made from a beautiful piece of hardwood.
Pay Attention to the Joints
When you think of a high-quality piece of furniture, you are likely not picturing something that sags in the middle, wobbles from side to side, or creaks every time you move around it. Further, you are probably not imagining a piece that is falling apart or looks like it could break down any day now. One of the top reasons that a piece of furniture could look like this is because of how it has been attached and secured.
As you observe various types of furniture, be sure to pay attention to the small details as these become the cornerstone for what will be your favorite piece in your home- or it could lead to the pivotal demise of what you thought was going to be a great investment.
High-quality furniture is going to have supports in place that will aid the longevity of the furniture’s structure. Particularly, you will find that the corners are supported with additional pieces underneath to make small triangle supports where the angles of the furniture meat. Additionally, the screws, nails, and other hardware that is used should be secured well and should not be falling apart.
Look at the Details
As you look more closely at the details of a piece of furniture, this is how you can tell whether or not it is of a higher quality or not. You can look for knots and chips in the wood, as the more knots that are found (like on pine plywood for example), the more likely the piece is to creak and potentially split.
Along with this, pay attention to how cushions are supported, for example. If you are looking at a sofa and wondering if it is high-quality, you can probably tell this based on if the stuffing of the cushions is allowed to pass through the springs, or if there are boards in place to support even structure and solid design.
Then, you can look at each component of the piece of furniture like how the drawers are fastened. Consider, do they have stops and rails or are they simply resting on the open space? If there are not drawers, then what other components can you pay closer attention to?
The closer you look at these kinds of details, the more clearly you will be able to distinguish if this is a high-quality piece of furniture that took a long time to design, build, and finish, or is it a quickly manufactured piece that took more time to put together by following step-by-step instructions than it took the manufacturer to produce?
How Do You Take Care of Wood Furniture Finish?
Buying a beautiful piece of furniture does not just stop at the purchase, delivery, and installation. The beauty (and work) extends in how you care for the furniture once it is in your home. While it takes a bit of effort, it will definitely pay off as your wooden furniture stays true to its glory a few decades in.
Caring for wood furniture finish has a few steps. Proactive steps include avoiding exposure to heat, cold, and water/moisture, cleaning and dusting the furniture, and handling the furniture with sensitivity. Treatment steps include treating any damage as soon as you notice it, and re-oiling and re-waxing the wood when it begins to fade or dry out.
By paying special attention to how you care for the wood furniture in your home, you can be sure to improve the longevity of the piece and embellish the appearance through tender care and maintenance.
What is the Life of Particle Board?
While particle board is one of the types of wood with the lowest quality, it is still frequently used on many commercially manufactured pieces of furniture. Since it is lower in cost, it is obvious why this would appeal to many who are working from a smaller budget and still need some type of furniture to fill their space.
But, what is the life of particle board? Particle board can last up to 10 years before it is no longer able to provide a stable structure on its own. You might begin to see signs of wear and tear (such as warps, dents, and scrapes) within a few years of purchasing the piece. Be sure to avoid exposure to moisture as this will cause immediate damage.
Of course, you will want to avoid exposure to moisture and water for most types of wood, but it is particularly true for particle board, MDF, and plywood that has not been properly treated and finished. The more effort you put into caring for your furniture, the longer it is sure to last, and the higher quality it will remain.