A Guide to the Wood Used for Furniture: Picking the Best One for Your Space
Have you heard about Knickers the steer? This Australian Holstein has been making the rounds on the internet, thanks to a hysterical picture of him standing head and shoulders above a herd of “normal” sized cattle. Where did this giant come from, the internet wondered. As it turns out, Knickers is about the average size you could expect a Holstein steer to grow to. We thought he seems so huge because most of us—yes, even Texans—don’t spend enough time around cattle these days to know much about them.
It’s the same with wood. Unless you’re a carpenter or an arborist, you probably don’t spend much time talking about trees, or wood. The trees outside are trees; your chairs are made of wood. What more is there to know? When it comes to choosing new furniture, there’s actually quite a bit to know. Some woods will last for generations. Others won’t make it past the first holiday meal. To help you make a smart choice when you are looking for new pieces, we’ve put together a short guide to the different woods used for furniture.
Categories of Wood Used for Furniture
There are a lot of trees in the forest. But there are really only three types of wood used for furniture: manufactured wood, softwood, and hardwood. Each of them has their own strengths and weaknesses, so long as you don’t think of “strength” too literally. Here’s a quick rundown:
Manufactured Wood - Manufactured woods, like plywood, fiberboard, and particleboard, are very common in modern furniture. If you bought it at a big-box store and put it together in your starter home, it’s probably made of manufactured wood. The big benefits of these wood products are that they’re cheap and they’re light. A sheet of manufactured wood is sort of like a fast food hamburger, in that it doesn’t all come from the same tree. Rather, it’s made of many different trees, ground up to one size or another, and bonded together with some sort of adhesive, like glue, wax, or resin. Not many people think the result is good-looking, so furniture made of manufactured wood is often covered with a thin sheet of softwood or hardwood, called a veneer, to hide the wood’s actual nature.
Softwood - Softwood lies somewhere in between manufactured wood and hardwood in quality and desirability. Unlike manufactured wood, a softwood board is a single piece of wood from a single tree. However, exactly as the name implies, softwoods are softer than hardwoods. Tree families like pine, fir, spruce, cedar, or larch are known as softwoods. They’re separated from hardwoods by evolution and reproduction; softwood species are older kinds of trees, called gymnosperms, that keep their needles all year and don’t produce seeds. Softwoods can make beautiful, lightweight furniture, but are typically easier to scratch, dent, or break. Since they usually grow more quickly than hardwoods, they’re also cheaper to harvest—two big reasons why they’re used for paper, matchwood, and other pulp in addition to furniture.
Hardwood - As far as we’re concerned, hardwood is the smart choice for family furniture, and the gold standard. It’s dense, durable, beautiful, and perfect for a piece of furniture you want to last for decades. It’s versatile, too—there’s a wide range of hardwoods, from rustic alder to supple maple to constitutional oak. These trees, known as angiosperms, are newer than the ancient conifers, more like flowers, while the old gymnosperms are more like ferns. Some hardwoods, like alders or birches, grow faster than denser trees like oak or hickory. So, there’s a range in price, based on how much wood can be easily (and sustainably) harvested in a given year.
Choosing the Right Hardwood for Your New Furniture
If you’re looking for high-quality, durable furniture, you’re probably in the market for a desk, bench, or kitchen table made of hardwood rather than softwood or manufactured wood. This helps narrow down your choice, but there are still a number of different hardwood options to choose from. Picking the right one depends on several factors, including hardness, price, and personal taste. Typically, price increases with hardness, although factors like rarity also influence the cost.
As far as personal taste goes, that’s really up to you. To figure out what might go well in your home, take a look at the other pieces of furniture you already have. What are they made of? If they’re leftovers from college, and starting to sag, then are you thinking of replacing those, too? You can also take a look at your parent’s furniture, and their parents, as well as any friends, family, or acquaintances you happen to visit while you’re turning over the idea of a table in your mind.
Another great way to see what you might like best is to go down to a furniture showroom and take a look at the different display models they have available. If the top three pieces you like are all made of maple—then you’re probably looking for something in maple. It’s okay to take your time finding the perfect piece of furniture for your family. After all, it’s going to last you a long time.
At Unruh Furniture, we believe that it’s important to do certain things right. That’s why we hand-build all of our hardwood furniture to the custom requirements of our customers. Our showroom has every wood and finish option on display for you to easily see and select the one that suits you best. This way, every one of our customers finds exactly the table, bed, or desk they’re looking for, and knows it’s built to last. To see what we have to offer, schedule a visit to our Dallas showroom.
Image 1: Deep mocha hickory is only one of the potential options for a Sawyer Table, which can be customized to your exact specifications.
Image 2: Your wood choice for a Benton Sideboard can add a timeless elegance or modern flair to your space.