Real or Fake Wood Furniture: How to Tell the Difference and Pick a Piece That Will Last

You have probably been disappointed by a piece of furniture at least once. You may have chosen to decorate your first apartment in affordable yet contemporary Scandinavian designs and quickly become frustrated when your desk started to sag or surfaces chipped or peeled away. Later on you may have thought you were getting a deal on solid wood furniture only to find out that it wasn’t actually solid when a scratch broke through the surface and revealed fraying fibers underneath. You may even have been outraged to find out that what looked like wood in the photos was in fact plastic with embossed wood grain.

It’s not always easy to see the difference between real or fake wood furniture online, and sometimes even in person it can be tricky. That’s a deliberate choice on the part of many furniture makers, as manufactured wood products are cheaper than solid hardwood. Covering these products with wood-looking material allows them to charge a higher price for what is in reality a very basic piece of furniture. In comparison, solid hardwood holds up better, lasts longer, and is worth more money. When decorating a family home you’re going to want the lasting beauty and strength of real wood.

So, how do you know if a piece is real or fake wood furniture in order to be sure that you’re getting your money’s worth?

A real wood table by Unruh

The Clydesdale Table and Belmont Sideboard are beautiful examples of real wood furniture.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Fake Wood Furniture

It’s important to first understand the differences between solid wood furniture and furniture that is made to look like wood. There are two different sorts of fake wood furniture: laminate and veneer. In both cases, a surface that has the appearance of solid wood is glued to a less expensive engineered wood product hiding it from sight. The nature of the covering material is the difference between the two types. A laminate is a synthetic material like plastic or vinyl. Usually, a thin layer is glued to the surface. Veneer on the other hand is a layer of hardwood that can range in thickness from paper thin to a relatively thick half-of-an-inch or so. Each type has advantages and disadvantages.

Laminate is a synthetic and will naturally resist moisture. You can set a mug of coffee on laminate tables and desks without worrying about damaging the finish. The glass won’t leave a ring and spills can just be wiped up. A disadvantage of laminate furniture though is that these synthetic surfaces are rather obvious, and they can look cheap and tacky. Even when care is taken in building laminate furniture, it can be very difficult to mask its artificial appearance. While it might pass for wood in a photo, it’s clear in person that they are plainly artificial. The quality can vary quite a bit as well, with the laminate chipping or falling off of lower quality pieces quite quickly.

Veneer on the other hand, can pass for solid wood, and it can be stained and polished similarly. However, veneers are only so thick and this limits the number of times that a piece can be sanded down, restained, and given a whole new look. The veneer covering these pieces may be too thin for refinishing, and it can also peel or be chipped off. A scratch can go through it and reveal the material underneath.

Another distinction to be aware of with furniture that is not solid hardwood has to do with underlayment. There are three types of underlayment common in fake wood furniture: medium-density fibreboard (MDF), plywood, and oriented-strand board (OSB)—none of which are particularly pleasing to the eye unless an industrial look is the goal. All types of manufactured wood products can be prone to absorbing moisture, expanding, and separating from the covering veneer or laminate if left unsealed, and most fake wood is left uncovered and unsealed on the sides hidden from view.

Another issue is particular to MDF. While plywood and OSB maintain long wood fibre structures and have strength because of this, MDF separates these fibers and presses them back together into a panel using glue. The process makes the boards very heavy for their volume and robs them of stiffness. The result is fake wood furniture that sags under its own weight, resulting in dining tables, desks, and bookcases with noticeable dips in the center. Fake wood furniture tends not to last either, with the glue losing its grip after a few years. That’s fine for those who might not stay in one place for long. However, if you’re decorating your home for your family to enjoy for decades to come, you’re going to want the strength of real hardwood furniture.

A real wood dresser by Unruh

The Lake House Dresser and >platform bed combine solid wood with modern styling..

Knowing the Difference Between Real or Fake Wood Furniture

While isn’t easy to see the difference between real or fake wood furniture online, it’s pretty easy to determine if a piece of furniture is fake wood in person. If a laminate is made to look like wood, the printed grains will lack a certain complexity. A touch of your hand will reveal its synthetic nature. Pieces of furniture covered with veneer will be harder to distinguish, but an eye for detail can help you see the difference.

Veneer is rarely used to cover the bottoms of tables or the undersides of drawers. Pulling out a drawer and checking the back and bottom will show whether it is made of wood products rather than solid wood. Looking inside the space vacated by the drawer you pulled out in a dresser, hutch, or sideboard will reveal what the interior partitions, back, and underside of the top is really made of. Similarly, checking the underside of a dining table or desk will clearly reveal what it is made from. If it is plywood or OSB, stamped numbers may reveal its source and batch number. If it has a core of MDF you will see an expanse of grainless material in gray, brown, or beige.

Whether or not you still wish to buy a piece of furniture after finding out that it is fake wood furniture should be determined by what your plans for it are. If you only expect to use it for a few years and don’t mind replacing it soon then you may still wish to buy it. However, if you are decorating a home to raise your family in and want your furnishing to last, then you will want the enduring beauty, strength, and resilience of real wood.

The only truly reliable way to be sure that a piece of furniture is made out of solid hardwood is to see it in person before you buy it. The best wood furniture is built of solid wood all the way through by craftsmen who take pride in their work. They can build real wood furniture in the style you choose and to the dimensions that you specify. It’s not always easy to find these sort of craftsmen in today’s world of mass production and mass market fake wood furniture. However, if you’re in Kansas City or the Dallas-Fort Worth area, you can see the difference between real and fake wood furniture and the difference between mass produced and custom furniture tailored to you at the Unruh Furniture showroom, where furniture is built to last.

Let Us Help You

Unruh Furniture offers tables, desks, beds, and dressers that are constructed by skilled craftsmen in your choice of any one of six hardwood species and twelve finishes to fit the spaces in your home. Schedule a visit to our Dallas showroom in the heart of Deep Ellum or our Kansas City showroom in midtown today.

By Carly Haynam

Carly moved to Kansas City from Colorado 13 years ago, and while she loves the coffee and food scene, her passion is in design and transforming spaces, with over 15 years of experience in the industry.

Contact Unruh Furniture’s team today to customize the way you live.

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