People often sell or donate perfectly usable furniture for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the piece: they’re moving, they don’t like the style anymore, it doesn’t serve its purpose for them anymore, etc. Unfortunately, others may overprice pieces of furniture and try to take advantage of buyer’s inexperience with recognizing good used furniture.
The following is a basic guide to distinguishing quality from trash in all kinds of secondhand furniture you may run across.
Overall furniture constructionBefore you spend too much time analyzing the specifics of a piece of furniture, there are a few simple tests you can do to see if you should move on to other pieces or continue investigating the current piece you have found.
- Gently rock the piece and lift up each side separately. Any creaks indicate wood is rubbing against other wood, meaning an internal structural problem that needs to be fixed. Any unsteadiness could mean that either the wood has warped unevenly over time, or the piece was not a quality job in the first place. When you hold up each end, does it feel like the middle is sagging or is too weak to support all the weight?
- All drawers and doors should close flush with the piece. There should be no rubbing and no large gaps in any places.
- The backsides/undersides should still look good. A thin sheet of low-quality manufactured wood is not a sign of a well-constructed piece of furniture. The less visible pieces doesn’t have to be as attractive as the front, but it should still be sturdy and substantial to support the entire weight of the furniture.
What to look for in used wood furniture
The styles and types of wood used in wood furniture has changed over the centuries, but the factors that distinguish quality wood furniture from cheaper imitations has not. Here is what you should be looking for in any wooden pieces you find secondhand:
No knots in the frameKnots on wood in structural positions (part of the “frame” of the furniture) weaken the strength and longevity of the entire piece. However, knots in decorative areas or on non-structural surfaces don’t compromise the structure and just depend on your personal preference.
Do a “scratch test”
Run your fingernail along an inconspicuous area of the furniture to see if it scratches easily. If a fingernail can damage it, you probably don’t want it in your house. Some woods are just naturally softer and will show dings and scratches from rough treatment, but the furniture should have been coated with an adequate amount of wood sealer to protect the wood from scarring at anything more gentle.
Examine the joint constructionExamine how the sides of the piece of furniture connected to each other.
- Interlacing joints represent the highest quality in furniture and the greatest stability. This means that portions of one side of the piece of furniture are physically inserted into portions of the perpendicular piece of furniture, such as with dovetail joints.
- Dowels, pins and/or screws are acceptable and reasonably sturdy.
- Construction with nails or glue-only is a weak way to hold together furniture. Unless you want to reinforce the joints yourself, you should avoid any furniture you find with this joining method.
Evaluate the quality of the wood stain
A good finishing treatment on a piece of furniture is, above all, evenly applied. There should be no places of roughness or excess shininess, and no areas that are darker or shinier than others.
Check for smooth sanding everywhere
Run your hand gently along all exterior and interior surfaces. There should be no snags anywhere on the piece of furniture, including the insides of drawers and cabinets and the back of the piece. Any rough areas are a sign of inattention to detail and could mean the quality of the furniture is also inferior in ways that are more difficult to check.
Reinforced cornersReinforced corners strengthen the structure by bracing the joining of two corners. As with the joint construction, unless you want to reinforce the corners yourself, you should only consider furniture with the corners strengthened. Corners are often reinforced by pieces of wood bolted diagonally and at an angle into the two sides, though metal brackets or squares of wood may also be used to provide stability to the corners.
Recognizing quality in wood veneers
Most furniture made within the past century will be made of veneer. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however. Some types of solid wood furniture can be weaker and more prone to warping than a good veneer over a harder, less expensive wood or plywood.
First, is it veneer or solid wood?
As mentioned above, it’s probably a veneer, unless the piece is very old or a top-of-the-line furniture brand. But here’s how to be certain:
- No matter how well a veneer is applied, you should be able to check the edges of the furniture and look for the pattern”dead ending” at one surface and starting again at another.
- Also check the underside of the piece of furniture to see if there is an uncovered surface or a surface covered in a less expensive wood in the less visible areas.
- See if graining patterns continue from the top side through to the edges (see the picture at right for an example).
Second, is it a GOOD veneer?
Quality veneers are thick and made from real wood (they are neither paper-thin nor are they just a printed design on paper). They are also applied so well and permanently that they are difficult to distinguish from solid wood.
- See how well the edges match up: the tighter, the better. Quality wood veneers leave almost no visible gap at corners where the edges meet up.
- Feel all the surfaces of the veneer: you don’t want any rough corners or bubbling in the veneer, unless you want to repair them on your own. Quality wood furniture made with veneers will use a thicker veneer that is less prone to warping, a strong glue, and appropriate finishing layers to help prevent damage to the underlying wood.
Quality in drawersHow the drawers are constructed can be a reliable indicator of the overall quality of the furniture.
- Metal glides are braced on either side of the drawer and guide the drawer’s opening and closing, and preventing wood scraping from scraping against wood.
- Dust panels are thin sheets of wood that separate drawers and prevent anything from one drawer falling into a lower drawer, and also prevents you from seeing a lower drawer’s contents with a higher drawer open.
- Drawer stops prevent you from accidentally pulling a drawer out all the way and spilling its contents.
What to look for in used upholstered furniture
Upholstered furniture can be more difficult to properly examine than plain wood furniture, since its frame is usually fairly hidden, and you need to do some close examining of the upholstery to determine its quality. Here are the major things you should be looking for in fabric-covered furniture.
Look inside the cushion
Your first sign is that there should be an inner cover on the cushion. Once that is opened, examine the padding material. Foam wrapped in padding is ideal, though padding-only is acceptable. Most foam-only padding goes flat fairly quickly and should be avoided.
Patterns aligned over the entire piece
The pattern should be properly aligned vertically and horizontally over the entire piece, even though different pieces may have different curves and angles. An even bigger indicator of quality and attention to detail is positioning the fabric so the pattern is not disrupted over different parts of the furniture, and instead flows seamlessly.
Details like welting, tufting, lined skirts
Building a sofa or upholstered chair is a very time-intensive task, and adding even simple details can be very time consuming, meaning a relatively large increase in quality for relatively small features like welted edges, tufting, or weighted and lined skirts.
Examining the springsThe quality of the springs has a major impact in how comfortable an upholstered seat is, as well as how long it lasts. If possible, check out the spring system used in the piece you are considering before you commit to purchasing.
- The ideal spring type is eight-way hand tied springs, which last the longest and are the most comfortable. They are also rare these days, because they take much longer to install and cost more in materials.
- S-shaped, sinuous springs are more common and although not as comfortable nor as durable, they are still acceptable.
- The lowest quality option is not a spring system at all but webbing created from cords of fabric, much like the upper half of the picture to the right, only without any springs at all.
From a stability sense, legs that are a connected part of the frame are the sturdiest and most stable. However, legs that screw on are still relatively sturdy, and they can also be removed to make moving easier. Legs that are glued on are the least stable and should be avoided, plus they are an indicator of a lack of quality in other areas of the ouch.
Secondhand furniture details that add value
This guide isn’t meant to help you find furniture to resale, but it does help to know if the piece you are considering is appropriately priced and what details you can expect to pay more for.
Detailed workGenerally, the more detailed a piece of furniture is, the more valuable it is, especially since many of these details must be done by hand. Look for:
- Curved “cabriole” legs
- Hand carved details and inlays
- Molding, beveled edges
- Decorative, hand-carved edges
Grain patterns that are very clear (lots of contrast) and/or unusual are usually worth the most.
Expensive wood types
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Deforestation and an overall increase in the fuel needs of the global population have increased the scarcity, and thus the value of many types of wood. Some of the major types of expensive wood to watch for are below.
Determining the ageIn general, for two pieces of furniture of similar style and quality, the older one will be more valuable. Here are some general tips for determining the age of a piece:
- Look for manufacturer’s marks, brands, stamps, or emblems anywhere on the piece for clues to the piece’s origin.
- Determine the type of wood used. Many furniture pieces created prior to the 20th century were solid wood of a species native to the area, since there was little scarcity of wood but also little international trade to bring in wood from other regions. Determining the wood type can narrow down both a location of origin and the general age.
- Check for unevenness in wood cuts and corner joining, like unevenly-spaced dovetail joints, for an indication that the piece was handmade. Also look for nicks in the wood that could indicate the pieces were hand-sawed. Circular saws, which leave slightly curved lines on planks of lumber came into use in the 1860s, so furniture with straight cut lines may predate this era.
- How is the piece held together? Dowels and interconnected joints indicate an older piece, while screws and brackets indicate a newer piece. If the piece has screws, pull out a screw an examine the spiral ridges. If they are uneven, this could indicate a piece constructed in the mid-1800s or earlier.
- Glass and mirrors from before the 20th century are thin and not perfectly clear; they are usually gray-ish. The backing will be paper or solid wood, not plywood like in many modern pieces of furniture. Glass from before the 19th century will have a subtle circular pattern in it (“crown glass”) from the technique used to spin it.
Making the final decisionDon’t buy a piece just because you think it’s a g0od price; make sure that you like the style and that you can stand to look at it day after day, or you’ll end up unhappy and eventually on the lookout for a replacement. Don’t get emotionally attached to a piece just because you’ve spent a lot of time examining it; there will always be more used furniture in the world.
Also, be realistic about how much work a piece may need before it’s in a condition you can accept. Don’t embark on a major carpentry or re-upholstering project unless you know exactly what you’re in for. Cheap furniture can become more expensive than similar brand new furniture if it needs extensive repairs, and you don’t come out ahead.
And above all, enjoy your hunt for quality furniture!