The Complete Guide to Buying New (Or Old) Furniture

By: Pamela Cole Harris

If you are like me, your investment in furniture has to last! It has to be durable, beautiful and a good buy for my money. You all know that a good buy doesn't necessarily mean cheap, but it does mean that the value in years of problem-free use. I want to know that the furniture will last at least as long as it took to make the money to buy it! (And in some furniture I have seen, it was a distinct possibility that it wouldn't survive the trip home!)

There are two types of furniture, upholstered furniture and case goods. "Case goods" refer to furniture that is not upholstered, but has a basic box or case construction (with many elaborations and variations!). Case goods are usually used for storage or display. Upholstered furniture has fabric-covered cushions or padding and is usually used for seating.

When buying case goods:

  1. Make sure you know the difference between hardwoods and   softwoods. Hardwood comes from a broadleafed, or nonneedled   tree, like maple, cherry or mahogany. These woods have   strength or stability; but those qualities can make hardwoods   difficult to work with for intricate carving and detail work.   Softwoods come from needle-bearing trees such as pine or   cedar. They are easily carved or worked. Since their surfaces   are often soft, they are more susceptible to marks and dings,   which may result in a weathered or worn quality that is   appropriate or appealing in certain pieces.

  2. Make sure you know what "solid wood" means. "Solid wood"   means that all exposed pieces of the piece are solid, but   those areas hidden from view may be something else.

  3. Make sure you know why using plywood may be your best bet!   Solid wood has a tendency to expand and contract as the   humidity changes and does not offer the needed stability   when constructing the large flat panels (like table tops or   cabinet sides). Plywood or particle board (made of ground up   wood) is significantly more stable and less apt to warp or   split. These panels will often be framed in solid wood and   covered by veneers to recreate the look of one large piece   of wood.

  4. Make sure you know what "veneering" is. Veneer is the use of   thin layers of highly decorative woods on top of plywood,   particle board or medium-density fiberboard (MDF). Veneering   makes it possible to match grain patterns or use inlays to   create designs that mother nature can't produce in solid   wood. But beware of cheaper furniture which reproduces wood   grain photographically. If it is photographic, the grain will   be perfect, with none of the flaws of nature, and the grain   will have no natural variations.

  5. Make sure drawers are dovetailed and jointed securely, have   glides and stops, glide easily when, have dust panels and   are smooth and snag free inside.

  6. Make sure doors swing open easily without squeaking or   rubbing and that long doors are attached with study hinges.

  7. Make sure tables have a heavy balanced feeling when rocked,   that the leaves fit properly and that the leaves match grain   and finish of table.

When buying upholstered furniture:

  1. Make sure that the piece has adequate padding with no harsh   underlying wood edges, especially on the arms. If the fabric   is directly touching the wood with no padding, the piece will   quickly wear at that point.

  2. Make sure the patterns are matched at the seams, on front   edges and on back cushions. Matched patterns are usually a   sign of higher quality.

  3. Make sure the stitching is tight and that no areas are   separating (and no stuffing is hanging out!).

  4. Make sure the frames are constructed of a kiln-dried hardwood   for durability.

  5. Make sure the frame is joined using dowels as well as corner   blocked, glued and screwed together.

  6. Make sure you check the type of springs. Eight-way hand-tied   springs are used in the base of better quality pieces. These   springs are three-dimensional coils attached to webbing on   the bottom of the upholstered piece and tied with twine at   the top to each of the eight adjacent coils to keep them from   shifting. The result is an even comfort level which never   "bottoms-out" even when your linebacker friends sit on it.   Sinuous springs are two-dimensional "S" shaped wires that   are fastened to the top of the front rail and run down the   back of the piece every few inches apart. The result is a   somewhat "mushier" seat and is less costly.

  7. Make sure that you chose fabrics that will wear well if you   have a family. Keep in mind that, as a rule, tightly woven   fabrics wear best. For durability, chose a high thread count   fabric - meaning that the number of threads per square inch   is high. Another general rule is that fabrics which have   their pattern woven in wear better than printed fabrics.

  8. Most important, make sure you sit in the piece. It may be   beautiful, but can you bear to sit in it for any period of   time?

Before buying furniture:

  1. Make sure you know how it will be used and how long. You   don't want to spend a lot of money on a baby crib you will   use for only a short time, while budgeting just a little on   table that will be used for many years.

  2. Make sure you know how much space you have. Don't chose   furniture that will overwhelm a small space or get lost   in a large one.

  3. Make sure you decide what style you want. Casual (overstuffed   sofas, earthy colors, and softwoods, such as pine);   contemporary (bold colors, sharp lines, metal and glass);   country (soft cushions, floral prints, distressed and painted   wood); traditional (damask and chintz, cherry and mahogany   woods); or a combination of all?

  4. Make sure you know how much you can spend. (This is always   where I trip up!)

  5. And make sure you do some planning before you go shopping.   Decide what colors you like, what texture would work best for   your family and whether you want patterns, stripes, checks or   solids. Look at design websites such as for tips on what   furniture would look best for your room size and lifestyle.

Buying furniture should be fun and creative! Just make certain that you know what you are buying and why! And another tip: Ask yourself if you will still like this piece ten years from now? If not, it will probably not be worth the investment today. Now, I'm off to follow my own advice! Hmmm...will I like that purple velvet plaid with the orange trim in 2014?

Pamela Cole Harris is a writer with over 35 years experience (Gosh! Has it been that long?). Her expertise on decorating on a budget comes from her own experience (Is Early Graduate Student a style?). Visit her website, , for her unique view of home decorating and remodeling (and a free monthly newsletter!). Or for free syndicated content for your website, visit:

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