When working with wood or buying wood furniture, it’s best to know what you’re working with or spending your money on. Understanding whether you are dealing with a hard or soft wood can dictate the wood’s appropriate purpose, how they take to stain or lacquer, and how durable it is. Here I put together a brief explanation of wood basics. In the next post we will visit specific wood types and their roles in furniture.
Hardwoods vs. Softwoods
Solid woods fit into two categories: hardwood and softwood. A hardwood is extracted from a broad-leafed tree (i.e., no needles) and include mahogany, oak, teak, birch, walnut, ash, beech, poplar, rosewood, elm, etc. Not to get too scientific, but specifically hardwood trees are angiosperms (plants that produce seeds with some sort of covering). This covering might be a fruit or a hard shell. Hardwoods are very strong because they have a higher density than softwoods. The stability of hardwood has made it more popular in the construction of houses and furniture. Softwoods come from conifers, evergreen and cone-bearing trees and include cedar, fir, hemlock, pine, redwood, and spruce. Softwoods are not typically used in furniture, although exceptions do exist, but rather are utilized as lumber like 2 x 4s and 2 x 6s in houses.
Understanding the difference between a hard and soft wood is useful in assessing the piece of furniture. When purchasing or working with wood, you also need to be aware of whether the piece in question is made from solid wood or whether it is a hardwood veneer, hardwood laminate, MDF (medium-density fibreboard), etc. This knowledge will ensure that you realize what you are getting and how much is appropriate to pay for it.
Solid wood means that each exposed part is made from actual hardwood and absolutely nothing else. For larger pieces like custom dining tables or case goods, boards are bonded together and count as solid wood. However, it important to remember that not everything can be made from solid wood. Even though it may not be one solid piece of wood, it can still be a high quality piece. For instance, a flamed mahogany dining table with multiple wood banding has to be a veneer because this combination doesn’t naturally exist. Take this table for example:
As you can see from the photo, this table top is a combination of flamed mahogany, satinwood, rosewood, and plain mahogany. Such variations of wood can only be found in a veneer. This particular table has a solid maple core (like most of our tables) with a hardwood veneer top. This, contrary to some myths, does not mean that a table with veneer is of poor quality. Veneer is wood, simply thinly cut.
Lastly, keep in mind that just because something claims to have an “cherry, mahogany, or maple finish” it does not necessarily mean that it is made from these woods but usually only refers to the colour. Note: a video blog post about the ‘misunderstandings’ within the furniture industry, to put it gently, is coming soon…stay tuned.