Solid Wood: Why Buy It
This is part one of a 3 part series on Solid Wood: Why Buy It, How to Spot It, and How to Fix It
Before we can really go into the pros of solid wood it helps to understand the cons of its competition... laminate and veneer.
Typically made with synthetic materials that are made to look like wood in a process similar to printing. A polymer outer decorative layer is bonded or glued to inexpensive core material that is hidden inside. This core, which makes up the bulk of the piece, is typically particle board or MDF (medium-density fiberboard). Particle board is made up of particles of scrap wood in the form of shavings, chips, and sawdust. This scrap is often inexpensive soft woods like pine and fir and provides little structural integrity or durability. It is adhered together with glue or resin and then pressed together and extruded. MDF is similar in that it's made up of just sawdust and resin and then pressed and baked. In addition, the chemicals used in the making of laminate furniture continue to off-gas while in your home for several years, similar to the chemicals you can smell after painting a room or having carpet installed.
By now you may be thinking, why would anyone buy something made of laminate and sawdust? There are some pros, the primary reason being that it's extremely inexpensive. The polymer surface, though easily scratched, can be easy to clean. The large Swedish retailer coming soon to Indy, primarily sells laminate furniture, which can be good for a first apartment or to stage a home to sell. In both cases, you're not as concerned about how long it lasts, because you just want it to temporarily look good.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of cons with this type of furniture. As you might have guessed, pieces of wood glued together can't withstand a lot of movement, so laminate furniture begins to break apart the more you use it or move it. Once it breaks down, it's nearly impossible to fix. Since it's covered with a soft polymer layer, the surface can easily get scratched, exposing the core layer, which when wet, expands like a new sponge. The edges are simply glued together so it's quite common to dent or chip the corners, leaving permanent damage. Larger items such as bookcases can be downright dangerous. They are not meant to withstand the weight that most people pile on each shelf and should one shelf fail, it compromises the structural integrity of the entire piece and the whole thing can collapse. This is why laminate furniture often ends up donated to thrift stores or tossed away in landfills.
Made in much the same way as laminate only the top layer is real wood, about 1/16"-1/8" thick. The core layer is typically the same as laminate, however, higher quality veneer furniture might have a core composed of a soft solid wood, such as pine or fir.
The pros of veneer are a little different. It's much easier to pass off as solid wood, so pricing can vary immensely and can sometimes be the same or higher than true solid wood furniture. You may not even know that you've bought veneer until damage occurs and the core is discovered inside. Honest companies differentiate between solid wood and wood veneer and price accordingly. One positive reason to choose veneer is if the piece of furniture features a complicated pattern of different strips of wood often seen in Italian or French designs, which is a more traditional use of veneer and extremely difficult to achieve with solid wood alone.
The cons are almost identical to laminate with one exception. Minor scratches and water rings can be repaired because the surface is real wood. If the scratch is deep enough or large enough it will continue to stand out after being repaired since the piece cannot be sanded down and refinished as the top layer is so thin. If the piece then get wet, the same expansion problem can occur unless the core layer is solid wood. Veneer can also be chipped if it's seamed on the edges, which can be difficult to repair.
Solid Wood Furniture
Solid Wood is exactly what the name implies, furniture made from solid pieces of wood, typically made up of individual boards glued together. To save on cost, sometimes the less visible portions of a piece, such as the back or bottom, will be made from a different kind of structurally sound wood.
The pros of solid wood are numerous but the most important one is it will last as long as you love it and then it can be resold or passed on to future generations. Unless it is misused, you will never need to replace it. Like its laminate and veneer competition, it is still susceptible to scratches but the advantage of solid wood is it can always be repaired. There are a lot of tricks of the trade to repair solid wood, some of which we will address in the 3rd part of our series: "How to Fix It." Depending on the hardness of the wood it can be harder to chip, dent, or scratch. If the piece is meant to look rustic, most minor damage only enhances the look of the piece and will not need repairing. If the piece gets scratched, it can be exposed to water and its structural integrity will remain intact. If water rings are a concern, most modern solid wood furniture comes with water protection already applied, otherwise just a few quick coats of polyurethane spray will seal the piece and not allow water to penetrate. Solid wood is also better for landfills because it rarely ends up there and readily decomposes over time. Aside from stain and polyurethane, it is made from very little chemicals, which make it better for the environment and your home.