Still the most-used furniture material, wood was almost the only material of most historic furniture .
The softwoods that come from evergreen trees (pine, spruce, fir, cedar, redwood) are the common, easily worked materials of carpentry. They serve well for simple utility furniture and show up in older country tables and chests. They are generally not considered suitable for fine furniture that will hold up well and take attractive finishes. The hardwoods of nut, fruit, and other deciduous trees, such as birch, maple, oak, walnut, and more exotic woods such as cherry, elm, or rosewood, are the materials of good cabinetry. Today, as in much traditional cabinetwork, such solid woods are used for chair frames, table bases, and cabinet legs, although wide surfaces are more often not solid but veneered.
Veneer is a very thin slice (usually 1/28 inch) of a fine solid wood. It is glued to a core, which may be a solid wood of lesser quality, a number of layers of thicker veneer, or, 236 in modern practice, particleboard. The last is a manufactured board made from chips and sawdust, the scrap of woodworking, held together with a resin adhesive. It is, of course, wood, and very stable against warping, shrinking, or cracking. It is often assumed that veneer is a cheap substitute for solid wood, but this is not its primary reason for being. Solid wood in wide boards will warp and crack with changes in temperature and humidity, a problem that veneer circumvents core of solid wood is first covered with a utility veneer, its grain running at right angles to the grain of the core. Face veneer, which appears on the surface, is glued on top of the underlay (called cross-banding), its grain running the other way. Such a sandwich is far more stable than any solid wood; as an incidental benefit, it contributes to the conservation of the fine wood used for the face veneer. Cross-banding is not needed on plywood (veneer) cores or on cores of particleboard. In modern practice, plastic laminates are often used as a surface material over a core where an especially tough and durable surface is required.
Plywood, most familiar as a basic construction material, is a number of layer of thin veneer laminated together with the grain of each layer running at right angles to the grain of the layers above and below it. Fir plywood is widely used in carpentry, but it is not generally acceptable for furniture construction uses. The outer surfaces of veneer plywood may be better-grade woods, but rather than applying good veneer to a plywood core most furniture uses solid wood or particleboard cores. An exception arises because it is possible to make plywood in forms other than flat sheets by placing the layers of veneer in a mold while the adhesive between the layers is still wet and applying pressure (in a 278press) while the glue is setting. The resulting plywood will take the form of the mold, usually curved, to produce parts (seat, backs, or legs) of furniture, or even, in some cases, whole chairs or bench sections. The term bent plywood is often used to describe this process, but it is a misleading term, since flat plywood is not and cannot be bent; it is more properly called molded. A number of famous and highly successful modern designs use this process.
Bentwood is the tern for a different process, in which thin strips solid wood, usually a European beech, are put in a pressure chamber and softened with steam. The strips are then bent around molds or forms and clamped in place until they cool and dry out, when the bent shape becomes permanent. Chairs and other objects can be designed to be made up as assemblies of a number of bentwood parts. Several designs developed near the end of the nineteenth century, when the process was invented, have become classics, collected in their original forms and still produced currently best, bentwood furniture is light and strong, relatively inexpensive, and original and handsome in design. In America, where suitable wood for bending is not easily available, this technique has not been developed extensively, although it is used to produce the curved back rims of some Windsor chairs and other curved chair parts.
Most curved parts in wooden furniture are cut out in curved form from wider planks by bandsawing. Because a single strip of wood with the grain running through it is fragile, the curvature must be limited or the part must be made up of several pieces carefully joined. Grain must run close to parallel with the direction of curvature to avoid a weak point subject to easy breakage.
The quality of wood construction can be evaluated by inspecting the joints of solid parts and, in cabinet furniture, by observing the joinery of drawers and hidden parts inside, at backs, underneath the body of a unit. There should be no visible nails or staples, no dripping glue, no bottoms or backs of thin cardboard-like fiber. Drawers should fit and slide well; catches, latches, and pulls should be of good quality and work well. Drawers should have neat and strong joints at all their corners and should withstand tugging and pulling in any direction.
The edges of doors and drawers (including bottom edges)reveal the construction of their panels-whether they are solid or veneered; if veneered, the nature of the core, layers, and veneer; the character of the machining-and give an idea of the pieces overall quality. Finishes are also a major clue to construction quality.
Penetrating oil (natural) finish well and are easy to repair and maintain; they are satisfactory only when applied on good wood construction, Synthetic lacquers are used to produce a hard, smooth finish of high quality. The wood is usually first filled with a wood-filler paste to close the open-grain structure; then several thin coast of lacquer are applied.
Poor-quality wood furniture depends heavily on finish to hide what lies below. Beware of strongly toned stained finishes, finishes with shaded color tone or with simulated grain or patina effects. Plastic parts that attempt to simulate wood are a sure sign of cheap and shoddy construction.
A possible exception to this last rule is the use of plastic laminate surfaces in simulated wood-grain patterns. Although generally frowned on by designers, wood-grained plastic tops have come to be widely used in office desks and in institutional furniture, where their resistance to damage outweighs their questionable appearance.
There is a range of quality in laminates; the use of a good (that is, highly realistic-appearing) laminate indicates good overall quality. Cheap laminates look like a bad color photograph of wood. Their use signals comercutting throughout. A magnifying glass is helpful in looking at laminate, although the general impression it gives distance is also a trustworthy indicator of quality.