It can be challenging to tell if a piece of furniture is well-made or not, especially if you’re not familiar with woodworking and how these pieces are built. But when you invest money in a new furniture piece, you want to make sure it’s going to last for years to come. So what are the telltale signs that furniture is made with quality materials and techniques?

There are several qualities you can look for when shopping for quality furniture. Read on to discover how to identify a quality piece of woodwork.

Types of Material

One of the most important factors of quality in woodworking is the material used. Many people simply don’t realize how many different types of wood there are. There are hundreds of species of wood, all with different characteristics.

Some of the more common species are oak, maple, walnut, pine, and mahogany. Every wood species falls into one of two categories: softwood or hardwood.

Despite how the name sounds, the physical density (hardness) of the wood is not what determines whether it’s a hardwood or a softwood. To determine that, we must look at the seeds of the tree.

Hardwoods come from deciduous trees – that is, trees whose leaves change colors and fall off in autumn. The seeds from these trees have a protective coating, which can be a hard shell, a tough skin, or even fruit.

Softwoods come from coniferous trees, which keep their needles or scaly leaves year-round. These seeds have no coating on them and are exposed to the elements once released from the mature tree.

Now that we’ve discussed the different types of wood, we can talk about the different forms they come in. The most common forms of lumber are sheet goods and dimensional lumber, although live edge slabs have been gaining popularity in the recent years.

Sheet Goods

Sheet goods are usually sold in four-foot by eight-foot sheets and vary in thickness. The types of wood found in this category are plywood, oriented strand board (OSB), and mechanically distributed fiberboard (MDF).

Plywood is made by gluing together thin sheets of wood, which are shaved from the tree while its main trunk is rotated. The orientation of each sheet in the plywood is perpendicular to the one below it.

This alternating pattern helps to give the plywood strength and resist movement within the wood. These characteristics make plywood an excellent choice for cabinets, desks, bookshelves, etc.

OSB and MDF are two more types of sheet goods that are fairly similar. OSB stands for “oriented strand board.” This type of board is made by pressing extra-large wood chips together and then infusing them with glue.

MDF (mechanically distributed fiberboard) is made by pressing together extremely fine wood particles and infusing them with glue. This results in a much smoother board, but it is more susceptible to damage from water. Almost all MDF furniture is covered with a veneer to protect it from water and to enhance the visual aesthetic.

Veneer is a very, very thin sheet of wood, typically measuring 0.6mm thick. It comes in a variety of colors and wood species and gets glued to the plywood or MDF substrate. Veneer can also be made of plastic that’s made to look like wood.

Of all the sheet goods, standard plywood is the most commonly used type and arguably the highest quality. OSB is generally used in places where strength is not as crucial, and the visual aesthetic isn’t important. MDF (usually covered with veneer) is the cheapest, but is much easier to damage. It is often used in flat-packed furniture; that is, the furniture you assemble yourself at home. 

Dimensional Lumber

Dimensional lumber is always a single piece of wood, unlike the sheet goods. You can find dimensional lumber in dining tables, beds, shelving, picture frames, etc.

The most common size of dimensional lumber is a 2×4. Commonly made from pine, it’s standard practice to use these 2×4 boards to frame houses and other buildings, although dimensional lumber is used for much more than just this.

Dimensional lumber can come in many shapes and sizes, ranging anywhere from 1/8 inch to 4 inches thick; the width of these boards varies as well. Just like sheet goods, dimensional lumber comes in many different species, each with their own visual and physical characteristics.

The highest quality furniture and decor pieces use dimensional lumber, although there are some cases where plywood is actually the better choice. If in doubt about what is best, consult with your builder.

Live Edge Slabs

Live edge slabs are a unique type of lumber. Similar to dimensional lumber, these slabs are one piece of wood throughout, but the edges of the board are rough.

When the lumberyard cuts these boards, they leave the bark of the tree on the edges, rather than sawing the edges off square. Visually striking, these boards strike a balance between clean, modern furniture and the natural environment from which the wood came. Live edge slabs can be used to make dining tables, shelving, countertops, coffee tables, and so on.


Joinery is the other factor that determines the level of quality in any particular piece of furniture or décor. Joinery refers to how the various pieces are fitted and fastened together. The following factors play a role when deciding which type of joinery is best:

  • How much weight or stress will be placed on the joint
  • The material type and its strength
  • Whether the piece will be indoors or outdoors
  • Whether the joint will be visible
  • The aesthetic design of the piece
  • Wood movement

Because so many factors affect the type of joinery used, it’s best to ask your builder or contractor which type of joints they will use and why. It’s also possible to request a certain type of joinery. There are many beautiful joints which can add to the beauty of a piece of furniture.


Now that we’ve discussed the structural features found in woodworking, we can shift our focus towards the aesthetic aspects, such as finishes. A finish is of utmost importance when dealing with wood; it can help retain natural oils in the wood, prevent cracking or warping, and protect the surface from scratches and dents.

Most people are probably familiar with the most common types of finishes, such as stains, varnishes, and paints. But there are more finishes than just these, and each one has different characteristics that will need to be considered for each particular project. Let’s break these down below:

  • Wood stains
    • Can be water-based, oil-based, or gel-based.
    • Available in many different colors & sheens.
  • Wood finishes
    • Surface finishes. These dry in a clear film that sits on the surface of the wood and provide a higher level of protection than penetrating finishes.
      • Shellac
      • Lacquer
      • Polyurethane
      • Varnish
    • Penetrating finishes. These finishes soak into the wood, providing a more natural look and accentuate the wood grain.
      • Tung oil
      • Linseed oil
      • Danish oil

In most projects, a wood stain is applied first and then sealed with a finish. Using an appropriate finish will ensure that your furniture will last a long time.

Extra Features

I’ve often said that the final touches make the greatest impact. This holds true for a project’s extra features as well. The right features can take an average piece and turn it into a stunning piece of art.

Of course, hardware is a very important consideration for each project. Color is among the most important; builders can choose from silver, brushed nickel, bronze, black, and dozens more.

After color, the functioning mechanism must be chosen; for cabinets, there are more than eight types of hinges alone! There are also clasps and latches, sliders, and rotating spindles. With all the different options available and every project being unique, it’s a good idea to consult with your builder about which hardware is right for you.

The next step up from hardware is moving parts. Your project may have pieces that need to move. These can be doors, knobs, or maybe the entire piece itself needs to be mobile.

If your project needs to be mobile, it will need to incorporate wheels. These can be fully rotational or directional, depending on the needs of the customer. For doors, there’s the classic option of hinges, but you can also use rotating or sliding doors. More recently, folding doors have gained popularity.

The use of the piece is usually the most important factor when deciding which type of doors to use.

With the many technological advances within the last two decades, electronics are more frequently being integrated into furniture pieces. The simplest example would be lights. These are much easier to build into pieces now, due to their small size and ability to be battery-operated.

You can also incorporate other features such as electronic locks, wireless chargers, and more into furniture.


By examining the materials, joinery, hardware, and extra features on a piece of furniture, you can get a better idea of how well each piece is built and about how long it should last. Each material and finish has its place, and which ones you select will depend on your particular needs. Keep in mind that a lot of projects built using real wood will require some routine maintenance to prolong their lifespan and keep them looking like new.

If you have any questions about how to identify quality woodwork or about your own furniture and décor pieces, please comment below or contact us at The Handsome Home. You can view pictures of my past projects which showcase a lot of the features we talked about here. And if you need custom furniture created, contact us!





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