What Is Furniture Made Of  These Days?

Updated 5/98

Hints to help you select the bedroom set, dining room set, bookcases, desks, TV cabinet, that best fits your budget, your needs, and your desires.

Upholstered furniture section in the works

In a nutshell:

o   Top grade furniture is mostly solid wood, fine wood on outer surfaces, lesser grade wood under veneer in places. It is very expensive.

o   If you are not prepared to spend top dollar, the furniture you buy will surely contain particleboard. You can find above medium grade furniture with solid wood trim and wood veneer on all exposed surfaces if you shop carefully and examine the pieces meticulously.

o   The cheapest furniture, and there is a lot of it, has literally a photograph of wood on "shelf paper", pasted on particleboard. If it is dented or gouged slightly, or when it is the desktop surface and worn through, it is unrepairable except with a conspicuous patch of the same material pasted over it. There is nothing wrong with particleboard, but at least you should be aware of it.

o   These are not the only things you should be looking for in furniture. If you already have a furniture shopping guide, bring that with you too.


Fine furniture is stained so that the natural wood grain comes through. Cheap furniture has wood grain effects painted on particleboard and it looks surprisingly like fine wood at first glance.

Solid mahogany, cherry, walnut, and other fine wood furniture is of course very expensive. Almost all furniture nowadays has some components made of lesser grade wood or particleboard or plywood. At least, in good furniture, there should be at least a thin layer (veneer) of fine wood on the exposed surfaces.

Put your face down close and look for tiny dimples about 1/16 to 1/8 inch long, sort of the size of human hair clippings, in the surface. If the dimples are of a regular pattern that does not match the wood grain, that may mean you are looking at shelf paper covered particle board. The shelf paper or plastic film on cheap furniture is sometimes specially embossed that way to deceive you into thinking it is fine wood.

Look at the back of the item. You will often be able to get an idea of how well the item is built by noticing construction details that are not covered by a back panel.

In your typical discount store such as Ames or K-Mart, and even Montgomery Ward, the furniture is almost all shelf paper covered particleboard. From a distance it looks like fine finshed wood, but if scratched or gouged, it cannot be repaired and will forever thereafter look ratty.

Better department stores, such as Macy's or Nordstrom's, has veneered furniture with a few solid wood components. But you will also find items that have a lot of shelf paper covered particle board in them.

Particle board can crack, split, and fracture in unexpected ways. You may expect a tabletop to have the wood grain going the long way, but often the tabletop is made of particleboard and if you sit on the overhanging edge, the entire edge can crack off.

Here are typical materials found in hard chairs, tables, cabinets, and other non-upholstered furniture:

o   Finished solid wood. The most expensive of the materials.

o   Wood veneer. This is applied to solid less expensive wood (base wood), particleboard, or pressed fiber board such as Masonite.

o   Rigid plastic (e.g. Formica (R)). This is always applied to solid wood or plywood or particleboard.

o   Plastic film covered particleboard. The plastic film is printed or manufactured with various designs including wood grain and marble effects,, and is sometimes embossed with a texture suggesting wood grain. This material is common in inexpensive furniture.

o   Lithographed paper covered particleboard or cardboard. The paper is literally a photograph of wood or stone. It too may be embossed as well to make its texture resemble wood or stone more closely. This material is common in the least expensive furniture.

o   Painted particleboard.  For moldings and other shapes that do not readily accept a sheet of paper or plastic film as surface treatment, wood grain effects are painted on.

o   Plastic or rubber strips may be affixed to edges of table tops and shelves in place of wood veneer, Formica (R), or folded over plastic film.

o   Drawer insides are usually base wood (or metal in office furniture). Drawer bottoms, if not metal, are usually unfinished plywood or sometimes cardboard.

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Fine furniture such as Ethan Allen or Henredon

Outer surfaces: Solid fine wood or veneer over base wood.

Trim, cabinet door frames, moldings, lathe turned parts, drawer fronts: Solid fine wood

Desk and table tops: Solid fine wood, veneer over base wood, or rigid plastic over base wood

Shelves: Solid fine wood or veneer over base wood.

Shelf edges: Fine wood strip or wood veneer.

Inside exposed surfaces: Solid fine wood or veneer over base wood.

Drawer bottoms: Thin base wood or plywood.

Finish should look as if each component was stained, sealed, and otherwise finished individually.

Better department store furniture

Outer surfaces: Fine wood veneer over particleboard.

Trim, etc. Fine wood.

Shelves: Wood veneer over particleboard or plywood

Table and shelf edges: Fine wood strip or veneer strip.

Inside surfaces: Wood veneer over particleboard, or plastic film over particleboard.

Drawer bottoms: Unfinished plywood or cardboard.

An "Achilles heel" effect is sometimes seen in the finish, when the finishing materials are sprayed on and some inside edges are missed.

Upscale office furniture

Outer surfaces: Wood veneer over particleboard.

Trim, etc. Fine wood, or plastic molding.

Desk and table tops: Rigid plastic over particleboard or base wood.

Shelves: Wood veneer over particleboard.

Shelf Edges: Fine wood strip, veneer strip, or plastic molding.

Inside surfaces: Veneer over plywood/particleboard or plastic film over plywood/particleboard.

Drawer bottoms: Unfinished plywood (or metal).

Computer furniture, discount office furniture

Outer surfaces: Plastic film over particleboard, lithographed paper over particleboard.

Trim, etc.: Plastic film over particleboard.

Desk and table tops:  Plastic film over particleboard.

Shelves: Plastic film or lithographed paper over particleboard.

Inside surfaces: Plastic film or lithographed paper over particleboard.

Drawer bottoms: Cardboard.

Most of these items have few or no surfaces requiring fine finishing materials such as stains and varnishes. Some simulated wood effects are painted on.

Discount store furniture

Outer surfaces: Lithographed paper over particleboard.

Trim, etc.: Lithographed paper or plastic film over molded particleboard.

Desk and table tops: Plastic film over particleboard.

Shelves: Lithographed paper or plastic film over particleboard.

Inside surfaces: Lithographed paper over particleboard.

Drawer bottoms: Cardboard or thin unfinished plywood.

Most of these items have few or no surfaces requiring fine finishing materials such as stains and varnishes. Some simulated wood effects are painted on.

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Example 1 -- A dresser by Bassett, regarded as better than average department store furniture.

Top: Wood veneer over particleboard, with thick strips of fine wood around the perimeter as molding.

Sides: Wood veneer over particleboard.

Drawer fronts: Finished  fine veneer over base wood, a type of plywood..

Trim including base and simulated balusters on front corners: Finished wood, some pieces lathe turned.

Drawer insides: Base wood frame, cardboard bottom.

Stationary horizontal separators between drawers: no.

The item appeared to have been spray finished properly, without sparse finish over the edges normally covered by the drawer fronts (Achilles heel effect). Some sparse finish was found on a few of the turned wood parts of the matching headboard. Fortunately the latterwas not obtrusive

Example 2 -- A stereo cabinet in this writer's home

Top: Wood veneer over particleboard.

Edge trim: Thick solid wood moldings.

Sides: Wood veneer over particleboard, side of the panel facing the inside also has wood veneer.

Shelves: Wood veneer over particleboard.

Back:  Plywood, finished to reasonably match rest of wood.

(Doors:  Borderless glass, no wood frame.)

Example 3 -- A computer desk by O'Sullivan

Desktop:  Plastic film covered particleboard.

Sides:  Lithographed paper covered particleboard.

Example 4 -- A vanity in an apartment bathroom, probably from a builder's supply store such as Home Depot or H.Q.

Top:  Rigid plastic over particleboard.

Top edging:  Rigid plastic.

Sides:  Lithographed paper over particleboard.

Base:  Painted particleboard.

Cabinet doors and front frame:  Painted wood.

Bottom platform:  Masonite or similar thin rigid board.

Example 5 -- A Victrola in this writer's home

Lid:  Solid wood, different pieces glued together.

Sides: Solid wood or wood veneer over solid base wood (not sure which).

Trim, legs: Solid wood.

Shelves underneath to hold records: Solid wood.

Note: There was no such thing as particleboard when this item was manufactured, although lesser grade wood such as pine was covered with fine veneer for budget furniture.

Example 6-- A wood grain finished dresser in a rental furniture store

Top and sides: Plastic film covered particleboard.

Drawer fronts: Plastic film covered molded particleboard. The particleboard could be seen through "engraved" areas that the plastic film could not stretch into and cover.

Trim including base: Plastic film covered particleboard.

Edges including endgrain edges: Strip of plastic film covering the particleboard.

Drawer insides: Paper covered particleboard frame, cardboard bottom.

Stationary horizontal separators between drawers: no.

The matching bed headboard had a large curved sweep whose surface was lithographed paper covered cardboard.

It appeared as if there were no actual strips of wood anywhere in these items.

We do not recommend the use of swivel brackets that clamp to a table top and allow a TV set or monitor to be suspended over the table.  Because they put so much pressure on the place where the clamp is attached, the tabletop will certainly be marred. The brackets can be hazardous in that the spot on the table where they are fastened can split off (happens to particleboard table tops) and then the TV set will fall. Click here for more information.

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