Stuff: Furniture & Wood

Screen Shot 2017-12-05 at 6.37.29 AMWe finally got the “new” desk in place on Sunday! Youngest son gave me a hand getting the old ones out and bringing the new one in. I am so glad to get rid of the particle board unit that was in there for years. This one is solid wood, looks like fairly decent oak, and it’s huge. 60 inches long and 32 inches deep. It’s probably around 50 years old or so, and actually in good condition considering it’s age. I thought about refinishing it, but decided I rather liked all those years of patina (“Patina” is what antique furniture dealers call scratches, dings, stains and other defects that add “charm” to the furniture.) and left it alone. MrsGF has had one similar to this for years now that we found for around $50 at a thrift store, and we’ve been looking for another one for me. She turned this one up at the local St. Vinnie’s thrift store for about $55, and we were thrilled to find it.

Screen Shot 2017-12-05 at 7.03.46 AMI got curious about what one like this would cost today if bought new and I started digging around on the internet looking for them and finally found one that fit all the criteria; oak with no particle board, dovetailed drawers, same size, same number of drawers and so on. For a whopping $2,200. It’s a bit fancier, but if you  knock off the fancier bits like the quarter-sawn oak, the thru-tennons on the rails at the base, it’s pretty much exactly the same. Judging from the photos, it’s made of higher quality wood and the fit and finish is much, much better. But still, over two grand?

Screen Shot 2017-12-05 at 7.10.37 AMI should have expected that, really. We’re so used to “cheap” flat-pack style, screw it together yourself furniture these days that we experience a bit of sticker shock when we see the prices on well crafted, solid wood furniture.

I started building arts and crafts style furniture many years ago. The Morris chair over there on the right has a matching ottoman and coffee table. The chair and ottoman are made from white oak. The coffee table was made from white ash. Once upon a time I sat down and tried to figure out what I’d have to charge for it if I were going to make any kind of a decent profit, and the numbers were a bit on the large side. I figured I’d have to get around $1,300 for the chair, $400 for the ottoman, and about $700 for the table. And even then I’d barely make minimum wage for my labor. So all things considered, over two grand for that desk probably isn’t all that bad.

Screen Shot 2017-12-06 at 6.43.01 AMThere isn’t really anything wrong with “flat-pack” style furniture you buy in a box and put together yourself. Nothing wrong with particle board, either, as long as you are aware of it’s limitations and problems. And potential health risks.

The particle board in most flat-pack furniture is either made of LDF or MDF. LDF is low density fiberboard, MDF is medium density. Of the two, MDF is better because it’s more dense, has a much smoother surface and is more sturdy. The stuff is very useful. Because MDF is very dense and smooth, it is often used as the base for countertops that have plastic laminate surfaces, even for the frames of cabinets where it can’t be seen. If sealed properly, it can be painted rather easily. It’s often used when the makers of “fine” furniture (Ha! Fine… We really need a sarcasm font.) try to fool you into thinking you’re buying real wood when what you’re getting is a thin veneer of real wood glued to MDF. It is pretty handy though, and can work well if you know how to use it properly.

MDF does have a few issues. Well, okay it has a lot of issues. First of all, it isn’t really wood, it’s basically sawdust and glue forced together under high pressure. It is fragile. It won’t hold screws very well. It breaks rather easily unless it is properly supported. It can’t carry a load unless it is well supported, as the owners of MDF book shelves can tell you as they watch the shelves sag under the weight. If it gets wet it will swell and start to disintegrate. It’s very, very heavy.

And depending on the type of glue used to hold the sawdust together, it can out-gas chemicals for months, even for years. Many of the glues used contain VOCs, Volatile Organic Compounds. These are compounds that will gradually evaporate into the atmosphere over time. Some of them can be nasty. (Some of you may remember the Chinese drywall disaster from a few years ago. Cheap drywall imported from China during a building boom gave off toxic chemicals that literally destroyed copper, I think it was sulphur dioxide but I don’t remember exactly. It wrecked the plumbing and electrical wiring in homes and businesses where it was used, and could have serious health consequences for the people who lived in those buildings.)

And if you work with the stuff, if you’re sawing, drilling or whatever, make darn sure you’re wearing a respirator because heaven only knows what’s in that dust. You do not want to be sucking that into your lungs.

If you get the feeling that I don’t like MDF very much, you’re right. But it is useful for some things, and if you want inexpensive furniture these days, you just can’t get away from it.

Then we come to the whole subject of fake antique furniture, which I’ve been finding with disturbing regularity as I travel around. I’m a sucker for antique shops. I don’t buy much, if anything, but I love browsing through them. One thing that I’ve discovered is that the amount of faked, fraudulent and mistakenly labeled “antique” furniture out there is astonishing. And the problem has become much, much worse over the years. I’d say that on average, about half of the “antique” furniture I see out there has some kind of issue with it. It’s either been badly restored, altered, mislabeled or faked in some way.

How do you know if a piece of antique furniture you’re interested in is the real thing? It can get complicated. You have to know the difference between modern finishes and stains and those that were used at the time the piece was allegedly built. You need to know what kind of screws were used, what kind of glues were used, construction techniques, how to identify different types of wood.

If you’re going to start buying antique furniture, you need to do some homework, or take along someone who knows something about furniture making, because the market right now is full of fakes. Frankly, when I look at a piece of “antique” furniture these days, I assume from the beginning that there is going to be something wrong with it until examination proves otherwise.

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