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Furniture shopping can be overwhelming. You may not know how to tell if furniture is well-constructed or if the wood frame is worth the money you're paying for it. Getting used to the lingo and knowing which details to look for are just two steps you can take toward becoming a knowledgeable home-decor shopper.

Buying quality case goods

The term case goods refers to furniture such as dressers, table, chests, armoires (mainly storage pieces) that is not upholstered, and is usually made of wood or metal. When you're buying furniture, the quality of the case goods plays a huge part in determining the price. Several factors affect the overall quality of case goods, including the following:

  • Wood pieces should be joined in either a mortise and tendon (in which one piece fits into a pocket on the other) or a dovetail (in which the pieces fit together like meshing gears). Then the pieces should be glued together for greatest strength.
  • Drawers should glide easily on heavy-duty glide rails, and the drawers shouldn't move or wobble from side to side.
  • The insides of drawers should be smoothly sanded.

Ask the salesperson to point out these and other excellent furniture construction features so you know what you're getting.

Good quality case goods come in a range of prices, so if your budget is limited, you're not limited to cheap furniture. You may even be able to find high quality case goods in your favorite style, and at a price you can afford.

Case goods come in a variety of materials, including wicker, chrome, stainless steel, wrought iron, wire, plastic, glass, and laminates. Take a look at the following tips on some different case good materials before you choose which one you want to buy:

  • Wicker: Make sure the wicker you buy is finely and smoothly woven. The heavier the wicker, the better the quality. If a second-hand piece of wicker is unraveling, you can reglue it. Ask your paint or hardware store dealer to recommend the best adhesive for this job.
  • Metal: You can choose from a variety of metals, including chrome, stainless steel, wrought iron, and wire. Make sure the metal you select is smooth and has no sharp edges. If you live in a tropical or high humidity area, make sure new metals have a protective coating.
  • Plastic: The plastic should be smooth and without obvious seams. You can choose from many types of plastics; construction makes a difference between inexpensive and expensive types, such as Lucite.
  • Mosaic: Once restricted to floors and walls, this art form of using small bits of tile, glass, or other material arranged decoratively, is showing up more often on furniture. Mosaic materials include broken bits of china, stone, marbles, and shell. Furniture accents could include elaborate designs inset with jewels, gold, silver, and bits of colored glass.
  • Glass: Usually used as tops for tables and for shelving, the glass should be at least 3/4-inch thick for durability. For the sake of safety, make sure you buy only tempered glass, which won't break into shards. Check the label to be sure. Glass now comes in beautiful colors that are especially decorative and make great accent pieces, even in Traditional settings.
  • Laminates: A plastic surface bonded to particleboard substrate, laminates are durable and affordable, and they usually look very modern. You can find them in a variety of patterns and textures (some carry photographic reproductions of wood) that are highly decorative. Though a far cry from early inexpensive surfacing materials, think of laminates as cost-effective furniture.

Double-check to be sure whether you're buying real mahogany or mahogany-stained furniture. Many manufacturers stain maple or another less expensive wood to look like a more expensive mahogany, cherry, or fruit wood. The manufacturers don't intend to deceive consumers with this style-making, cost-cutting technique — it just allows them to offer more affordable, good looking furniture. Usually the price of the furniture is an obvious clue — if you find a piece that looks like mahogany for a relatively low price, check to be sure you know what you're buying. Mahogany-stained furniture is often a great buy, but not if you think you're getting the real thing.

Finding quality, upholstered furniture

You can find upholstered furniture at the same second-hand sources where you can find case goods. But for sanitary reasons, you may want to re-cover second-hand upholstered pieces. If you plan to reupholster, choose furniture without exposed wood frames — you'll save a lot of money in labor charges, because exposed wood frames are more difficult to cover.

If you buy new (or newer) upholstered furniture, keep the following points in mind:

  • High-quality upholstery frames are made of kiln-dried hardwood, as opposed to lower-quality frames, which are made of cheaper, less durable pine.
  • Steel coil springs should be hand-tied (not machine clamped) in as many as eight different places where the adjoining coils and the frame meet, for greatest stability.
  • Layers of cotton batting, a quilted pillow of high-quality foam, and a layer of muslin should cover the steel coil springs. (Ask a salesperson to show you samples and explain the differences in foam quality.)
  • You can specify the degree of softness or hardness of your sofa seat if you have it custom-made. Otherwise, take the time to try out every sofa until you find the one that seems most comfortable. Expect sleeper sofas to be harder or more rigid than other types of sofas.
    Custom-made sofas feature padding of horsehair and burlap, which retain their shape, topped with layers of goose down.
  • Upholstery fabric should be upholstery-weight velvet, tapestry, woven wool, leather, or another heavy-duty material. (Avoid even quilted chintz, if you want the upholstery to last a long time.)
    If you're choosing a fabric, look at fabrics available in all price ranges. Compare the thread count (threads per square inch). Generally, the higher the count, the more tightly packed the thread and the stronger the fabric. Don't select a loosely woven fabric for upholstery — it won't last long enough for you to get your money's worth.
  • Don't assume that your sofa and chairs need to be the same style or covered in the same material. The styles of the different pieces should, however, be compatible and the coverings should coordinate, just for the sake of unity.
  • For longevity, choose neutral-colored upholstery coverings in durable materials. Neutral colors never go out of style. Add a dash of color with patterned pillows.
  • If you choose a distinctive pattern (such as a large, bold stripe) for your sofa and chairs, the pattern should match at the seams and align on the pillows to create an unbroken pattern.
  • Sofa pillow edges should align smoothly, without gaps between pillows or the sofa back and arms.
  • Make sure the frame of the furniture is sturdy. The sofa should not flex in the middle when you lift it at either end.
  • All exposed wood parts should be smooth, without any discernible air bubbles or blemishes.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Katharine Kaye McMillan, former senior editor of a New York City-based national magazine, is a writer whose work appears regularly in magazines and newspapers. She is a contributing writer to internationally circulated Florida Design Magazine. She is the co-author of several books on decorating and design, including Sun Country Style, which is the basis for licensed signature collections of furniture and accessories by three leading American manufacturers and importers. A graduate of the University of Texas in Austin, she holds a masters degree in psychology and is a doctoral student in psychology at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida.

Patricia Hart McMillan is a nationally known interior designer, whose interior design work for private clients, designer showcases, and corporations has appeared in publications worldwide, including the New York Times and USA Today. Known as a trend spotter and for clearly articulated views on design, she is quoted frequently and extensively in both trade and consumer publications. She a ppears on TV and talk radio. A prolific writer, she is coauthor and author of seven books on interior design and decoration, with Sun Country Style signature collections of furniture based on two books. She has taught decorating courses at several colleges and conducted numerous seminars across the U.S. She is decorating editor for Christian Woman Magazine and reports on design trends for The Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune newspaper based in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. She has been editor-in-chief of two publications and was head of a New York City-based public relations firm representing some of the most prestigious names in home furnishing and building products. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, with a minor in art history (with an emphasis in architecture), from the State University of New York (New Paltz). She was awarded a certificate from The New York School of Interior Design.

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