Furniture was never high on my list of priorities. I made it to my mid-20s with roommates’ couches and sleeping on hand-me-down mattresses from my parents. But then I moved out of state and was forced to furnish a house. I spent six months scouring every furniture store and garage sale within a 50-mile radius of my house.

 

Image: Watching television (© Corbis)Now I’m in the market for a new couch and a couple of armchairs, so I’m back in the furniture game. This time, however, I’m not searching just price. I’m looking for quality as well.

I’ve talked to furniture sales reps, interior designers, even a craftsman who makes furniture. Here’s what I learned about getting the best quality at the best price:

What to look for

1. Know your wood types. Wood furniture falls into three categories:

  • Solid wood furniture is typically more expensive than other types and looks great, but can be susceptible to scratches and water rings.
  • Veneers have an inexpensive wood base covered by several thin layers of better-quality wood. Because of the cheaper core, veneers aren’t as expensive as solid wood pieces.
  • Particle board and composite wood pieces are made from a combination of wood pulp, plastics, and resin, basically the scraps of the furniture world. These are the cheapest type of wood furniture and can look decent, but won’t hold up for decades.

2. Check drawers and cabinets. Open the drawers and cabinets. Make sure the drawer pulls all the way out, latches properly, and then shuts evenly. Make sure doors open, remain in an open position, and shut solidly. Check the handles and knobs. They should fit tightly and not jiggle or turn.

3. Avoid nails and glue. Look for wood joined at ends and corners, not glued or nailed in. Known in the manufacturing world as wood joinery, these pieces are studier and can take more weight. Check out “Basic woodworking joints”  from Wood Magazine to see examples.

4. Consider your lifestyle. Let your lifestyle determine what colors and fabrics you choose. For example, I have a large, hyper dog constantly climbing on the furniture. If I brought home a white suede couch, it would be torn apart and stained in minutes. If you have kids or pets, stick with dark colors and stain-resistant tough fabrics like linen or tweed.

5. Be realistic about colors. I once bought an orange corduroy armchair at a furniture outlet store. At the time, my house was decorated in orange, blue and white, and I thought I’d love those colors forever. As it turned out, “forever” was about a year. I got so sick of the bright orange I sold the chair for a fraction of what I paid. Learn from my mistake: Stick to neutral colors for your bigger and more expensive pieces. Save bold colors for décor pieces.

6. Inspect the legs. The legs should be heavy, made of wood, and jointed to the frame of the sofa or chair, not nailed. Plastic, rubber or metal legs don’t look as nice, can tear up your floors, and won’t hold up as well. Same goes for nailed-in wood legs. If you’re spending more than $1,000 on a sofa, look for one with a fifth leg in the middle. It provides extra support. You won’t find them on many cheaper sofas.

7. Check the springs. If you like firm sofas, look for one with traditional coiled springs. If you want a softer feel, go with zigzag coils. Before you buy, take off the cushions and press down on the base of the sofa. The coils should push down and spring back into place immediately.

8. Test the cushions. Look for firm cushions with a removable cover matching on both sides. Firm cushions hold up better over time. Fully covered cushions cost a bit more than ones with the pattern on one side and a plain white or tan backing, but they’ll last longer and wear evenly if you can flip them over every few months. Find removable covers that are easily washable

How to buy for less

9. Buy at the right time. Furniture prices fluctuate throughout the year. You’ll get good deals around Memorial Day and Veterans Day, but if you want the best deal, wait until the Fourth of July or even Christmas.

10. Don’t rule out used furniture. You can find great deals with secondhand furniture as long as you inspect it carefully. You’ll obviously look for rips, stains, tears, water marks and scratches, but lift up cushions and look for stains on the inside of couches and chairs. Sit on it for as long as time allows to check for sturdiness and comfort.

11. Don’t buy it at all. While I wouldn’t recommend grabbing a stained couch from the side of the road, you’d be surprised how much good furniture is available free. For example, I recently picked up a free (and pretty awesome) kitchen table from Freecycle. Craigslist has a free section, and don’t forget friends and family. When they’re tired of something, they might be willing to give it to you.

12. Haggle. Some people enjoy negotiating, but I’m not a big haggler. It makes me uncomfortable and I’d rather wait for a sale than try to talk down a salesperson. But there are two purchases where haggling is essential — cars and furniture. Furniture has a big markup, so furniture stores have a lot of wiggle room. In my experience, they’ll knock off 10% to 20% if you ask.

If that doesn’t work, go for an extra: free pillows or free delivery and setup.

Should you dust, clean, or wax your wood furniture? Read these suggestions followed by some tips from the experts.

From the book, Making a Home

 

Are you confused about dusting vs. cleaning, or waxing vs. polishing wood furniture?

While experts have varying opinions on the care of wood furniture, it usually depends on the finish of the piece. On the following pages are many helpful tips from the book, Making a Home.

Tip #1: Always ask for specific care and cleaning guidelines when purchasing new or old furnishings.

See below for more on dusting and cleaning wood furnishings.

Dusting

Don’t avoid dusting furniture. Frequent dusting removes airborne deposits that build up in a filmy layer and can scratch the surface.

Clean, dry, soft cloths or feather dusters will effectively remove dust; however, to avoid scattering the dust into the air, where it floats until landing back on furniture surfaces, dampen the cloth very slightly.

Tools for Dusting

  • Classic feather duster: An ostrich-feather duster removes dust from easily damaged, delicate surfaces, such as silk lampshades, mirrors, picture frames and art, and fragile collectibles.
  • Treated cloths: For dusting, soft, nonscratching cloths pick up and hold dirt. Use them in place of silicon sprays, which are not recommended for fine wood furniture.
  • Lamb’s-wool duster: These contain lanolin, which attracts dust and makes it cling to the cleaning tool. They’re also effective for dusting carved or turned areas that cloths can’t reach. A long handle makes them ideal for hard-to-reach areas, including light fixtures and ceiling fans.
  • Soft, lint-free cloths: Clean cotton T-shirts or diapers are commonly used. Dampen them slightly to help trap dust.
  • Terry towels: Use a clean dry towel to remove any moisture left from dusting with a damp cloth.
Cleaning

Never use all-purpose cleaning sprays unless your furniture has a plastic coating, such as the kind used on kitchen tables and children’s furniture.

You’ll usually want to avoid cleaning wood with water. However, sticky spots may need to be treated with soap and water. Here’s how: dip the cloth in mild soap or detergent dissolved in water, wring the cloth nearly dry, and wipe the area. Rinse and immediately dry with a clean, soft cloth.

Oil polishes, cleaners, and furniture oils protect wood by making the surface more slippery; they do not offer a hard protective layer.

Products that contain a high percentage of oil make the surface smear, showing fingerprints. Avoid polishing with pure olive oil, which smears and attracts dust.

Most commercial spray and liquid furniture polishes contain silicone oil, which provides some protection. If you have used sprays and polishes in the past or suspect that furniture has been polished with them, be aware that residues can interfere with refinishing and may need professional attention.

Homemade recipe for cleaning wood: Some experts recommend reviving grimy wood furniture with a mixture of equal parts olive oil, denatured alcohol, gum turpentine, and strained lemon juice. Apply with a soft cloth and buff with a clean cloth.

Typically during manufacture, varnish, polyurethane, or shellac is applied to wood to protect the surface. Applying wax or polish protects the manufacturer’s finish and helps to reduce surface scratches.

Wax provides a hard finish and long-lasting protection, doesn’t smear, and is more durable than sprays or polishes.

Use paste wax or liquid wax made specifically for furniture. Depending on use, paste wax finishes may last as long as two years. Liquid wax is easier to apply but leaves a thinner coating; it may need to be applied more frequently than paste wax.

Learn how to properly apply waxes to eliminate streaks or a cloudy appearance. Always apply wax in light coats, rubbing into the surface with the grain. Allow to dry and buff to a clear shine with a soft cloth.

See more tips on waxing below.

Tips for Applying Paste Wax

  1. Put a spoonful of wax, about the size of a golf ball, in a square of 100-percent-cotton fabric. Wrap the fabric around the wax ball and knead it until soft.
  2. Rub in a circular motion, one small area at a time, until the waxing is complete.
  3. When the surface dulls, wipe off the excess wax. Use a clean, soft cotton cloth and turn it frequently.
  4. Repeat waxing and wiping until the entire piece is waxed. If you notice a streak, keep wiping to remove excess wax.
  5. Polish the wood, with a soft cloth or lamb’s-wool pad attached to an electric drill or power buffer. If the wax smears, wipe with a soft cloth and continue buffing.
  6. For a deep shine, apply a second coat of wax in the same manner; to maintain waxed furniture, dust with a lamb’s-wool duster. Never use liquid or aerosol furniture polishes because they can dissolve the wax and leave a hazy film.

For fine furniture or treasured family heirlooms, use this three-step cleaning and care routine.

1. Clean approximately every year with a commercial cleaning product (such as Formby’s Deep Cleaning Build-Up Remover) using #0000 steel wool. Work with the grain and follow product directions carefully.

2. Restore as needed, especially from sun fading, using a commercial finish restoring product such as Howard Restor-A-Finish. Choose a shade closest to the wood stain and apply with #0000 steel wool to a small section at a time. Work with the grain of the wood and use light to moderate pressure. Immediately wipe with a soft, lint-free cloth, such as cheesecloth.

3. Feed as a monthly routine using an orange oil or wax (try Feed-N-Wax beeswax) to prevent drying and cracking.

Okay, so you’ve found that perfect piece at a garage or tag sale! Now, how can you bring out its best?
Deep CleaningAs a first step to removing layers of grime, use an oil soap and water. Rinse and dry well. If the finish still seems dirty, clean lightly with #0000 steel wool dipped in a cleaning product. Some products with a milky appearance are formulated to dissolve both solvent-based and oil-based residues. Do not use mixtures containing boiled linseed oil, turpentine, or white vinegars. Museum conservators say these things darken wood and attract dust and lint. Instead, apply clear paste wax.
Freshen Finds

  • If a vintage piece has a lingering smell, air outside on a warm, dry day. Shade from direct sunlight.
  • Pour talcum powder or baking soda over the surface to absorb odors.
  • Place a shallow pan of charcoal briquettes inside drawers.
  • Rub the upper edge of sticking drawers with a white candle.
Polishing HardwareRemove hardware from the furniture piece. Clean with a metal or brass cleaner and buff. Reattach when completely dry.

Scratching the Surface

If the top of wood furniture is slightly scratched, apply paste wax or use a felt-tip touch-up pen.

To treat deeper scratches that gouge into the wood, use wood filler or a colored filler wax stick available at hardware and home improvement stores. Match as closely as possible to the color of your piece, applying in several thin layers rather than in one thick layer.