Westwood Furniture
wood fabric
Solid Wood    
Lumber drying in a covered shed

A cutting board made of various wood species
  Furniture constructed of solid wood is just what you probably think it is. It means that all exterior parts are made of boards glued together to make the tops, sides, and drawer and door fronts. There is no plywood, fiberboard, particle board or other products in those areas. It does not dictate how the interiors are constructed. For example, the drawer sides and backs may be plywood or particle board. Generally, factories that spend the extra on solid wood will also offer better construction techniques and finishes. However, there is a trend for some stores to advertise products that are solid wood but whose craftsmanship is almost non-existent. Porterhouse and hamburger are both all beef, but which is worth more?

Typical solid woods used in American products are maple, pine, cherry, oak, alder, walnut and occasionally elm, ash and sycamore. There are hundreds of foreign woods available as well. Within each there are various species. Each has various properties which may or may not be of value to your needs. Some may be harder, but not as attractive. Some may be cheaper, but more prone to splitting or dents. A knowledgeable salesperson will be able to tell you what is used and why.

Sheets of wood veneer, each 1/32 of an inch thickness

A decoratove inlaid table top
  By definition veneer is nothing more than a thin coating or product applied to a base. A marble facade on a concrete building is a veneer. So is stucco. In wood furniture it means a thin sheet of wood glued to a core of something. (More on this later.) The veneer on most furniture is about 1/32 of an inch thick, the same as two business cards.

Nothing causes so much confusion as veneer. The problem stems from the fact that veneer is used on the very cheapest furniture and on the most expensive. How can this be? The technique is used for two very different reasons and by two different methods. It can be used to keep the price low or it may be used to allow very decorative, intricate and expensive inlays.

On poorly made furniture an inch thick piece of lumber can be turned into 32 veneered panels instead of only one. When used in poorly constructed furniture that self destructs veneer gets a bad rap. “I’ll never buy that veneer junk again!” The veneer takes the blame when it was really the construction at fault.

However, if you take a trip to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and go to the furniture collection you will find antiques with intricate designs and motifs that will take your breath away! All are done with special veneer techniques. Today that work is still done by hand. It is very time consuming and very expensive.

Which is "best"?    

The true answer is- “it depends”. Solid wood can offer resistance to dents and scratches, easy repair, beauty of graining and time honored joinery only achieved by working with solid wood. However it may be costly, have inconsistent graining or streaks, and will swell or shrink as humidity changes. This can lead to cracks, known as checks or splits, or warping.

The durability and longevity of veneer is dependent upon the base onto which it is adhered and the glues used. Surprisingly, the best core is NOT solid wood. A solid wood core will “breathe” moisture and swell and shink slightly. The veneer glued to it will not do so or will not do it at the same rate. This will lead to cracking or buckling in the veneer, not a pretty sight! The best core is one that will not swell, shrink, warp or crack - particleboard! The best is HDF - high density fiberboard. This is very finely ground wood blended with glue and resins and formed into panels under high pressure. This results in a very smooth surface on a dent resistant core. Just the perfect product to adhere a veneer! When used with modern synthetic glues the veneer is almost impervious to changes in heat and humidity. Only if severely damaged will veneer present problems to most homeowners.

In New England the best is “rock” or “sugar” maple. These are the trees that provide maple syrup and delightful autumn foliage. With a tight straight grain, it can be stained to look like cherry or mahogany. Traditionally stained a cinnamon brown, today it is often done in a dark merlot stain for the popular "urban loft" look. One of the hardest woods it is also used to make bowling alleys! Much furniture today is also made of a southern or brown maple. Faster growing than rock maple, it is not as hard and has a lot of dark streaks- mineral stains- in the wood.
  Tiger Maple/Curly Maple
Scientists are not sure why a small minority of rock maple trees produce this striking striped grain configuration. The trees look like any other, but when cut their secret is revealed. Careful cutting, sanding and finishing produce stunning results. Due to its premium pricing it is often used only on table tops with plain maple bases.
  Brown Maple
While not quite as hard as our northern Rock Maple, Brown Maple is a very popular choice for kitchen cabinets and furniture. In clear or light finishes a large amount of random grain variation will be seen. But when finished in medium brown or red stains the grain exhibits much of the eye appeal of cherry, at a much lower price!
The most common is called red oak because of the pink hue to its grain. Very hard and grainy it is the wood commonly used in hardwood floors. Its cousin, white oak, is harder still. It was used as the exterior layer on the U.S.S. Constitution. Cannon balls would bounce off this tough sheathing, earning it the nickname “Old Ironsides”. Today white oak is often quartersawn to reveal the fibers that tie the rings of the tree together. High quality mission furniture will traditionally use this lumber.
These trees are not found in your garden but are common in the forests of New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The best for cabinet making is "wild black cherry", a tree that grows to be two feet in diameter and a hundred feet high. When finished with only a clear oil or lacquer it starts out with a wonderful light pink tone. Gradually it will darken on its own until it reaches warm reddish brown. It is one of the few woods that will have an extreme color change. However, every board will take on its own tone, resulting in a fair amount of color and grain variation. For this reason cherry is normally stained, as it evens out the overall color. Cherry has been very popular, and this has driven up the price. Although more expensive than some other woods, it is not as hard as rock maple or oak. If the ability to resist hard use is paramount, maple or oak may be better choices.
The graining of ash is very similar to oak. While very hard, it is also able to take a shock and flex more than oak. It is often used in baseball bats. Oak never is as it is "brittle" by comparison and would shatter when striking a fastball. It is less susceptible to cracking and splitting in furniture.
Not seen too often in furniture sold here in New England, it is very popular in the Midwest. It has the same characteristics as ash.
Northern white pine is widely found in our yards and forests here in New England. With long soft needles the tress can grow to over 100 feet high and three feet in diameter. This is a very beautiful lumber commonly used in country or colonial styles. Knots are inevitable, and it is in fact it is the wood used in many dens in the 60's with "knotty pine paneling". It is very susceptible to dents and scratches and is not a good choice for dining or coffee tables.
Found only in the equatorial rain forests, this wood was long favored by English cabinet makers like Chippendale, Sheraton and Duncan Phyfe. Easy to carve, it is a straight grained and stable wood, ideal for their delicate designs. Still available today from government controlled forests, most reputable factories will purchase only from suppliers that are dedicated to sustainable forestry techniques. While very costly due to harvesting and shipping costs, it is similar to cherry in durability. However, beware of mahogany advertised at really low prices as not all mahogany is the same. Just as there different species of apple trees there are different species of mahogany. Asian varieties are often used to make pallets and crates.
Very popular in the 50’s and 60’s, walnut is seeing a mini resurgence. Also known as black walnut for its naturally dark brown color, it is often used as an accent with lighter woods or in modern designs. This wood grows in southern states.
Once shunned as a poor man’s maple, today birch is very popular in kitchen cabinets as it has a beautiful grain similar to cherry, and durability close to rock maple.
  Flame Birch
Similar to Tiger Maple (see above), some birch logs reveal incredibly beautiful graining when cut and stained properly.
Throughout history, man has chosen elm when he needed a tough and durable wood. Wheelwrights fashioned wheel hubs from nothing but the rugged elm, and then used it to floor long-lasting wagon beds. Hard and tough, elm still bends easily when steamed, and when dry, holds its shape. It won't split when screwed or nailed. Elm heartwood ranges in tone from reddish brown to light tan, while the sapwood approaches off-white. The usually dramatic grain resembles ash.

The most common finish used on furniture since 1945 is nitrocellulose lacquer. It is usually the last coat, or coats, applied. Manufacturers like it because it dries quickly, comes in flat, satin or gloss, and can be rubbed out to achieve the final desired patina. Also it is technically a ‘plastic’. That is, it remains flexible enough to expand with the wood as it swells in the summertime humidity. Then it shrinks as the wood dries in our centrally heated wintertime homes. All without cracking or peeling!

For the home owner it offers a finish which is hard, easy to care for (though not care free), flexible and long lasting under normal conditions. In case of damage it is easy to repair by a professional. It is prone to damage by water, alcohol, perfume, ammonia, and acetone (in nail polish).

Other finishes may be oil only (clear or colored), urethane, shellac or synthetic lacquer. The first three are relatively rare in mass produced furniture. Synthetic lacquers are widely used today on dining tables as it offers protection against modest heat (coffee cups), water and alcohol. It may be cleaned with a sponge and mild soap. This makes them great for daily use in the kitchen. However they are not miracle finishes and very hot items need trivets under them. You can not use your green "scrungie" pad for scouring pots, or spill nail polish.



Most wood furniture today has some sort of a clear protective top coating of lacquer. (See Wood Finishes above). These protect the wood from minor household accidents. Beverage or food spills will not harm your furniture if wiped up promptly. If your furniture has an oiled finish follow the care instructions from the manufacturer.

What to avoid
However a minute or two of exposure to a hot mug or pizza box will leave a white “blush” mark. A wet glass left for more than a few minutes will do the same. This is why your mother used coasters and you should too!

Some things should be avoided entirely. Perfume, nail polish, acetone and hair spray will dissolve lacquer almost immediately, requiring repair by a professional finisher. Hot dishes from the stove or oven should always be placed on a trivet.

We seldom recommend glass tops over wood surfaces. We have seen too many fine wood surfaces ruined. Call us for advice before adding glass tops.
Never write with a ball point pen on a single sheet of paper (or write a check) on a wood surface. Even oak and maple may become “engraved” with your script! Always place a book or magazine under your paper.

Heat from a nearby wood stove or radiator, or a piece of electronics set on top, will slowly “cook” the wood. This can cause small surface cracks called checking, or eventually large splits. If the wood feels warm to the touch then it is too close to the heat source. However, wood furniture can be backed up to baseboard hot water heating systems. The finished surfaces will seldom get warm enough to cause an issue.
Bright sun, even indirect, may cause wood to fade. Close the curtains or blinds during midday.

What will help keep it looking new?
In most cases all you need is to keep a lacquered finish clean. Like your windows furniture will acquire a film. Things we spray in our home land on the surface, as do our fingerprints. But with so many products available what should you use? Most fine furniture manufacturers recommend a quality furniture silicone free polish. Polish is a cleaner. Like Windex for windows a quality polish will safely remove the film and dirt without harming the finish. However, polish is not designed to offer added protection.

A word of caution is needed here. The best known brand name polish on the market has silicone in it. Silicone, at first, adds a shine to the surface. However, over time silicone builds up and starts to produce a streaky effect. Most of us then try applying more to make the streaks go away. This makes it worse. And silicone does not stay on the surface. It penetrates the lacquer even getting absorbed by the wood below. This makes cleaning and even refinishing next to impossible. So check before purchasing to see if the product contains silicone.

One last point: choose a quality product and stay with it. Finishes that look cloudy or muddy are usually the result of a polish and wax mash up. For that we recommend a wood cleaner. See the section just below!

Here is a blatant plug for Guardsman products
Here at Westwood Furniture we have sold only Guardsman products for over 50 years. Guardsman Polish contains no silicone, will never harm your finishes, and will keep your furniture looking like new. We also carry their Wood Cleaner, Dusting Cloths, Polishing Cloths, Ring Remover for Wood Surfaces and Touch Up Pens.

Do you want extra protection?
If you would like to help protect a coffee table, dining table or dresser top against wet glasses, perfume, alcohol etc., then a couple of coats of wax may be the answer. However, this raises a whole new set of questions about the age of the furniture, the finish, prior care, etc. So call us for advice. Ask for Joe or Dave. 781 326 3220



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