Updated: Apr 24, 2020
Guide to Identifying Wood Material
This is your guide to identifying wood material used in furniture building, not a guide to identifying different types of wood like cherry, oak, mahogany or walnut. If you’re looking to identify different types of wood, I ‘wood’ recommend you plop that request into a Google search bar. Here you’re going to learn more about the different wood materials used to make furniture from the older ‘solid wood’ days to the interesting methods of today.
Today we’re talking solid wood, wood veneer, plywood, particle board (LDF) and MDF. Don’t feel overwhelmed, we have pictures. And yes, all of them are paintable*, but not all of them are stainable. (*If prepped properly, see Blog #1).
Let’s start with my favorite.
“Solid Wood” is a phrase I see around a lot of furniture sales sites to try to entice people to buy their piece. The only furniture pieces I consider as ‘solid wood’ are the old vintage pieces like the solid oak dressers from yesteryear. Pictured below I have a piece of pine wood bought from Home Depot.
How do I know this is a solid piece of wood? Look at the wood grain at the top/sides/back, and look at the end cuts. At the end, the wood grain appears continuous and lines up with the visible wood grains on the top/sides/back. To me, THIS is solid wood.
You can also sand solid wood and the grain lines won’t disappear. Solid wood is easily stainable and paintable. (Notice there is a light gray stain on the second photo of the pine piece.)
...“But, Amanda, my furniture IS solid wood!”
And my answer would be, most likely, yes, your furniture IS solid wood but in the form of cheaper, faster growing wood, particle board or MDF with a photo or plastic veneer over the top. Not what I consider ‘solid wood’.
Yea, that’s why I’m breaking all of this down for you. Most everything these days may be ‘solid wood’ but in the form of fast growing cheap wood, particle board or MDF with a photo or plastic veneer over the top. You’ll learn more about this, just keep reading...
Wood veneers are thin ‘finishing’ layers of wood. Veneers became popular in the mid-century. My Grandfather worked for a nationwide mill here in the United States during that time and the topic of wood veneers must’ve been a big deal as my Dad recalls dinner time chats about it. (I should mention I come from a family of mill workers, cabinet makers, saw doctors, contractors, DIY’ers… I guess it’s in my blood.)
Wood veneers add a ‘finishing touch’. Let’s say a company wanted to build furniture faster or didn’t want to continue the use of solid wood pieces. Perhaps they found a faster growing wood that didn’t have the pretty wood grain. So, they’d build the piece with the faster growing wood that wasn’t as pretty but they’d used beautiful thin layers of wood veneer over the top of the furniture and finish the piece off with beautiful stains. Wood veneer can give a piece the look as though it’s a solid piece of mahogany, cherry, or oak. (Whatever type of wood used for the veneer.)
Anyone still have vintage wood stained kitchen cabinets?! (Vintage is anything 20 years and older up to 99 years old). Big chances the cabinet fronts are a thin finishing layer of wood veneer and the door itself is a piece of plywood.
Did you know that plywood is just multiple layers of veneer glued together? You can tell by looking at the bottom and tops of your kitchen cabinet doors--are there layers? I haven’t found much furniture to be made of plywood, but I thought it to be important to mention plywood in this blog post as folks are refinishing their kitchen cabinets, too. (That of which I’ve done as well.)
Particle Board is also known as LDF or low density fiberboard. In short, this is an engineered wood. There is no such tree as a ‘particle board’ or LDF tree. This kind of wood is literally the scrap wood of the shop, crunched down to smaller pieces combined with some sort of binding component (that usually contains formaldehyde) and pressed into a mold to create sheets. Ta-da!
Chances are… if you have any furniture from the last 20 years, you have particle board in your home.
…”Well none of my furniture looks like what you are showing, how can you say that I may have that in my home?!”
Here’s where our conversation about photo and plastic veneers returns. Remember when we talked about wood veneers going on top of less pretty or faster growing wood to still give it a nice finished touch? Well, if I know anything about America, innovation and technology keep rolling along and it did in this department, too.
Many pieces of modern furniture are made of particle board (and MDF which we’ll get to in a bit) and the pieces are molded into what’s needed, and then there’s a photo or plastic veneer that goes over the top. If a person doesn’t know about this and tries to paint or stain, there will be issues and this is why prep work is so important.
Photo veneers are good at looking realistic, but you can tell it’s a photo veneer in a couple of ways… does the entire finish--perhaps it’s a wood grain type finish--feel smooth with no real ‘texture’ where there should be texture? (If a knot appears in the finish, can you feel it or is it smooth?) Is there a pattern that repeats on the wood finish? And, if your furniture has had any damage or nicks, do those nicks show a different color underneath the top layer?
All of what I described above for photo veneers can also be applied to a plastic type veneer. Here’s a dining set recently picked up to be refinished. There are different colored marks all over it and underneath the black plastic type veneer coating is some sort of wood product colored in an orange-y stain. Can this be stained? I don’t know, I’d have to remove all of the plastic coating off of it first to assess what wood is underneath and if it's pattern would look pretty stained. Can it be painted? Yes, see Blog #1.
Sawdust in wood form. That’s essentially what it is. Similar to Particle Board, MDF is smaller wood particles bound together and pressed in a mold. In fact, some MDF manufacturers may use formaldahyde and VOC’s which if you read Blog #1, we learned VOCs are NOT good for our health. Eek.
Using nails or screws in MDF doesn’t work very well. MDF is less sturdy than plywood and is incredibly heavy. If you are working with a piece of furniture that seems heavier than what you expected, chances are it’s MDF or Particle Board. MDF will also swell if water gets to it. If you can stay away from MDF, do it.
To make it easier on everyone, here’s a handy table. Hope this helps your furniture refinishing efforts!
Please comment with your experience and include photos if you'd you like! If you found this post helpful, please share with others. Thanks!
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