Learn about finishes and woods so you make the right choice for you.
The finish on furniture matters: it impacts beauty and the durability in dramatic ways. Like it has been for centuries, there is a multi-step process where by raw woods are stained, filled, sealed, and top-coated to highlight and enhance the finished piece. Beyond impacts to its beauty, the finishing process protects from sun damage, heat, water and other environmental hazards. By sealing wood, the process also prevents warping, shrinking, swelling and other issues that raw wood can display.
Beyond the wood and hardware, furniture price is affected by the types of materials, how much hand labor, and the number of coats of stain and topcoat used to finish the piece. Furniture finishing can take up to 25 or more finishing steps. Though the look may be similar, the variance of price in products may be due to finish quality.
The best pieces are finished uniformly to create a smooth, even surface. Surfaces should be free from streaks, bubbles, and drips. Wood grain can be enhanced and heightened rather than covered by quality finishes. Our eyes have grown accustomed to the wood colors used in furniture. In truth, the natural wood color is often a far cry from common furniture finishes.
A lacquer finish is used for its quick dry and ability to applied in multiple thin layers. Nitrocellulose lacquer is made by mixing fast-drying solvents with wood and cotton pulp containing cellulose.
Acrylic lacquer is stabilized to reduce the yellowing with age of nitrocellulose lacquer. Lacquer is widely used because of its durability, ease of repair, and clear coat clarity. They are come in various sheens and colors. But they are not immune from damage. Acetone substances such as nail polish remover, shoe polish, and alcohol can mar a lacquer finish. A hot pot or serving piece can also leave damage to lacquer finishes. But they can create a hand rubbed finish renowned for its beautiful patina.
Synthetic finishes such as polyurethanes, polyesters, and polyamides stand up to heat, moisture, chemicals, and abrasion better than lacquer. These finishes can be shiny or matte, clear or colored. Though they are more durable lacquers, they are more difficult to repair if damaged.
Of all the species of wood in the world, it’s likely that only a hundred species are used in furniture. Arborists and biologists may cringe at the over simplification of wood species and terms used by furniture makers. But it helps us all connect to the looks that define the modern home and office.
Oak is the most widely used hardwood broken into two basic furniture varieties: white and red. The black oak species actually produces a raw wood that matches red oak. It is named black oak for its bark only. Oak is a heavy, strong, light colored hardwood. It it shows it rings due to how it grows each season. It lay what arborists call conducive vessels in early summer.
Maple is a popular wood with furniture makers for its hardness and resistance to shocks. That’s why it is often used for bowling alley floors. Its evenly sized pores give the wood a fine texture and even grain. Burls and birds-eye maple are reserved for veneers.
Mahogany is a tropical hardwood indigenous to South America, Central America, and Africa. Caribbean Mahogany is regarded as the hardest, strongest, and best quality; logs from Africa, though highly figured, are slightly less esteemed by furniture makers. Mahogany is strong, with a uniform pore structure and poorly defined annual rings. It has a reddish-brown color and may display stripe, ribbon, ripple, mottle, or blister figures which can make a piece very unique.
Cherry is grown in the Eastern half of the United States and is sometimes called fruitwood. The term fruitwood is also used to describe the light brown finish that can be stained on other woods. Moderately hard, strong, close grained, light to red-brown wood, cherry is a wood that resists warping.
Walnut is one of the most versatile and popular furniture woods. It grows in Europe, American, and Asia. Walnut is strong, hard, and durable without being excessively heavy. Known for a straight grain in the trunk, there is a wavy grain in lumber harvested near the walnut tree’s roots. Walnut stumps are often used as natural bases or sliced into figurative veneers.
Ash grows in the eastern United States. Of these, the white ash is the largest and most commercially important. Ash is a hard, heavy, ring porous hardwood. It has a prominent grain that resembles oak, a white to light brown color.
Hickory grows in the eastern United States and is one of the heaviest and hardest woods available. Pecan is a species of hickory sometimes used in furniture. It has a close grain without much figure. Wood from the hickory is used for structural parts, especially where strength and thinness are required. Decorative hickory veneers are also commonly used.
European birch is fine grained, rare, and expensive. Birch is a hard, heavy, close-grained hardwood with a light brown or reddish colored heartwood and cream or light sapwood.
True teak is indigenous to Southeast Asia, but similar wood species also grown in Africa. Teak is durable and strong, not to mention also quite heavy. Scandinavian and modern furniture are often made of teak