At One with the Tree

Solid wood: we think we know it when we see it

Solid wood: we think we know it when we see it, but mostly by the eye’s ability to be easily deceived by wood-textured laminates and veneers mimicking the elemental grain and color of a real plank, cleaved and refined from the side of a tree.

Before continuing, let us be fair to those ‘wood-based’ products.

Quite often they too attain a level of quality, solidity and style that is fairly impressive, and, even harder to replicate these days in ‘real wood’; if only because the level of craftsmanship vital to create such detail, mimicking hand-carved wood from scratch, is irreconcilable with most any consciously competitive price point and budget.

Point blank: woodcraft is a very time-consuming art, with only a handful of truly devoted artisans left around the world to keep it alive, though at a premium. 

So if you see an ornate four-poster bed with towering headboard, curved in ornamental detail well beyond anything since the Victorian age, odds are pretty good it is not real wood, but assembled from an assortment of materials, using any number of pressed wood derivatives, foam applications and other structural engineering, later applied with a protective top layer and/or veneer in high-gloss varnish to recreate that look of a bygone era. Sincerely, we doff our caps to these clever mimes among the true purveyors of real wood. They are shrewd enough to fool the eye; also, relatively solid to withstand regular use without belying their origins. So, just because you aren’t buying real wood does not necessarily mean you you’ve been sold a false bill of goods for pressed board junk either. 

On occasion, it is virtually impossible to discern between wood and…well…something else; the weight of an object, presumed to be built in real wood, and, the comparative measure of another made of less than solid pieces is absolutely no help at all, since wood derivatives possess similar heaviness to their real wood counterparts. The best way to determine if what you are getting is real wood is to scratch down beneath the surface and see what is underneath. But who wants to damage a great piece of furniture just to prove or disprove its elemental origins? 

The problem is thus: most of us do not know what we are getting until damage has occurred to a beloved piece of furniture. The truth revealed, you may not be able to cover it up; even with those decorative wood stain pencil kits. Real wood, however, even when badly damaged, is nevertheless strippable and can be sanded down to smooth out its imperfections, however deep and offending. Wood veneer…not so much. Okay, not at all, because beneath the veneer there might be nothing more substantial than a compressed layer of engineered wood or fiberboard. These cannot be salvaged or made to replicate the look of ‘real wood’ once the surface has been worn down or gouged.

So, let us unpack a few wood terminologies and dispel a few myths. First and foremost ‘solid wood’ is a term most efficiently used to summarize and distinguish ordinary lumber from its alternative – engineered wood. Solid wood is exactly what it claims to be; wood lopped from the side of a tree, sanded and refined, inspected as fit to be made into whatever luxury item one may desire to have hewn from it at some later date.


Just like leather, wood comes in grades as established by the guidelines of the National Hardwood Lumber Association. ‘Firsts’ contain very few, if any, noticeable imperfections. ‘Seconds’ possess the occasional knot or other surface anomaly. ‘Firsts’ and ‘seconds’ are often grouped together and referred to as FAS (firsts and seconds). These are the preferred grades for furniture building.  It is completely acceptable to find knots, splits, cracks, and checks in natural wood. Some people actually prefer more of these naturally-occurring anomalies because they irrefutably distinguish it, as well as add to the character and charm of wood.

Generally speaking, manufacturers of real wood will avoid boards with warps, twists and bows, although these types of imperfections can also be flattened. But they take a considerable amount of effort to do so. More recently, the industrial urban and shabby chic rural trends have made even these less than perfect specimens desirable.  Another grade of wood is ‘Selects.’ These have more prevalent imperfections but nothing as big or as frequent it cannot be cut out. Still, you should sincerely avoid this grade for fine furniture. There are also four added grades of Common (#1, #2, #3a, #3b). Common is what it says; the lowest form of celebrity on the wood grade scale, containing so many imperfections it is all but useless for furniture manufacturing purposes.

Now, how solid wood is cut equally affects its integrity. Plain-sawn are the most common boards available in your lumberyard, showing the tree’s natural growth rings running 30 degrees against the face of the board; the face grain appearing somewhat circular and wavy. Comparatively, rift-sawn boards have growth rings meeting the face between 30 and 60 degrees with a straight, as opposed to circular grain pattern. Because of this, they are more stable and more expensive. Quarter-sawn boards have growth rings not less than 60 degrees from their face and in a straight grain pattern with a flake or ribbon-like figure running through it. These are the most stable and expensive of all, found only in a few species of wood, like white oak.

Let’s consider different woods briefly. For starters, by definition the term ‘softwoods’ has absolutely nothing to do with either the density or toughness of the wood itself; as say, opposed to ‘hardwoods’.  Softwoods come from coniferous trees: cedar, fir, and pine. They lean toward either the yellow or reddish end of the color spectrum. Because coniferous trees grow faster, they can be more readily harvested and replanted to limit the effects of deforestation. Better still, they require less refinement at the factory because they tend to be straight, making than competitively inexpensive to their ‘hardwood’ contemporaries. Now, most woodworkers prefer solid hardwoods to softwoods because of their infinite variety of colors, textures, and grain patterns. The downside: solid hardwood can get expensive. Here are a few of the more popular hardwoods from which your real wood furniture is likely made.

Ash: pale brown to white with a straight grain pattern. It’s pliable and takes stain with ease. Alas, ash is getting harder and harder to find. So it has steadily evolved into a ‘boutique wood’ as white oak (equally as rare) and with similar characteristics. There is also birch to consider, either yellow or white. The yellow-to-white pallor of yellow birch contains reddish-brown heartwood (the core). By contrast, white birch resembles maple in tone. Best of all, birch tends to be less expensive than many other hardwoods and produces some gorgeous-looking furniture, albeit with the caveat it can present a real challenge when stained; creating an undesirable blotchy effect, easily remedied by simply painting rather than staining it.

Cherry has been the woodworking standard for generations and for very good reasons. It stains like a dream and ages gracefully. More recently, its scarcity has driven up its price point, making it less competitive with other hardwoods like oak and maple. The ‘other’ great go-to furniture wood, mahogany is easily identified by its reddish-brown to deep-red caste and exceptional absorption of stain (usually with a single coat). Its singular drawback: cost – it is expensive!

Next, there’s Maple; classified as both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ depending on its type. Hard maple is much harder than many other woods and thus a little more temperamental to work with, whereas soft maple is relatively pliable. Maple is a lot less expensive than its competitors. But oak is one of the most readily used furniture woods; red or white; strong, pliable and easy to use. White oak is usually preferred, judged as more attractive, and, more resistant to moisture; making it agreeable for outdoor furniture construction too. Oak’s grain is beloved for its ‘ray flake’ pattern; its planks, quarter-sawn and less expensive than some other hardwoods, like cherry.

Then, there is Poplar – another economical hardwood, softer than most; generally white with minute green and brown natural discoloring running through its heartwood. Because many consider the look of poplar undesirable, it is generally not used for staining, but can provide a truly economical alternative for those planning on a solid wood piece they can paint. Teak is a great hardwood for outdoor furniture because it is virtually weather-resistant and, with its golden-to-orangey brown hue, utterly transfixing in the right setting. It also happens to be just about the costliest hardwood on the market.  Last, but not least, is walnut; durable, flexible and beautiful to stain. Alas, finding larger planks of walnut for bigger projects can be a little bit of an Easter egg hunt.

In closing: finding real hardwood furniture can be a challenge. But remember, despite some clever engineering, a wood veneer product will likely repeat its familiar pattern, whereas no two pieces of real wood are ever truly alike. If in doubt when shopping for real wood furnishings, ask a salesperson to see the manufacturer’s spec sheet on the item you are considering. If one is unavailable, consider contacting the manufacturer yourself.

Being better informed about wood is the beginning to finding precisely what you are after. If you positively want real wood, then do not settle for anything less.

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