How to Tell the Difference Between Well-Made Furniture and the Cheap Stuff

By: Sarah Beaumont

July 26, 2016

Pair of Mid Century Slatted Wood Lounge Chairs via 1st Dibs.

You just ordered a beautiful wood credenza online. You eagerly await its arrival, believing that once it comes, your living room will finally feel complete. But when you put it together, you notice the middle is already sagging and there’s a scratch on the side. The wood isn’t wood at all but garish laminate or particle board, nothing like the glossy wood image you saw online.

When it comes to furniture, online shopping can be our best and worst enemy. And even pieces that you buy in person may look great on the surface but are shoddily made underneath. So with the help of our designer James Tabb, we’ve put together tips for telling the difference between high-quality furniture and the cheap stuff. Never get duped again!

Examine the finish

The number one sign that a piece of furniture is made cheaply is its finish. “Whether it’s the color or sheen of a wood stain, the touch or feel of a fabric, or the patina on a piece of metal, this is a dead-ringer. There is something inherently ‘fake’ looking and feeling about inexpensive furniture. It always seems to be imitating something it’s not,” says James.

Know your materials

Sometimes you strike gold with high-quality, inexpensive furniture, but more often than not, cheap means cheap. Having a knowledge bank of which materials are cheap and which are high-quality can help you make the right choice. “Products such as MDF, paperboard, laminates, melamine, cardboard, soft woods, staples, lightweight foams, fabrics, and filling are hallmarks of mass-produced, inexpensive furnishings,” James explains.

Quality furniture is generally made from hard and solid woods, joints are integrated into frame components, and pieces are reinforced with screws and glue. A well-made lounge chair, couch or bed has hand-tied coil springs, cotton filling, high-density foam, or down filler. When it comes to fabrics and upholstery, natural-fiber fabrics such as linen, cotton, and wool are the way to go.


Take it for a test drive

If you’re shopping for any piece of furniture you might lounge upon, the simplest way to figure out if it’s quality or not is to sit on it. “Don’t ever buy the old line ‘once it wears-in it will be more comfortable.’ That simply means the piece is going to wear out quickly. Find a sofa or chair that has a good high-density foam core, wrapped in a down or down alternative for softness. These cushions will need fluffing occasionally, but should last decades,” says James.

If it’s shelving, a desk, or table that you’re shopping for, put some weight on it, wiggle it, and see if it holds up under pressure.

Buy close to home

It’s always best to purchase furniture that’s designed and manufactured close to where it’s distributed. “This usually ensures quality control at the highest level.” If it’s made in the USA or Europe and has a flagship store nearby, that’s a good sign. Anything made in China should generally be avoided if you’re looking for durability.

Weight makes a difference

Weight can be a tricky thing to track because it all depends on the specific piece of furniture. “If you are buying a cast iron lamp, for example, you should expect it to be heavy vs. light. If it’s unexpectedly light, it’s most likely made from some other material to mimic iron. Conversely, if you have a wood writing desk that weighs two tons, it’s most likely made of paper board or MDF which has a higher density than most solid woods, and therefore would be heavier.” Heavier doesn’t always mean better. Generally, something made from wood should fall somewhere in the middle.

Seek out handcrafted and antique goods

“Handcrafted furnishings are generally made with more care and attention to detail than their mass-produced counterparts. Both can be durable and last a long time, but handcrafted pieces will be more refined, unique, and special,” says James. If you’re looking for high quality but can’t afford top of the line, search Craigslist, antique stores, and flea markets. Purchasing something vintage with great bones and getting it refinished or reupholstered often means you can get much higher quality at a much lower price.

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