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How to identify quality furniture and get the most bang for your buck

How to identify quality furniture

Your office furniture matters: The chairs, couches, desks, and tables in your office have a big impact on your employees' comfort, morale, and productivity. Moreover, your furniture creates a powerful (or not-so-powerful) first impression of your business for visiting clients. You want your furniture to be as high quality, functional, and as stylish as your company.

Good-quality furniture doesn't have to cost a fortune, but it's important to know what to look for. Not sure where to start? Keep reading to learn how to spot the best office furniture for any budget.

Know Your Wood

In general, wood furniture is made out of these three materials:

  • Solid wood
    Solid wood furniture is made from a single species of natural wood. It looks natural and beautiful, is durable, and can be stained any color or style of your choice. Moreover, it's usually repairable if damaged. On the down side, solid wood is expensive and must be cleaned and cared for to prevent splitting or cracking. Some high-quality executive and writing desks and shelves are made from solid wood. In general, hardwoods, which are made from trees like maple, oak, and walnut, are more durable than softwoods, which come from coniferous trees such as redwood, pine, or cedar.

    How to spot it: Look for the term “solid wood” in the product description. If you're inspecting it in person, try lifting it. Solid wood is heavy. You may also be able to see and feel a varying grain pattern with your fingertips. If the piece contains any obvious carved details, it's solid wood.

  • Wood veneer
    Many high-quality pieces of office furniture, including desks, shelves, and tables, are actually wood veneer, which means thin slices of hardwood are glued onto panels of a less expensive material such as plywood (thin boards of wood glued together), particle board (wood dust compressed with resin), or medium-density fiberboard (wood fiber compressed with wax and resin).

    Wood veneer furniture has a few advantages over solid wood furniture. It's cheaper, it's not as heavy, and it's more resistant to warping and cracking. Plus, it usually takes less time to manufacture and in some cases it may be better for the environment because it conserves hardwood and reuses wood dust that would otherwise go to a landfill. However, wood veneer furniture may not be as durable as solid wood. And although veneer can be sanded, painted, and stained, you may have limited finishing options depending on the thickness of the veneer.

    How to spot it: Look for the term “veneer” in the product description. The furniture may look like solid wood furniture, but it won't be as heavy. The wood grain may also look more regular than solid wood and won't include carved elements. Most high-end conference tables more than eight-feet long are wood veneer. Because wood veneer furniture varies so much in quality, it's helpful to determine what the wood veneer is glued onto. Look for the term “composite” in the product description, which means it's made out of particle board or medium-density fiberboard, which aren't as strong as plywood.

  • Laminate
    Laminate is made of a composite wood, usually particle board, covered with a synthetic material that's printed to look like wood grain. Many budget-friendly cubicles, desks, tables, and shelves are made of laminate because it's functional, affordable and extremely easy to care for. However, laminate furniture is not as durable, beautiful, or customizable as solid wood or wood veneer furniture.

    How to spot it: Look for the terms “laminate” or “composite” in the product description. Laminate may look like wood but feel like plastic. The grain on the laminate will not follow throughout the piece as it does with real wood.

Understand Leather Grades

High-quality leather furniture is beautiful, functional, and durable. However, not all leather furniture is built to last. Here's why: In its raw state, cowhide is thick and inflexible, so to make it useable it is split into top and bottom layers. Leather is divided into grades, according to which layer is used to make it. They include:

  • Full grain
    Full-grain leather is the outer layer of the hide; it hasn't been sanded to remove imperfections or irregularities and usually has blemishes and scars. It retains the most dense-packed fibers in the hide. It's extremely tough and can't be ripped. Full-grain leather is the most expensive and durable grade of leather.

    How to spot it: Look for “full grain” in the product description. The leather will feel soft and supple to the touch and will have imperfections, such as scratches, wrinkles, and hair-follicle pores. The seams may be rough and uneven, and the leather will have a rich aroma.

  • Corrected grain
    Corrected-grain leather is also the outer layer of the hide, but it has been buffed and sanded on both sides. It is then pigmented to make the surface smooth, uniform, devoid of blemishes, and resistant to water. It's not as durable as full-grain leather, so it may get nicked and scratched over time. In general, it's a good option but it varies in quality depending on how it's processed. Sometimes it's called top-grain leather.

    How to spot it: Most high-end leather office furniture is made out of corrected-grain leather because it's durable, uniform, and water resistant. Look for the terms “top grain” or “corrected grain” in the product description. The leather will look smooth and shiny and feel taut when you sit on it.

  • Split grain
    This type of leather is made from the bottom layer of hide. It doesn't contain any of the hide's grain. It is the least expensive option, and is not as durable or long lasting as full-grain or corrected-grain leather.

    How to spot it: Look for the words “split grain,” “suede,” or “genuine” in the product description. The surface of split-grain leather usually looks shiny and smooth (except for suede which most people are familiar with) and feels warm and pliable when you sit on it. Also watch out for the terms “bicast” or “PU” leather, which is made by covering split leather with polyurethane.

  • Bonded
    This type of leather is made by pulverizing leather scraps and fibers from the bottom half of the hide into a pulp and then bonding them to a polyurethane backing. It's a budget-friendly option, but it may not be 100 percent leather, and it won't last nearly as long as natural leather.

    How to spot it: Look for the terms “authentic,” “bonded,” or “reconstituted” in the product description. The surface will probably look smooth, shiny, and uniform, and it may smell like chemicals or plastic rather than leather.

Look for Solid Construction

In addition to paying attention to the quality of the materials, inspect the construction of a piece of furniture before buying it. Open drawers, look at the backside and underside of pieces, remove cushion covers, and inspect the way the furniture is held together.

Avoid any furniture made with staples, nails, or glue. Ideally, look for corners joined together with dovetail (interlocking square teeth), mortise-and-tenon (a rectangular piece of wood fitted into a same-size slot), or dowels (wooden pegs inserted into holes). Joined corners are sturdier and hold more weight.

Make sure drawers roll out easily, stay open until you push them closed, and have a block to stop them from being pulled out too far. Check that handles and knobs are tight.

When buying upholstered chairs, look for evenly spaced springs that provide equal resistance. The cushions should have removable covers, and the interior should be made of firm foam, wrapped in both padding and a protective inner cover.

How to Buy Online

If you can't inspect a piece in person, read product descriptions carefully and be on the lookout for the keywords specified above. Don't be afraid to call or write to the seller and ask questions about the quality of the materials and construction. Quill's furniture experts can take the stress out of the process, help you find the perfect furniture for your business needs, and assist in delivery and assembly.

Take Care of It

Once you furnish your office, there are a few easy ways to keep your office furniture looking its best. Position furniture away from heating vents and direct sunlight to keep leather and wood from drying out. Stock up on coasters to deter people from setting hot drinks on wood finishes. Avoid furniture polishes, which leave residue that dulls surfaces, and instead wipe wood weekly with a damp cloth. Clean leather with a gentle, non-detergent liquid soap or commercial leather cleaner, and vacuum upholstery regularly.

By choosing the best items for your budget and caring for them properly, your office furniture will make a powerful statement about your company for years to come.

How to identify quality furniture

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Abby Quillen is the author of the novel The Garden of Dead Dreams and the editor of two anthologies. Her articles and essays have appeared in YES! Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor and on Common Dreams, Nation of Change, Reader Supported News, The Daily Good, Truthout, and Shareable. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, with her family. When she's not writing, she grows vegetables and weeds, bikes and walks as much as she can, and jots down cute things her kids say. Visit her at abbyquillen.com.

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