Uncle Bobs Tips

Unfinished Furniture

Unfinished Furniture

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Unfinished furniture is wooden furniture in its raw state, without veneers, stains, oils, primers, or any other decorative finish. Buying unfinished furniture can be an economical and charming way to furnish your home, with unlimited creative possibilities for finishing it yourself.

Get the inside tips that professionals use before you start shopping and shop smarter by avoiding these ten frequently made mistakes when choosing unfinished furniture.

Mistake # 1- The Best Time to Buy Unfinished Furniture is a Cold Rainy Afternoon.

Weather such as high humidity, rain, cold, snow, hot dry beating sun and other extreme conditions all have a negative effect on furniture but especially on the sensitive unfinished variety. Even though newly cut wood straight from the lumberyard contains as much as 40% water, it is still capable of absorbing much more.

Sudden water absorption can not only ruin a perfectly good piece of furniture, it can also deceive you about what you are buying.

For example, Dan took his truck out to a furniture lumberyard where he picked out a solid pine night table with two drawers. He tested each drawer and noted they were on metal runners which glided easily with drawer stops. Each drawer also fit nicely. He checked that the piece was stable and balanced, that it didn't rock, and wasn't top heavy. He checked the wood for defects, and after rejecting several, finally chose the perfect one. He hadn't bought enough to have it delivered and he had his pickup truck so he bought it and took it with him. While driving home it began to rain, but he got home safely with no apparent harm and carried the night table into his house.

Several days later, the drawers stopped opening and the table rocked annoyingly. One side of the table appeared larger and swollen than the other and adjoining boards were pulling apart and cracking. Dan called the store, thinking that they sold him a lemon, only to find out that there was no guarantee because he took it home himself. Dan saved the delivery cost but lost his value because he exposed the unfinished wood to less than ideal conditions.

Ideal conditions for buying, storing, and finishing wood are cool dry days. It makes sense to inquire about when the piece was constructed and where. Was it just unpacked in a shipment from India ? Or has it been recently moved from another storeroom? Under what conditions was it stored? Only after you've gotten it finished can you be sure that it won't absorb water from extreme weather exposure.

Mistake # 2 - I Didn't Notice That it Wasn't Straight!

Warping is the single worst problem with wood of all types but unfinished wood is particularly susceptible. Weather conditions, storage, even the saw operator at the lumber yard can all cause varying degrees of warping.

Check the piece you're thinking of buying carefully and with a critical eye. Move it around on the floor to check whether the legs are even and balanced. For a wide tabletop you might want to take along a level to complement your eye. Although warping can sometimes be repaired with a technique of wetting and clamping the wood repetitively until it is straight, it is best to reserve this special process for your antique or one of a kind heirlooms as it is time consuming, and requires some degree of expertise.

Mistake # 3 - Those Knots Give The Wood a Lot of Character.

Yes they are charming and give a storybook appearance to some pieces but they are not desirable in large numbers and are regarded as a defect in the wood. All wood furniture must be checked for defects such as knots, weaknesses, dry rot (characterized by a spongy hollow feeling under pressure from fingertips), discolored or uneven patches, or any other obvious conditions. Problems with wood mean that the furniture will wear unevenly and not hold up in those weaker, distorted areas. In this regard, unfinished pieces have a great advantage because what you see is what you get if you know what to look for.

Mistake # 4 - What Difference Does It Make What Kind Of Wood it Is?

Hardwoods come from deciduous trees, which are trees that lose their leaves in the winter, and the sap goes down into the roots. These trees include oak, cherry, walnut, mahogany, ash, maple, beech, etc. Softwood comes from conifers which are all varieties of pine trees which keep their leaves in the winter. These trees include cedar, spruce and fir among others.

In general, furniture constructed from hardwood is usually better quality and more enduring then furniture from soft wood. However there are exceptions and the word "hardwood" is no guarantee of anything. You wouldn't guess that balsa wood is technically considered a hardwood even though it is the lightest weight and much softer than common pine.

By the way, never buy a piece of furniture constructed from balsa wood in part or whole no matter how delightful. I'm sure somebody from the Furniture Manufacturers' Association of Malaysia or something will have explanations for it, but for my money there is no good reason to put balsa wood in any part of any furniture. Whether they are saving shipping costs or they just have a cheap supply of it, anybody that puts balsa in their furniture is likely to cut corners other ways too, that you might not have noticed.

Mistake # 5 - All Wood Looks Good When It's Finished.

People who like wood, the look, the smell, the touch, sometimes get lost in the romance and lose all their practical sense. Even if it's beautiful, is this type of wood appropriate for the finish you want? Not all woods take stains or other special finishes in the same way. Wood is peculiar in that sometimes two pieces side by side of the same species of wood may stain differently. Given that you may not get all the pieces to share the same color or textured look, put some thought into matching the style of your pieces.

Don't think that all you have to do is buy all the pieces of the same type of wood and that will be enough to make them all blend together in one house or one room. Eclectic may be the look you want but if so decide that before buying your pieces, don't get there by accident.

Mistake # 6 - The Price Of Unfinished Furniture Is Standard.

It's a mistake to believe any price is standard. Take advantage of the free market and do some comparative shopping. Not only is there still a lot of manufacturing of American and Canadian wood furniture, but mass produced pieces are pouring in from around the world. The market has opened up with so many different wood sources, labor prices and shipping channels that you really have to see it all to know what's available.

A bigger market translates into cheaper prices for the consumer with a wide range of choices. Look around. Buy some here, some there, and save money. Don't think that cheaper prices translate into inferior quality or conversely, paying more buys quality. In all cases the only guarantee is to check each piece carefully.

Mistake # 7 - I Don't Have Time For Furniture Refinishing, So In The Meantime, We're Using Them Anyway.

Furniture must be finished, or at least protected before it's used. Using furniture before it is finished is perilous to the life of your furniture and runs the risk of permanent damage or destruction. Unfinished furniture requires the time and effort to finish it and that should be calculated into the decision before buying.

That also goes for stripped ready to finish antiques. Antiques require as much attention if not more than the new pieces because of the dignity of their age. Try dividing up the refinishing work room by room to make it more manageable. Room by room furnishing also makes sense for the sake of a cohesive theme for each room. If the amount of finishing work is still too much, just buy and finish piece by piece.

A great deal on several pieces at once has to take into account whether there is time to finish the pieces in the next few weeks, maybe longer in the summer, before the storage risk outweighs the advantage of buying several at once.

Mistake # 8 - Boy, That Highboy Looks Spectacular!

That is, it looked good on the outside, but it turned out that the back was fitted with a particle-board stabilizer with a piece of wood-grained contact paper glued to the back. It was easy not to notice when it was at the store against the wall. The drawers glided in and out very nicely but it turned out they were not on metal or plastic runners but on small pieces of oiled scrap pine wood.

The drawers are not dovetailed but nailed together with aluminum brads. Pulling hard on those handles especially when the oil wears off the runners causes an awful stress on them. They've already come off one of the drawers only a month after it's bought. The double bed in the corner of the showroom looked gorgeous too. It's made of a strong walnut with a beautiful grain. But the slats holding up the mattress look a little thin, and they only cover two millimeters of the frame. Wonder who will get to discover that. Auntie Ann has put on a little weight lately. Hope she'll be okay on that bed.... Check every detail of every stress point and component part hidden behind those good looks. Beware of poor quality finishing. Do the doors of a cupboard fit properly? Are side corners detailed as nicely as the front? What is it held together with? Do long shelves of a bookcase or a hutch have strong center support? Look under and behind the piece to evaluate its construction with a critical eye.

Mistake # 9 - Who Needs to Check For Infestation If The Piece Is New?

Even new furniture can be infested with wood worm, boring beetles, and termites particularly if the piece is an export from central or southeast Asia, South America , Africa , and the Caribbean Islands . Quality control does not necessarily meet American or European standard evaluation procedures. Infestation of wood could jeopardize not only your new purchase but your other furniture as well. Look for worm tracks, Tiny single holes or flying ants dead or alive around under and behind the piece. Be especially cautious with antique pieces as they are particularly susceptible.

Mistake # 10 - I Just Assumed There Was No Guarantee Since It Was Unfinished.

Most furniture sellers guard their reputation, especially if they also sell their own finished furniture. As long as the buyer's finishing has not done damage they will cover unfinished furniture as well. However, don't wait until you need it to find out that all the unfinished pieces are sold "as is." If the piece is expensive enough ask and maybe even pay for, if necessary, to get an extended guarantee against workmanship factory flaws, defects and assembly. It won't save you from your mistakes in finishing, but it should protect you from buying a lemon.

Enjoy your wood furniture because today's wood with a little care and investment is tomorrow's heirloom.

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