What’s it made of?

It can be difficult to know when a piece of furniture is worth restoring, or fixing up.  I have brought home my fair share of cheaply constructed pieces that weren’t worth the time and effort.  Let’s look at furniture construction, refinishing options and figuring out what’s what.


What is it?
Wood.  Solid wood.  No substitutions.

How to spot it
•Weight is a good indicator. It will be heavy when you lift it. Really solid.
•Look underneath, or in drawers. Notice the way the furniture piece was put together.
•Look for wood grain on the underside of the finished piece. This is a good indication it is solid wood.
•It may even be finished with a thick lacquer making it appear ‘shiny’ and ‘fake.’underneath_mancaveinvaded

How to refinish:

  • You can sand the heck out of solid wood.
  • You can also use a paint / stain stripper first before sanding.  (if it has the shiny lacquer finish, this is your best option to save your arm strength).
  • You can paint or stain for desired end result.
  • Wood will dry out, so it’s important that once you do sand it or strip it down, you finish it with something!  Otherwise it will crack over time.


What is it?

Veneer is a thin decorative (beautiful grain) hardwood applied to the top of a courser (cheaper) wood.

How to spot
•Look at the edge of the furniture – if you see stripes, that’s a sign it’s most likely veneer.
•It is less expensive to build this way, so you’ll see it often.


Looking at a drawer:dovetail_mancaveinvaded

How to refinish
•The issue with wood / veneer is if you try to sand it, you will likely sand right through the veneer, and then a cheaper not as pretty of wood will show through. Sad day when that happens. (see photo below)
•To refinish – use a paint / stain stripper. I like citristrip. It’s easy to use and doesn’t smell nearly as lethal as some of the others out there.
•Once you’ve used the stripper as indicated, you can then use light hand sanding to finish off the piece. I wouldn’t use a power sander – you’ll go right through the veneer before you know what’s happened.
•I often use a wire brush in the stripper to finish off inside corners and tight spaces that are on the veneer.veneer_oops_mancaveinvaded


(otherwise known around here as, FAKE WOOD)

What is it?

  • On the inside it is particle board.
  •      Particle board is small woodchips, sawdust, or even wood shaving that have been compressed and mushed together.
  • The particle board is then covered with a laminate.
  • Laminate is often used when strength and appearance can be sacrificed, because it is cheap.

Particle board & Particle board with a laminate veneer.

image via wikipedia

How to spot
It comes in all colors, and is often disguised to look like a wood grain.  So, don’t let that deceive you.

  • It will feel plastic-y
  • The back will often be a thin later of pressboard or cardboard type material.
  • Corners may be dented, as it’s easy to mash laminate.
  • It’s much lighter weight than solid wood, or wood/veneer.
  • If you touch it, it will most likely wobble.  :)
  • Shelves may be sagging. (steer clear!)
  • Remember, appearance wasn’t the key element.  Therefore, it will be simple in design.


How to refinish
•This is where spray paint comes in. (use an all in one primer and paint if possible)
•You can’t sand this. Or rather, I guess you could – pinterest says you can. I wouldn’t.
•You can’t stain it. (Again, pinterest may differ…) It would be like rubbing stain on plastic.
•You can paint it with a primer first and then paint if desired.


It does it’s job.
Not the prettiest piece of furniture, but it was free on Craig’s List so I spray painted it red.


So, what’s the best?

Depends on what you want, or plan to do with it!

I rarely bring home particle board / laminate / fake wood.
But, occasionally, like in the bookcase above, I needed it and it was free and it serves its purpose.

The solid wood is the most fun (for me) to refinish.
So long as I have help loading and moving the piece around as it is often very heavy.

The veneer often has a lot of character, and I like that about it.
You will often find a solidly built piece of furniture that has a wood / veneer top.

If the veneer top is flaking like in my picture above – you can always build a new top instead and salvage that beautiful piece of furniture!
If it was built right – the table top piece should be fairly easy to remove.

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