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A guide to buying furniture

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Everyone enjoys a comfortably furnished home where everything is just the way they want it and today, more than ever before, it is possible to have just what you want.

Thanks to new materials, construction and styles, consumers can find an almost unlimited range of furniture in every style and price range. As with any investment, however, it pays to keep some basic facts in mind before you begin shopping for furniture. The purpose of this article is to provide you with basic information and guidelines so you can have the most enjoyment and the most value for your furniture dollar.

Plan Before You Buy

A good way to save time, money and the risk of disappointment is to keep some basic points of furniture buying in mind both before and when you shop.

Know what you need

Consider your needs carefully. Whether you are furnishing a room, an entire home or simply buying a single item of furniture, decide just what you need and how long you will need it. For example, do you need "short term" furniture such as a baby crib that will soon be outgrown, or do you need "long term" furniture such as a table or chest of drawers to be used for many years? Keeping your needs in mind will help you save time and money when you begin to shop.

Know how it will be used

Knowing how furniture will be used, and by whom, is important in deciding what style, construction and material are best for you. For example, single persons and older couples may select styles and fabrics that would not be a wise choice for a couple with young children and a family pet. Your furniture use is an important factor in deciding what to buy.

Know how much space you have

The size of the rooms you are furnishing is an important element in selecting every item for your home. It is a good idea to draw up a floor plan of your home and sketch in different sizes and arrangements of furniture to see how you can make the best use of the space you have.

(Some retailers will assist you in drawing up a floor and furniture plan but there may be a charge for this service. Find out in advance.) In planning your furniture size, keep in mind the width of stairs, halls and doorways.

Many houses and apartments have rooms smaller than you may be used to and it is important to select furniture that can easily be moved in and around rooms and hallways. In determining size, keep in mind that you may move.

Know how much you can spend

Wise shoppers set up a budget and stick to it. Know before you shop just how much you can spend for everything you need and how much of that total you want to spend for each item. You may want to spend more for a high quality table you'll use for many years and spend less for a medium quality play pen that your child will soon outgrow.

Keeping your NEEDS, USE, SPACE and BUDGET in mind you can carry your planning further by seeing how professional decorators select furniture to fit a variety of spaces and life styles. Visit the model rooms in furniture or department stores as well as new "model" homes and apartments that are furnished by professional decorators.

These models not only give you a good many ideas about different furniture styles, but also show how furniture is selected for each room to make the best use of the available space. It is a good idea to measure the furniture yourself.

In addition, look through different home and decorating magazines for ideas on how to make the best use of space. Most of these magazines also carry advertisements by furniture manufacturers that will give you an idea of the different styles and materials that are on the market.

Also, almost daily there are advertisements in local newspapers offering furniture. You'll find everything from expensive upholstered items to well-designed, inexpensive furniture in "do-it-yourself" assembly kits and unfinished furniture lines.

Furniture Types and Terms

There are two basic types of furniture, upholstered furniture and case goods.
Upholstered furniture has fabric covered cushions or padded sections such as sofas. Case goods refers to furniture that is not upholstered such as tables, chests, cabinets and shelves.

Both upholstered furniture and case goods can be constructed of a variety of woods or wood-composition materials. Furniture woods are either hardwood or softwood.

Hardwood is used to describe such woods as mahogany, walnut, maple, oak, cherry, birch, teak and pecan.

Softwood describes such woods as pine, redwood and cedar. Softwood is less expensive than hardwood and is often used in ready-to-finish and outdoor furniture. In general, it is more subject to dents and deep scratches than hardwood.

Veneered, bonded woods

These terms refer to the various construction techniques and materials used in furniture manufacturing.

Veneered Wood - The use of "veneering" is a time-honoured technique in furniture construction. It involves using thin layers of decorative woods "bonded" on the top and bottom of "ply" construction.

Veneering allows manufacturers to match fine grain wood sections and to use inlays of various woods to create beautiful designs that cannot be found in solid woods. Ply construction increases the strength and resistance to warping, and is found in all price ranges including very expensive furniture.

Bonded Wood - Bonding is used to "build" large sections of wood from several smaller pieces. There are four basic types of bonding:

1. Wide boards for table and cabinet tops may be cut into narrow sections and then "bonded" or fitted back together in the width or shape that is needed. The bonding process can make the finished section stronger and less liable to warp or split.

2. Blocks of wood may be glued together to create a single section of a piece of furniture which is to be carved or "turned" to form a rounded shape.

3. Wood chips or particles may be mixed with a gluing agent and then processed to make strong, warp-resistant panels used as backing for cabinets and chests of drawers. These man-made panels are called "chipboard", "particleboard" or "fibreboard" and are durable and long-wearing.

4. Several "layers" of solid wood or particleboard may be bonded one on the other in 3 to 7 layers to make a "ply" construction wood product used to reinforce various types of furniture. Plywood panels are strong and rugged in everyday use.

Engraving and printing

It is possible for manufacturers to "print" or "engrave" surfaces with a wood grain pattern to give the appearance of natural wood. These surfaces can be attractive and may be a good choice for surfaces where an appearance of natural wood is wanted.


Various materials such as paint, lacquer, oil and wax are used both to protect furniture surfaces and provide uniform colour to an entire piece of furniture. Various finishing materials can be used to highlight a natural wood colour or grain as well as to change the colour of a wood or make two different kinds of wood appear alike.

In addition to looking at the finish, make sure you know the kind of wood to which the finish has been applied.

When you are shopping for furniture it is important to keep in mind that whether or not wood is solid, bonded or veneered, it can be called "all wood" if there are no non-wood materials, such as plastic or metal, used in the construction.

Upholstered furniture

Today's consumers have a wide choice of upholstered furniture ranging from firm back and seat support to soft, fluffy pillows that give little support but do offer luxurious lounging. It is a good idea to be familiar with the basic construction of upholstered pieces.

The Frame

This is the basic unit of all upholstered furniture, and the quality of materials and workmanship can determine why one piece of furniture is more expensive than a piece that looks the same. Frames made of kiln-dried hardwood do not warp.

Frames may also be made of steel, laminated boards or strong rigid plastic. If you cannot see the frame or have a question as to what it is made of, ask the salesperson. You may want to have it itemised on your bill of sale.

The Supports

Fabric webbing, straps, wood slats and springs can be used to provide the desired amount of support, or firmness, in upholstered furniture. The springs can be coil, double cone coil or zigzag and are connected with twine, wire or clips.

Cushioning materials can include cotton or polyester batting, springs, down and urethane foam (also known as plyfoam or polyurethane). Urethane is widely used because it is durable, light-weight and mothproof. While there are many grades of "foam" materials, the best are high density foams with a high percentage of urethane.

Many different upholstery materials are available in natural and man-made fibres, leather and vinyl. Find out what the fabric is made of, what its properties are and how it should be cared for.

Remember, too, that there are many treatments available to protect fabrics from soil and spill stains and make day-to-day upholstery cleaning easier. Upholstery materials are available in a wide range of "grades" so keep both your use and budget requirements in mind when you buy. Fabric grades reflect cost, not necessarily durability or quality. In addition, consider the fact that the textile mill usually does not guarantee upholstery fabric to the furniture manufacturer.

Keep the four parts of upholstered furniture in mind when you shop and be sure you know, before you buy, that each piece of furniture is what you want. Ask the sales person about the frame, the supports, the cushioning and the outer covering, and judge the over-all quality of the furniture against the price and your particular needs.

Some additional reminders

Keep in mind that you will not be able to see the most important part of an upholstered item: the frame, the strapping and the cushioning material. Squeeze the arms of sofas and chairs to be sure there is enough padding so that you cannot feel the frame. If you can feel the frame, chances are the padding won't stand up to daily use for very long. Examine fabrics to be sure patterns are matched and seams are well stitched and strong enough to resist splitting or tearing.

Be sure cushions fit snugly and give even support. If cushions are not "reversible" be sure the fabric on the underside is a good quality, wear-resistant fabric.

Remember, too, that zippers are used on fabric covers to give a snug fit over the cushioning. They are not to be used to remove the fabric for cleaning. Check to see if the covering material is treated with protective finish that will help resist dirt and soiling.

Case goods

The finish of case goods furniture is an important sign of quality. Better quality pieces are finished on the top, sides and front as well as on the back and the underside. There should be no cracks or bubbles in the finish. Check to see how pieces of wood are joined. The strongest joints are dovetail, mortise and tenon, and dowel. The least satisfactory is simply glued or nailed.

Lean on tables and tip back chairs to be sure they do not wobble or sway. Be sure drawers and doors are securely fitted, do not sag when opened and fit snugly when closed. Check drawer construction to be sure the drawers open and close easily but firmly and are built to hold whatever you want to put in them without sagging or jamming.

If glass tops or panels are used, check to be sure the glass lies straight and flat and that there are strong grooves or ledges to hold the glass in place. The panels should be thick enough to resist cracking or chipping in normal use.

Where to Shop

Today's consumers have a wide choice of places to buy furniture including department stores and specialty furniture stores. Shop around in a number of stores which sell a range of styles or the one type of furniture you are interested in.

Shop around for quality, price, credit terms and service. Before you buy, ask about the seller's credit terms and delivery service. An added charge for delivery or higher credit charge compared to others may mean that a "good buy" is not as good as it appeared.

When to Shop

If you plan your furniture shopping in advance you often can take advantage of seasonal sales and various kinds of "clearances" as well as reduced prices for "discontinued lines", "display" items and "as is" pieces. By taking plenty of time to look before you may have to give up having a wide choice of styles, but a real savings might be worth it.

Delivery may not be immediate, so take that into consideration. Sometimes furniture must be ordered from the factory, and waits of 6-8 weeks are not uncommon.

Read the Label

When you shop for furniture be sure to read all of the tag and label information provided by the seller and the manufacturer. Trade guidelines require manufacturers to state whether materials such as vinyl or other synthetics are used to give the appearance of leather, wood or marble.

The name of a country, such as "Spanish" or "Danish", cannot be used if the furniture was not made there unless a word such as "style" or "design" is also used.

If a tag or label carries the name of only one wood, all of the exposed surfaces must be made of that wood. If some of those surfaces are veneered the label must tell you so.

For example, "solid maple" means just that, while "maple veneer" alerts you to the use of veneer, a layer of maple wood bonded to another material. Mixed wood construction must be noted, for example, "maple veneer and walnut solids."

Warranties and Returns

Find out the exact terms of any warranties for the furniture you are considering. Also, find out the store's return policy so that if you decide an item is not right for your home or you find something wrong with the furniture after you buy it, you will always know your rights and responsibilities. Be sure, too, to get all the specifics in writing.

Credit Buying

If you buy furniture on time, be sure you know the full terms and conditions of the seller's credit service. Know how much the finance charge will be, how many and the exact amount of each installment payment and the total time sales price, including sales tax.

Remember that all who give credit are required to state the annual percentage rate so that you can compare one to the other.

Know Your Seller

Wise consumers know the seller before they buy. Ask your neighbours and friends for recommendations and, if possible, shop around before you buy. Remember that reputable business people will answer all questions fully and will not rush you into buying. They want their customers to be satisfied, and they want you to recommend them to others.


To get the most for your furniture dollar, be sure to:

- Plan carefully before you shop.

- Set up a budget, and then stick to it.

- Shop around for quality and price as well as for credit terms and service.

- Read all the tag and label information provided by the seller and manufacturer.

- Check the construction of case goods and upholstered furniture for durability.

- Find out how the furniture is constructed. Is the wood bonded or veneered? If the furniture has a finish, find out the kind of wood to which the finish has been applied.

- In the case of upholstered furniture, find out what the frame is made of; determine what the outer covering is composed of, what its properties are and how it should be cared for.

- Determine the store's return policy.

- Find out what the warranty does and does not cover.

- Get the specifics of any agreement in writing.

- Find out the seller's credit terms, if you are buying on time

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