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"Value Produced"

Furniture Grades

©2009-2011 by Charles A. Plesums, Austin, Texas, USA

"Value Produced" Furniture

I recently visited a furniture store that claims to be the largest in North America. It has 420,000 square feet of display space, and almost as much more warehouse space, selling about $400 million per year in this one store. (That is a sales floor the size of 14 football fields). And it has stores in two other cities. It was huge, and the selection was impressive.

There were many items labeled "Value Produced Product," with truly amazing prices and lots of clever features. In fact, in the areas I was looking, it seemed that 3/4 of the items were "Value Produced." As I looked around, each area had a sign explaining that value produced meant that there might be dings and flaws in the finish, the drawers and doors might stick, and the store wouldn't cover those repairs. The overall warranty was limited to one year. I even saw a display piece where the drawer bottom wasn't tight in the slot in the sides of the drawer... you could see through the bottom of the drawer. If you are newlyweds or recent graduates with an empty house, or are trying to furnish a college apartment or a kid's room, these are wonderful solutions to an immediate problem, but I doubt if they are a good long-term investment.

Among the $500 bedroom sets and $200 entertainment centers and $60 coffee tables were other pieces of furniture that cost 10 times as much. These were well built pieces of furniture that will probably last a lifetime ... even as heirlooms through your kid's and grandkids lifetime. Just glancing casually, they didn't look much different than the value produced furniture, but upon closer examination, they were solidly built pieces - the type of furniture that I would be proud to produce, and that the store was willing to guarantee far longer than a year.

After the initial reaction of "how can I compete with this" my second reaction was "I should raise my prices." I felt I could have built most of the "normal" quality furniture for their asking price, and in many cases for significantly less.

My Value proposition

I am a little upset. I have joined some other custom furnituremakers in using the term "value proposition," in an entirely different way. To us it certainly does NOT mean "the guaranteed lifetime is only one year" like that furniture store's "value produced" furniture. It means providing just the degree of material and finish in the furniture that provides value to you.

If you want an entertainment center, the contents will make it obsolete long before modern materials will wear out, and the next generation of technology may have very different space requirements - you probably want a sturdy piece with a fine finish, but don't want to pay extra for heirloom quality. If you want a "grand piano" type finish on a coffee table or sideboard I would be glad to produce that finish, but it does take extra time and thus raises the price - if it has value to you, a good investment. But I doubt if you want to pay for a "grand piano finish" on a bedroom set.

That doesn't mean we are willing to produce cheap furniture - lots of stores offer that option. To us, "value produced" means providing durable furniture, but only as refined as has value to you. Having multiple construction and finishing options, all of them durable, but not all equally refined. It means using veneers when you value the appearance of exotic woods that aren't available as solid boards. It means using furniture grade plywood (not the ugly construction stuff) when it will be structurally as good (or better) than solid wood. I won't use "$1 hinges" on anything I build, but I normally use "$5 hinges", or will be glad to upgrade to "$20 hinges" if that adds value to you for this piece. I am glad to use your choice of traditional wooden drawer slides, or good $10 metal drawer slides, or $25 soft-close drawer slides, but I won't build something with $3 drawer slides since they are not as durable.

I like to think my furniture is Value Produced, but a very different kind of value produced than I saw at that furniture store. As I build your furniture I make countless little decisions based on your overall guidance, but would be glad to discuss any details of the construction of the furniture that are important to you.

Man Made Materials

Not all man-made materials are bad, but some are pretty ugly. Roughly from worst to best, here is a brief tutorial on the types of materials and terminology you may encounter.

Pressboard - think of this as high quality cardboard. I have seen real furniture made from this, not too bad when it is a hidden back to a cabinet, but pretty horrible when it is a shelf that starts to sag when you simply look at it. Masonite is the very high end of this material, which I sometimes use as dust panels between drawers, but for little else.

Particle board is sawdust glued together into sheets. It is sometimes used for "Formica" countertops (good) but it is too often used as a general construction material. Melamine is particle board that is coated with a hard surface, similar to Formica, and in that form is sometimes used as "easy clean kitchen cabinet" sides. There are no long pieces of wood, just particles, so long-term stiffness is poor. Particle board has little moisture resistance, so a pipe under a sink with a slow leak is likely to destroy the shelf under it.

Flakeboard is similar to particle board, but is made with many layers of wood shavings rather than sawdust. It is a great construction material, but has no place in fine furniture.

MDF - Medium Density Fiberboard is a very smooth, very hard material that is made buy dissolving wood fibers and then compressing them into sheets. It is somewhat more moisture resistant than particle board, but no champion in this area. Lots of inexpensive cabinets have MDF machine cut to look like fancy wood cabinets, and are then covered with Rigid Thermofoil - RTF - a plastic coating with wood grain and color that is warmed and vacuum formed against the MDF that has been cut with the profile of a door (or whatever). The technology is very sophisticated, making very attractive pieces that wear very well ... until the plastic is damaged. Once worn or broken through, the piece degrades rapidly. Since MDF is very hard and smooth, it is sometimes used for floating panels in doors that will be painted, or as a substrate for a veneer.

Plywood almost doesn't count as a man-made material. It is almost pure wood, cut into layers and glued together with a small amount of glue (as contrasted to particle board where the wood is not identifiable, and there is a huge amount of glue). There are less expensive grades of construction plywood, but there are also furniture grades of plywood, with veneers of real furniture hardwood on the outside, and many layers of other woods on the inside. Construction plywood often has 3-5 layers, while furniture plywood may have 9 to 15 layers or more. By rotating the grain of each layer 90 degrees from the previous layer, the wood becomes stronger, and has practically no expansion and contraction with the seasons (while a solid hardwood cabinet may expand and contract 1/8 to 1/4 inch or more, from front to back). High end furniture design using solid hardwoods should take into account the area of the country where it will be used; plywood-based furniture can be used anywhere. (Some window and door manufacturers even have factories serving different areas of the country to compensate for the different weather requirements.) In this mobile society, plywood has become the "universal" material since it works anywhere your job may take you.

Furniture Grades

There is no universal grading system for furniture (or there are so many grading systems that none are universally accepted). I think in a few very broad categories, which you may find helpful in deciding what you want, and helping us understand your wishes:

  1. Economy - mass produced, often using man-made materials such as melamine and RTF - Rigid Thermal Foil - printed embossed plastic that is vacuum applied to MDF or particle board. We are not interested in building this kind of furniture, in part because we cannot do as good a job as cheaply as high-volume factories. Life of the furniture may be 5 to 20 years (and it may start looking shabby in half that time). Great for a kid's play room or toy box, or a youth bed, or a night stand to take to college. As one woodworker said "it is already recycled material, so when you move, put it at the curb so the trash man can recycle it again." Or another woodworker said, "who will inherit your particle board?"
  2. Builder - economy style cabinets or furniture, either custom made or mass produced, but with some reinforcements and some superficial features like hardwood doors and drawer fronts. You were planning to replace that kitchen in 15 years anyway, so what is the problem? This may be a good idea. We guarantee our work, so we are not willing to simply nail the drawers together, or use shelving materials that will sag in a few years or eventually fail, or use plastic coated man-made material that initially looks great but doesn't wear well. We don't want to try to compete with Home Depot or Lowe's or your builder for this type of work.
  3. Custom - may be made from solid woods or plywood, with a far longer life expectancy than builder grade. For example, the plywood is probably the $100 per sheet furniture-type plywood, certainly not the $20 per sheet construction material. In some uses, plywood is stronger or stiffer than solid wood - shelves sag less. Construction techniques are simpler because there is less expansion/contraction with humidity. Thin plywood is used for cabinet backs that won't be seen. We consider this approach ideal for entertainment centers that hold technology that will change, and for built-in cabinets in the kitchen or office (giving them a 50 year life, or more, rather than looking "tired" after 10-15 years).
  4. Heirloom - furniture normally made from solid wood using techniques to allow the wood to expand and contract, and to allow repairs if needed. Generally no shortcuts are taken in workmanship, and no "holding back" on the materials. This type of furniture may use plywood and man-made materials as the base for exotic wood veneers, but generally not as the primary material. Life expectancy is indefinite - at least several generations.
  5. Reproduction - There are craftsmen that like to build reproductions of classic pieces from past centuries. Obviously plywood and modern hardware and finishes cannot be used in a true reproduction. Some craftsmen go as far as using hand planes and scrapers after power tools so the surfaces are authentic hand work. Cast brass hinges with flat slot screws are normal (even though they are not as strong as brass plated steel screws). Shellac is the most common finish (even though alcohol and water can destroy the finish). I admire the work of these craftsmen, but don't want to do that work or buy that furniture.
  6. Studio - the furniture is a work of art as well as a functional piece. The quality is often heirloom, but the design is ... well ... unique.

Compromise - For our own use (and for many of our customers) we like to build furniture that is a compromise between "custom" and "heirloom." The structure should last "forever" like heirloom furniture, but using modern materials when appropriate. We love to use solid hardwoods, but sometimes furniture-grade plywood is even better. For example, plywood is really superior for drawer bottoms (unless you want aromatic cedar), and is stiffer and more stable for the back of the cabinets (that will face the wall anyway). Plywood makes great shelves, and may be a good choice for cabinet sides. We might even use Masonite for the dust panels between drawers (cheaper furniture doesn't use any kind of dust panel). But we might choose solid wood tops, or wood edges around a veneer table top, where the "real" wood may have an advantage.

Another way of looking at the grades of furniture... If you are looking for the most economical solution, we can't help - Ikea or WalMart or Rooms-to-Go are better. If you are looking for a durable, quality solution, especially if special size or features are required, we are probably competitive - or may be downright attractive. If your requirements are extraordinary, and require skills we don't have (such as special carvings) we will gladly help you find someone who can meet your needs.

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