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wood drawer dovetail joint

Furniture Construction Overview

Many of the methods and theories that were used to build furniture more than 300 years ago are still in use today.  While there are essentially hundreds of ways to build furniture, there are some aspects of furniture construction that are common in quality furniture, regardless of the exact methods of construction.

Structural Details

As a general rule, the structural details of well-made furniture are hidden so that the aesthetic designs and decorations of the furniture are the main focus.  For example, some of the most finely constructed drawers have invisible dovetails, with the corners strengthened by dowels and corner blocks.  Corner blocks can be used in the construction of any kind of furniture, and are placed at the point of greatest strain.  When used correctly, corner blocks strengthen corners and prevent dowels from breaking.

wooden furniture dowels The use of dowel joints is one of the strongest — and most common — methods of joining for all types of furniture.  The dowels can be made of hardwood or steel, and are frequently grooved to prevent air pockets.  When dowels are used to join chairs, a corner block is sometimes used to join the side rails for added strengthening.

Mortise and tenon joints are a type of glue joint used to join stretchers to leg posts or top slats to the back posts of a chair.  If the right type of glue is used, this type of joining can be very strong.

Wood Grain Samples
walnut furniture wood grain
Walnut
mahogany furniture wood grain
Mahogany
cherry furniture wood grain
Cherry
oak furniture wood grain
Oak
birdseye maple furniture wood grain
Birdseye Maple
pine furniture wood grain
Pine

Furniture Woods

The types of wood used in furniture can be classified as hard or soft.  Hardwood is any wood from a leaf-bearing tree, while softwood is from a coniferous or evergreen tree.  Most woods used in making furniture have a grain that makes them strong in both post strength and beam strength.  Post strength is determined by how much weight the wood will bear from end to end, while beam strength is how far the wood will bow without breaking.  The most common hardwoods used in furniture making are walnut, oak, mahogany, and cherry, as well as birch, beech, maple, ash, elm, and pecan.  Common softwoods used to make furniture are pine, cedar, and redwood.

There are several types of woods that are used for the parts of the furniture that are concealed, including drawer sides, backs of furniture, and interiors.  Popular concealed woods include cottonwood, basswood, and gum.

Some furniture uses "veneers."  Veneers are basically thin strips of wood placed over the form or shape of the furniture.  Veneers are used because of their beautiful grains and patterns, and are frequently seen on antiques as well as in more modern quality furniture.  Rare and exotic woods are commonly used in veneers.

Furniture Finishes

applying varnish to furniture carvings Some wood furniture is sold unfinished, but most furniture manufacturers apply wood stains, wood sealers, and/or varnishes to their products before marketing them.  In any event, a carefully constructed piece of furniture deserves a good quality finish, which can be achieved through careful sanding and the use of appropriate staining and finishing products.

The finish of high-quality furniture should be smooth to the touch, with no rough areas.  In the finest furniture, all parts are finished, including the backs, interiors, and other places that aren't immediately visible.  In situations where stain or varnish is applied, coats should be even.

Assembling a Piece of Furniture with a Hex-Head Screw

Furniture Industry Trade References

Furniture Construction Bibliography

  • FMM Center Books - North Carolina State University's Furniture Manufacturing and Management Center publishes three excellent textbooks concerning the manufacture of furniture, including Furniture Manufacturing Processes, Furniture Construction, and Furniture Manufacturing Equipment.

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