What Type of Wood is Best for Furniture? – A Fella Design Guide
As a furniture store, a very common question we receive is: what type of wood is best to make furniture? There are so many kinds of wood to choose from that it can get confusing. Not to mention that there aren’t many reliable sources of information online when it comes to buying the furniture in Malaysia. This creates a general situation where the average consumer doesn’t really know what to look for when buying wooden furniture. What kind of wood is used to make furniture? What is the hardest wood? What is the most expensive wood for furniture? We answer all these questions in our guide and more!
Types Of Wood
From the earliest of times, wood has been the go-to material when it comes to making furniture. It is sturdy, reliable, flexible and easy to work with, not to mention renewable and plentiful. While not every type of wood can be used for furniture, there are many that can. While in the West, it is common to use woods like Pine, Oak and Mahogany for furniture, here in Malaysia, we use a wide variety of equally sturdy tropical woods like Chengal, Teak and Rubberwood.
Not many people know the difference between the many types of wood found in furniture, and there are many common misconceptions that should be cleared up before you buy your next dining table! Each type of wood has its peculiar advantages, disadvantages and characteristics, which make it suitable for this kind of furniture or that.
We also clear up some serious fears people usually have surrounding manufactured woods like Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF) and plywood, as well as highlighting to Malaysians that local wood does not mean bad wood! In quite a number of cases, tropical wood has the same level of quality as imported wood, if not better.
With over 30 years of expertise in Malaysia’s furniture industry, Fella Design has put together this guide to help the average consumer choose the best type of wood for furniture!
Types of wood for furniture, separated into manufactured and solid woods.
Manufactured Vs. Solid Wood
When Malaysians think of manufactured woods like Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF) and plywood, we automatically think that it is “bad quality”. But solid woods aren’t guaranteed to be better than manufactured woods when it comes to furniture. It all depends on what purpose the furniture serves.
For example, solid woods are worked straight from the tree logs they are cut from. Depending on surrounding factors like heat and humidity, it is useful to think of solid woods as alive. Always capable of warping and changing shape and even colour over time. Manufactured woods like MDF don’t have this problem. Once worked, they will retain the given shape for a long time.
Additionally, solid wood furniture are incredibly heavy, not to mention expensive. If you are an accomplished middle-aged married couple with a house, perhaps. But if you are a young couple with an apartment up on the 30th floor, solid wood furniture is actually less practical than what you need. You would need wooden furniture that is functional, cheap, yet still solid and sturdy. What you are looking for is manufactured wood with an expensive-looking veneer for style.
Manufactured wood isn’t necessarily worse than solid wood furniture. It all depends on your particular needs as a consumer.
Chipboards are very inexpensive, manufactured wood. They are made by bonding wood chips and shavings together with resin into dense pieces of working material. Chipboards are tremendously popular with low budget furniture brands like IKEA. They are usually veneered and used for flat surfaces like end tables.
While chipboard uses wood chips, fibreboard is created by breaking down hardwoods and softwoods into fibres which are then bonded using wax and resin under intense heat. There are many kinds of fibreboard. Chipboards or Particle Boards are considered Low Density Fibreboard (LDF). There are also Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF) and High Density Fibreboard (HDF).
By far, the most popular of the fibreboards have to be MDF. MDF is known for its durability and strength, and for this reason they are often used as a part of furniture making.
Malaysians often think that plywood is a cheap, low quality material, but this is not always the case! Plywood is actually a very strong manufactured wood made up of thin layers of veneer which are bonded together to create a sturdy sheet of wood. Bonded using a cross-ply technique, plywood is extremely popular in furniture and flooring due to its resistance to warping, versatility and strength!
MEDIUM DENSITY FIBREBOARD (MDF)
MDF is one of the most popular wood materials used in furniture. It is stronger than most people think, and when veneered by an expert, it can sometimes be difficult to tell veneered MDF and solid wood apart! A great majority of furniture go for MDF with a wooden veneer, giving it an expensive-looking touch.
While MDF is not solid wood, it will last far longer than you expect at the fraction of the price.
A veneer is a very thin layer of wood that is expertly cut from the circumference of a tree. The veneer is then bonded onto a dense piece of wood, normally MDF or plywood to create a very naturalistic wooden texture impression. While this way of working wood is certainly more cost-effective, this doesn’t mean that the furniture made from veneered wood is cheaper or of a lower quality. Veneering is a complicated process, and in many cases, veneered furniture can have better build quality than solid wood furniture.
The standard way to identify veneering is by looking at the edges, checking to see if the grain runs off the top and over the sides. If it cuts off abruptly over the edges, it is veneer. Natural wood veneer can’t be bonded over edges, and can accept stains and finishes much like solid wood. But with today’s technology, beautiful synthetic veneers that can be bonded over edges have begun to compete with natural wood veneers.
Tropical Vs. Imported Wood
Malaysians would be surprised if they knew the sheer size of the Malaysian furniture export market. In 2017, furniture exports topped a whopping RM10.14 billion, with wooden furniture making up RM8.1 billion, or roughly 80% of total furniture export earnings. We have a huge furniture industry, and this is possible largely thanks to the blessings of one of our many natural resources: tropical timber.
There is actually not as much difference between imported and tropical wood as one would think. There are more differences between individual timber character in the same group than between the groups themselves! It’s important here to highlight the common perception that local products have lower quality than imported products. This isn’t always the case for local wooden furniture! With that said, let’s explore the individual characteristics of the most popular wood for furniture.
Rubberwood is an extremely popular semi-hardwood here in Malaysia. Most furniture in Malaysia is made from rubberwood. It has a pale cream colour and a moderately coarse texture with straight to shallowly interlocked grain. Rubberwood is easy to work with, planes easily for smooth finishes, and with a consistent supply, no wonder it’s the most popular wood for furniture!
A well known hardwood. Meranti comes in two forms: Light Red Meranti or Dark Red Meranti. With its deep brownish-red tone, highly interlocked grain and high degree of resistance to warping or twisting, Meranti wood is perfect for molding, structure, furniture, cabinets and veneers.
Also local to the Philippines and Indonesia, Nyatoh is a softwood relatively to other exotic local hardwoods. It resembles Cherry wood, with its fine to moderately coarse texture and fine to straight grain. Nyatoh is very easy to work with, as it stains and polishes well.
A world-renown tropical hardwood, Teakwood is famous for its golden colour, which seasons into a vibrant silvery gray with age. Due to the natural oils locked within the tree, Teakwood has the greatest weather-resistant properties than any other type of wood. This makes it an excellent material to for outdoor furniture. Its sheer durability and resistance to decay make Teak one of the more expensive tropical woods for furniture.
Oak is a very well known wood for furniture due to its exceeding strength, weight and durability. Oak also has an attractive light brown colour, what we would call a natural wood tone, as well as a prominent open grain. Oak is the most popular wood for American and English country styles of furniture.
An expensive and world famous hardwood, Mahogany is sought after for its robust, full-bodied coloration and versatility. One of the darker tones available in wood for furniture, Mahogany is thus extremely popular for use as veneers.
Pine is a popular softwood. Known for its affordability and light weight compared to the heavier hardwoods, Pine is a staple in North American furniture. It has a wide variety of finish options, being easy to stain. This lends it a versatility that blends well with existing furniture you might have.
Walnut wood is so called after its seed, the walnut. Known to be hard, dense, tight-grained and very polishable, walnut is attractive wood for furniture indeed. Walnut is rated as very durable in terms of decay resistance, which contributes to its lasting quality.
Hardwood Vs. Softwood
Wood can be subdivided into manufactured wood or solid wood. Solid wood can be further subdivided into hardwood or softwood. Understanding the basic characteristics of wood is very important and you should really get to know it before buying wooden furniture.
Contrary to popular belief, hardwoods aren’t necessarily hard, and softwoods aren’t necessarily soft. Hardwoods and softwoods are distinguished not through their end use or appearance, but by their botanical reproduction as trees!
In general, hardwoods come from deciduous, broad-leaved trees that lose their leaves annually, while softwoods come from conifers, who remain evergreen. Hardwoods are angiosperms, they produce seeds that are covered by some kind of outer layer – a shell or fruit. Softwoods are gymnosperms, forming cones that emit pollen to be spread around by the wind. So you see, a hardwood doesn’t have to be hard, and a softwood doesn’t have to be soft!
When translated into wood for furniture,this distinction does make some sense though. Hardwoods usually take longer to grow, producing denser, harder wood, while evergreens grow quickly and they are therefore less dense.
Indian furniture has to be on the top of the list when it comes to the cultural furniture of the world. Indian furniture is known for its use of handcrafted (and in some cases hand-painted) solid woods local to the subcontinent: mango, acacia or Sheesham wood. When it comes to wooden furniture, Indian furniture has some of the most romantic, timeless and reparable furniture in the world. Check out our article dissecting the various features of Indian furniture now! Fella Design’s sister brand Urban Culture specializes in Oriental fusion styles, importing furniture from all over South Asia!
In summary, different styles, tastes, needs and preferences of the consumer have to be taken into account when buying wooden furniture. Does manufactured or solid wood suit your preference more? Does your living space need furniture made of softwood or hardwood? The most expensive wood isn’t necessarily the best wood for your needs. It all depends on what you’re looking for! So remember to define your needs very clearly before setting out to shop for wooden furniture. Remember also that imported wood doesn’t necessarily mean a better quality. Our local tropical woods have as much quality as those that we import! Happy hunting!