Owning real wood furniture is like having a fine car: For the higher price you get a more exclusive look and maybe even improved function, when compared with furniture made of cheaper material. But to make it last and sustain its value, it should be maintained. For the most part, that comes down to keeping the surface looking like new and, more importantly, keeping the joints on chairs and other weight-bearing pieces snug.
The look, the surface finish, is what comes to mind first. In the case of most modern furniture - whether expensive hardwoods or particleboard - that's strictly a cosmetic effort. Though the finish on nearly any valuable antique will be labor-intensive varnish, shellac or rubbed oil and wax, the surface finishes of nearly all mass-produced furniture made since the mid-1900s are synthetic and impermeable. And oiling or waxing wood with a modern impermeable finish isn't really doing anything for the wood, says Jeff Foote, owner of Bix Service Co., 440 N. Fourth Ave. It's just cleaning it and making it shiny. But it still can be done improperly.
Modern furniture finishes could be polyurethane (a hard, plastic-like coating commonly used on lower-priced furniture) or catalyzed lacquers, a quick-drying finish that produces a durable surface and is Foote's choice for most refinishing jobs done at Bix. He says it's difficult - often nearly impossible - to conclusively identify the exact finish on relatively modern furniture. In his business, it doesn't matter. Foote says he never puts a new finish over an existing finish, the piece is always stripped/sanded down to bare wood before it is refinished.
But treating any of these modern finishes is mainly a cosmetic task, removing dust and grime, and putting a shine on the surface. "You want to make the surface look like it did when it was new," he says. But Foote says that doesn't mean you should use just any product.
"You can use a damp cloth (to remove dust and dirt) or some kind of oil to maintain it," Foote says. "But use a citrus-based oil. No Endust, Pledge. Nothing in a spray can. It (spray can products) is a dirty word. It gives you that buildup, the black grimy stuff where your hands are always touching." The silicone in the spray can formulas just sits on top of the finish, he says.
And while the modern finishes are tough, they sometimes still get damaged. Short of a full stripping or sanding and refinishing, there are ways to touch up surface damage on real wood surfaces.
"I don't have the time, patience, or facilities for refinishing," says Dan Hostetler, owner of Tempus Fugit Woodworks, a Tucson custom furniture maker. "But I've had pretty good luck touching up old chairs simply by some very light sanding or steel wool, using a matched stain on the scratches and gouges." He said it "makes them, visually anyway, almost disappear." He then applies a "rub on/rub off oil/varnish mix that restores a bit of luster."
There are also a number of commercial products - tinted putty, touch up markers - that can be used to cover up and color-match damaged wood. MinWax has a number of products for this kind of repair work and tips on how to use them at its web site, www.minwax.com
There are also many how-to repair video tutorials on YouTube.
While maintaining finishes on real wood furniture is mostly cosmetic, maintaining the integrity of furniture joints, particularly on chairs, can be a matter of safety. A chair with bad joints will continue to get worse with use. And one Thanksgiving dinner, portly Uncle Morty could wind up on the floor in a pile of chair pieces.
Chairs are often considered the peak of the furniture maker's craft. Not only are they made of precisely curved or bent components that must match perfectly, but they must support constantly changing weight loads - and sometimes twisting stresses.
Structural problems in otherwise well-made chairs usually come down to loose glue joints, Hostetler says. The problem is that the dowel (glued peg-in-hole) construction used in most moderately priced chairs and other furniture doesn't offer enough glue-able surface area to make joints as strong and long lasting as some more labor-intensive methods, such as mortise and tenon.
But dowel glue joints can be repaired, although Hostetler says disassembling, regluing and clamping chairs is so labor intensive that he rarely does it.
Foote says the No. 1 rule for fixing bad glue joints is to remove the existing glue before applying the new glue. Glues are made for bonding with wood, not other glues.
Rule No. 2 is to adequately clamp joints while the glue dries.
And even after following his own rules, Foote says his guarantee only lasts "as long as the front legs of that chair don't come off the floor."
Hostetler agrees, emphatically.
"Chairs are not really designed for any kind of racking or twisting stresses, which is why every parent on the planet has scolded a child for leaning back on one," Hostetler says.
The same principles apply to wobbly wooden legs on tables, couches, stand alone cabinets and bookcases, though most of them are not subjected to the constantly changing location and loads that chairs are.
But we can't blame it all on the kids. There are two other chair killers that factor into failures.
Uneven surfaces such as tiled floors, especially high-crowned Mexican tile, subject chairs to increased joint stress as each leg carries its downward load to different levels and all the connecting pieces must give a little - or break.
Even without an uneven floor, Foote says the natural almost constant expansion or contraction of wood - which varies depending on the individual grain and humidity - leads joints to eventually weaken.
And, speaking of forces weakening chair joints, Thanksgiving dinner and Uncle Morty:
Hostetler says, "in truth, people getting progressively more huge really does factor in."
How to handle particleBoard
While it helps to maintain particleboard furniture, it's not always possible to repair because of construction techniques and materials used on most cheap furniture. Cam-lock hardware - the metal mechanisms used to connect components in most "some-assembly-required" furniture - may loosen over time and from use.
If you've ever sat on the floor with a pile of crudely illustrated instructions and several bags of odd-looking dull metal parts that you have to insert in pre-drilled holes in particleboard pieces, that's probably cam-lock hardware and the structural material of the piece is probably particleboard rather than solid wood.
If the joints have loosened - there are gaps between components or it wobbles - use the specified assembly tool (usually an allen wrench, sometimes included with the assembly kit, or sometimes a Phillips screwdriver) to give it a clockwise turn. But this may not work because the particleboard material used in most of this furniture eventually disintegrates, crumbling so that the hardware fits loosely and can't be sufficiently tightened to eliminate wobbling.
Some of this furniture works well, unless it gets wet or until it is moved. Typically, the cam-lock mechanisms don't fail, but the particleboard in which they are set does. Many manufacturers recommend disassembling components before moving this type of furniture.