Understanding what material has been used and why it's been used, is really important when assessing the value of the furniture you buy. A lot of furniture is made out of wood or wood-based material so we will have a look at this area first. Most furniture has a decorative or protective surface coating which obscures the true nature of the material so you will often rely on the product description, and want to be familiar with the terms used.
1. Solid Timber.
Simply put, "solid timber" is a tree cut into pieces, dried and processed into products. We love how solid timber ages and in fifty years you might want to sand it back and reveal the grain underneath. Designers love solid timber because it has a natural edge that can be shaped in any profile. The downside is a susceptibility to cracks and movement if not dried correctly and you should always research the type of timber to confirm that it is in a low risk category for illegal logging. http://www.agriculture.gov.au/forestry/policies/illegal-logging
Price category: High (hardwoods higher than softwoods, with some exceptions like Acacia being a hardwood with softwood characteristics and price-point). Although solid timber is considered a premium product it also generates the most customer complaints, mostly related to variance between the product received and the sample seen at the the store. The more natural the timber look, the more variation to be expected. If you don't like variation don't buy natural timber, get a stained timber or a veneer.
2. Timber Veneer.
Veneer is a thin slice of the tree, layed out and glued to a board. It's has been a well regarded furniture technique used for centuries to ensure stability and keep costs down. Veneers range from 1mm which don't allow for much wear and tear, to 3mm which can sustain surface treatments like brushing and distressing. The part on top is real timber, just a thin bit of it. The sides of the board will need some type of edge band applied and this is a potentially vulnerable to knocks and chips.
Price category: Medium to high
3. Laminate. Similar to a timber veneer but the the thin layer on top is plastic (melamine) or paper printed to look like timber or something else. Famous for bench tops with very good properties for resisting heat and stains. Like veneer, the vulnerable area is the edge, so look closely at how the edge has been finished. The good ones are very scratch resistant, the cheaper ones not so.
Price category: Low to medium
Thin slices of timber stacked on top of each other, then pressed and glued into a board. Super strong due to the grain direction being alternated in each layer. The layer on top is selected for appearance and the middled layers for strength. Plywood can be pressed flat or over a mould to form any shape which has made it very attractive to the Eames, Alvar Allto and other great experimental designers over time.
Price category: Medium
5. Medium density fibreboard (MDF). Made from timber which has been smashed into little pieces then mixed with glue and pressed into a board. Very stable and great for painting but has very little structural strength so not suitable for long spans. Particle board is the same but the little smashed pieces are bigger and visible on the edge of the board. Look for "E0" rated board made with lower toxicity glue. MDF is really heavy because of all the glue so thick panels are made with a hollow core (which also makes them stronger). High gloss furniture is generally made from MDF then sanded and painted.
Price category: Low
That is just a very general run through on some of the the timber based materials you will see in the product descriptions. There is a price difference between each of these materials but price is not always the motivating factor behind the choice. The design of each product requires specific qualities in components that might be best served by a solid timber or a manufactured board.
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