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A Guide to Shopping for Quality Furniture

Expert tips on what to look for in wood, metal and glass furniture, and how to tell if it’s worth your dime
By Nadine El Sayed

W e all go through it: the knocking on the closet panels, the chair lifting and the plumping down on the sofa trying to look like we know how to inspect furniture we’re about to pay a fortune for. The embarrassing reality is, we rarely know what we’re actually doing and normally just pretend to look savvy hoping the seller can’t tell we’re bluffing.
Interior designer and engineer Mohamed Nouh, founder of Faragh Designs, and designer Lina Alorabi give us the industry secrets on how to assess quality of woods, what joints should look like and just what to look for when furniture shopping. Edited excerpts:

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How do we spot quality wood in furniture?
Alorabi: If the wood is actually showing this is a good sign. What happens here is that they paint over everything so you don’t know what kind of wood this is. They might tell you it’s oak and it’s really beech.

Nouh: If the finishing shows the wood, the first thing you need to look at is the grain to make sure that the grain is unified all over the piece, because this is how you know that they’re using the same piece of wood.

What are the different kinds of wood, and what should we expect to be more durable?
Alorabi: Oak (aro) is the most durable and it’s the hardest wood. It’s also the most expensive in the Egyptian market, along with mahogany (mahogana). The fibers of the wood are compact so you get a smooth finish, and it’s a harder wood. The fibers are a series of tubes compacted together and this is how the nutrients flow.

The tubes in cheaper woods are less compact making them less hard.Although some people may manufacture a bedroom entirely from oak, this is very expensive and unnecessary. Now there are newer technologies, like MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard); MDF pieces take less space than pieces made of oak, and it’s lighter and cheaper.

Oak is good for tables and dining rooms. It’s a good marketing point when the wood shows, but if it’s pai

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nted, you might as well go for the beech, which is also very durable.

Nouh: For average pieces of furniture, you can use beechwood (zan), which is reddish in color. It is also used in chairs and sofas, unless there’s a lot of wood showing from the sofa and then people prefer oak, even though beech is still durable for a sofa.

So what is manufactured wood and when is it okay to use it?
Nouh: Engineered woods are man-made of derivative wood products that are pressed together and then topped with a layer of better-quality wood (eshra, or a veneer). This can be plywood (ablakash), particle board (conter) or MDF. Many pieces of furniture now are made of a mixture of manufactured and solid woods, although some are made solely of MDF.

Alorabi: If you want a very clean, modern look, more storage and capacity, then MDF is good. But it is all about the finishing. MDF can actually cost more than solid wood just because of the finishing. The finishing could be more durable if it’s well manufactured. Any time you spot visible joinings in MDF, like screws, then you know it’s low quality. High quality MDF should show nothing; it should be perfectly finished because MDF is made for modern design, which is all about streamlined and machine-made perfection.

How can you tell if it’s manufactured, not natural wood?
Nouh: If it’s bigger than 30 centimeters then it’s probably manufactured wood. If it’s a panel, like a closet door, for instance, it’s probably manufactured wood. If it is too thin, then it’s not solid wood, it’s probably compressed wood which is stronger.

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So is manufactured wood a sign of lower-quality furniture?
Alorabi: It’s not necessarily a bad thing that it’s not natural wood. In Europe, MDF is used in many things, including high-quality furniture. But then it’s finished better than natural wood.

Nouh: With manufactured wood you need to use a veneer afterwards to give the wood effect and then paint it. But with massive wood, you don’t need to do this because it’s all wood anyway.

But which parts should be made of solid wood and which parts can be made of manufactured wood?
Nouh: If you’re making a table, you need massive wood for the legs and frames but the top can be manufactured wood, like MDF or veneer. Anything that carries weight has to be made of solid, massive wood, like bed legs, sofas’ main structure and chairs’ legs. Any wood carvings are also made of massive wood. The main frames of closets are also made of solid wood, but sometimes they are made of manufactured wood, like plywood, and they just add a veneer over it to make it look like natural wood. Manufactured wood isn’t well finished from the sides because the laminate is only glued on the top and the bottom.

Alorabi: In Europe, they have advanced machines that can laminate the entire piece of wood and it looks fantastic that you wouldn’t even know. But here, in Egypt, it’s very expensive so they don’t invest in these kinds of technologies.

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What do we need to look at to spot quality finishing?
Nouh: The edges and curves really show quality finishing, a 90-degree edge would really show if the quality is good or not. The curves also need to be very smooth, if it’s staggered you know it’s cheap manufacturing. You also need to make sure there aren’t any weak points that will crack over time. In the Wave table, for instance, it is made of many layers of plywood and it requires speed and quality to manufacture. To get the perfect curve and make sure it’s durable, we had to create a mold to shape the wood around it. Then the wood is layered on the mold into different sections. The joints in each section of the wood overlap so they aren’t all concentrated in one section. This is important in similar tables because it means it gives it more durability and it means it will not have a weak point that will eventually split.

Alorabi: The painting needs to be very smooth, without any drops or dust stuck in the paint. Furniture has to be painted on a leveled surface to avoid drops and needs to be cleaned before painting. It should then be sprayed in the spray room, which is a filtered area with no dust. The paint needs to dry in a similar room.

Which bits do we need to inspect to truly put the finishing to the test?
Nouh: The insides of the drawers, for instance, are important; they need to be full painted or coated with plastic even if they don’t show from the outside. The insides all need to be coated for protection; it doesn’t have to be of the same color of the paint but it needs to be covered, even with varnish.
You also look at the accessories; if it’s a cupboard or a chest of drawers, for instance, you need to look at the hinges and the drawer accessories. The drawers need to be smoothly open and shut. If it’s a push-press drawer or a self-closing system and if the hinges are self-closing, it probably means it’s of higher quality.
If you compare an Italian hinge to a Chinese one, you can see the difference in quality even though the Chinese is a replica. Higher quality hinges are more solid, they have more weight and more controlled movement, so the doors won’t slam.
With hardwood, if the wood is showing, the joints show then they have to be perfectly leveled, cut and installed. Proper joinery is a sign of quality and craftsmanship.

Should we worry if the accessories are all made in China?
Alorabi: Not really, they have different ranges, some are of good quality and more expensive and others are cheap and of poor quality.

Should we look for glued or nailed joints?
Nouh: Tongue and groove joints are mainly used to join massive woods, mainly in wooden floors and frames and it is more common in demountable furniture. In furniture, glued joints are better than nailed ones. Anything with screws in wood is bad because it means it will keep eating away at the wood over time. Sometimes during manufacturing they might nail the joint together until the glue hardens but then they remove it.

What about upholstery, how do we spot quality sofas?
Nouh: It’s almost impossible to tell, you have to go to a manufacturer you trust. It won’t feel any different when you’re sitting down on it at first because the comfort depends on the foam. You can only tell whether it’s properly upholstered after a few years of use so you need to go to a trusted seller. But you can look at stitching, if you see a lot of stitching that isn’t intentionally added for design purposes, it isn’t a good sign. You have to make sure it isn’t crooked. Check the quality of the fabric they use in the invisible parts, for instance, like the bottom of the sofa.

So what are the things you should ask about in a sofa to make sure it’s properly manufactured?
Nouh: Things like springs can show the quality. In the Zamalek and Big Auntie sofas we made lately, we used metal springs as opposed to elastic bands. Elastic bands get looser after a while and collapse, but metal springs are like springs on cars’ wheels, they maintain their shape. They are stitched on solid, not rubber, bands at the bottom and top, so it’s very durable.
Here, in Egypt, they call it the French way of upholstery and it is a very specialized method and takes a lot of time and craftsmanship. So it’s very expensive, not just because the springs are more expensive than rubber bands, but because there are few craftsmen who can properly work the metal springs.

How can we tell quality glass in furniture?
The glass for something like the Wave table, for instance, needs to be laser-cut, not done manually. For curvy things like that, you need to make sure the glass is perfectly smooth over the edges and the curves are just right, and this can only be done perfectly through laser-cut glass. The finishing and precision shows in such cuts, so make sure there aren’t any chipped or crooked areas.
There is also crystal glass and normal glass; crystal glass is clearer. The thickness needs to be correlated to the purpose of the glass. So for a glass like the one in the Wave table, it needs to be about one centimeter thick. Glass for coffee tables like the Wave need to be tempered (sicorite), which is more expensive, so when it breaks it doesn’t hurt anyone. Glass partitions or shower cabinets also need to be tempered.

What about metal and stainless steel in furniture?
Welding metal is really difficult here. Spot good-quality metalwork by looking at the welding, which needs to be flat and has no holes. You shouldn’t normally see the weld, you should feel like it’s one piece. You would see a line, but it needs to be very thin and smooth.

Finally, where should we shop for trusted furniture?
Go to specialized and trusted names in the market. Don’t go to an accessories shop that carries a few pieces of furniture or went into manufacturing even though it isn’t their specialty. et

 

Nouh and Alorabi are collaborating with Sirocco Gallery to launch Alorabi’s debut limited furniture collection in Egypt after working for years in the European markets, including the UK and Germany. The opening night will also feature an interactive tutorial session using prototypes for interested guests interested in knowing how to spot quality furniture and key signs to look for.
The exhibition launches on November 17 from 6pm to 10pm, then is open daily November 18–23, 10am–10pm. Sirocco Gallery • 14 Shagaret El Dorr Street, Zamalek • Tel. +2 (012) 7346-6733

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