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A Guide for Buying Unfinished Wooden Furniture

© Examine the joints to make sure they're well matched and fastened; gaps between pieces are hard to deal with.

Out of all the different types and styles of unfinished furniture, how do you know which pieces are worth buying? In this article, we'll discuss what to look for when selecting unfinished furniture, what work you'll have to do to get the piece ready, and how to fix what you've bought.

Price, unfortunately, is the first indicator. You really get what you pay for with this furniture. Before you buy any unfinished piece, comparison shop to get an idea of what's available. Most unfinished furniture is pine, but some is made with other woods. Whatever type of wood is used, the quality of the wood and the workmanship that goes into the piece can vary tremendously.

When you find a piece of furniture you like, take a good look at it. Is the wood clear or full of knots, smooth or rough? Cheap furniture is usually knotty and sap-streaked; the more expensive pieces are made with better-quality wood. What state is the wood in? Cheap furniture is probably raw, and may have rough edges and deep saw gouges. Good unfinished furniture is often already sanded, ready for finishing.

Another important consideration is how well the piece of furniture is made. Most unfinished furniture is assembled with staples driven by a power staple gun. Unless the stapling is carefully done, the joints may not be secure. How sturdy is the piece? Does it have wobbly legs, or are parts of it poorly fastened together? You can fix loose joints, but it's hard to salvage a piece that's badly matched or falling apart completely.

Are doors and drawers aligned properly, and do they work smoothly? If they don't, is it because they're the wrong size for the opening or because of loosely or inaccurately fastened hardware or drawer guides? You can deal with mechanical problems, but a part that's too big or too small can never be adjusted. Examine all moving parts to make sure they're cut, joined, and assembled properly. Finishing can do a lot, but it can't remake a shoddy piece.

The style of the funiture also is important. Look at the style. Do you like the lines of the piece? Will it do the job you want it for? Don't settle for a piece of furniture that's the wrong size or style; it isn't worth working on something you don't really want. On the other hand, a piece of furniture that's basically right can be given any character you like with different hardware, trim moldings, decorations, or special finishes.

Before you make a final decision, assess the work you'll have to do to get the piece ready to finish -- cleaning out knotholes and sap pockets, regluing legs, renailing drawers, repairing splits, smoothing splintered edges, changing hardware. How much time and effort will it take? How much hardware and trim will you have to add? Are the size and style right? Do you like the wood? How much are you saving by buying the piece unfinished? It all comes down to one basic question: is it worth it? If you choose carefully, it is.

Once you've selected a piece, you're all set to take on all those little problems. Learn how to get your wooden furniture cleaned up and ready for finishing in the next section.