Wood Furniture: Real or Fake? (How to Tell)

How to tell if your furniture is real wood.

I was recently asked this question by a reader and thought it would be a great blog post topic. It’s something that I have wondered about in the past and had to learn more about as I started refinishing furniture. So, how can you tell if your furniture is solid wood versus laminate or veneer? There are several ways to determine this.

Weight
Solid wood furniture is heavy. Really heavy. If your furniture is fairly light-weight, it’s probably not solid wood.

Drawer Construction
A great indicator of solid wood is dovetail construction. Your furniture may still have veneer fronts, but it’s most likely constructed of solid wood if you see that tongue and groove construction where the drawer connects to the drawer front.

How to tell if your furniture is real wood.
Due to the weight of this piece along with the dovetail construction of the drawers, we easily determined it was solid wood. Before it was painted, it was also evident that the fronts were covered in sheets of veneer. (Please ignore the sloppy painting on the side of the drawer!)

How to tell if your furniture is real wood.
Another example of dovetail drawer construction.

Sides/Bottom
Take a look at the sides and underneath your piece of furniture. If there is a veneer, you will be able to look at it from the side and see where the sheet of veneer attaches to the front of the piece. Also, if you see unfinished wood underneath the furniture, it’s probably wood and not laminate which tends to cover the furniture from top to bottom. Veneer will also have a horizontal grain pattern on the edges, whereas solid wood will have no grain on the edges.

Grain
If you can feel the grain and see a varying pattern, it’s probably solid wood. Sometimes it’s hard to feel with your fingertips if it has been sealed, so you will have to use several ways of inspecting the piece to know for sure. If you see the grain but the pattern tends to repeat and it lacks texture and feels perfectly smooth, it’s probably veneer. If it lacks grain altogether, it’s most likely laminate.

How to tell if your furniture is real wood.
This is our cheapo filing cabinet made out of particle board. This “fake” is easy to spot because of its light weight and overall poor quality construction. No dovetail joints, no grain, and when you open it you can see the particle board on the back of the drawer.

Carved Details
If the wood has an ornate or carved detailing, it is wood. Laminate and veneers cannot be carved.

Cost
Plain and simple, solid wood costs a lot more.

Many veneers are made of real wood, and just because a piece of furniture has veneer on it does not mean it is not good quality or durable. Real wood veneers can even be stained. Just be careful sanding veneers, as you do not want to damage it or sand it off completely.

I hope this is helpful. Let me remind you that I am not an expert. I am simply learning as I go and sharing tips that I’ve picked up along the way. If you have any questions, or anything to add to this, please let me know!

Comments

  1. Great info, Erin! I’m a “drawer checker” when it comes to furniture shopping. :)
    xo Heidi

  2. Pictures above are really great and nobody can tell in first look that it is wood or steel. The main thing is that it is beautiful and cost effective.

  3. The main thing to check that furniture is real wood or not, just check its weight, real wood is very heavy.

  4. solid wood furniture

    The solid wood is heavy in weight and thick in dimension. The products which are made of these woods sustains for long duration of life. They can be crafted easily in any useful product.

  5. How would you paint a piece of furniture that is both wood and laminate? My coffee table top seems to be real wood but the legs are definitely laminate.

    • Erin @ DIY on the Cheap says:

      Hi Jessica,

      You can use the same process, just be very careful when sanding the laminate part. Just barely sand it enough to rough up the surface so that the paint can “grab” onto it. I have a furniture painting tutorial which you can find here: http://diyonthecheap.com/how-to-paint-furniture-a-beginners-guide/ – just take extra care with the laminate part. I have painted laminate with no problem in the past, just be sure to seal it with something so it doesn’t crack or peel after it dries.

  6. I’m sorry I do not agree with your comment about real wood being very heavy. Press board is so much heavier than real wood. We move all types of furniture every day and have found this to be true in all pieces. We use the weight test when looking to purchase pieces for our Shop and if it’s super heavy it’s less likely to be real wood and be made from press board which makes a piece of furniture very very heavy. Laminated is the term for the top coat on a piece of furniture real wood or fake, laminate is not what the piece if made out of.

    • Erin @ DIY on the Cheap says:

      Are you referring to MDF? Laminate is generally light weight. You are right, MDF is quite heavy. I have had several pieces of furniture in the past made of plastic laminate and it is very lightweight. There are also laminate topcoats, you are right. I mention how to tell if there is a laminate coating as well. There are several types of laminate.

    • Erin @ DIY on the Cheap says:

      I should also mention that I have many solid wood pieces, all of which are extremely heavy and much heavier than my plastic laminate pieces.

  7. Madison says:

    I bought a desk recently and I think it might have real cheap wood but with veneer over it. I think it is veneer because it is peeling in some places. I really want to paint this desk white. I think the whole piece is veneer including a drawer and hutch that it has, and I’m not sure how to sand all that. Do you have to sand veneer projects? If so, then how far do you sand to keep the piece not ruined and still smooth? Also what is your tips on sanding? This is my first ever painting job on such a large desk and I want it to go well, but I don’t even know how well it will turn out with sanding it, what is your advice? Thanks!

  8. One thing I just learned the hard way – the legs on dresser I just purchased off Craigslist are curved but upon closer inspection I realized that carved part of legs is plastic! The give away was that the curved portion is attached to wood leg. So one thing you could add to your article is to see if the legs are all one piece or not.

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