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How To Buy Furniture : The dining room table

Dining room tables can last a lifetime if, knock on wood, you buy one of quality.
By CINDY HOEDEL The Kansas City Star

A dining table may be the single most expensive piece of furniture you ever buy. Choose wisely and it could last a lifetime and become a prized family heirloom. But let yourself be swayed by low price or looks alone, and you could land a lemon that wobbles, cracks and is too flimsy to be repaired.

Locally and nationally, complaints about furniture have been on the rise in the last five years, and dining tables are no exception. The most frequent complaints involve wobbling, especially with pedestal tables, says Cherie Reese, vice president of the Better Business Bureau of Greater Kansas City.

Local refinishers say many tables manufactured today can¡¯t be refinished: Veneers are so thin the tiniest dings or chips expose the underlying substrate.

The good news is, telling a good table from a bad one isn¡¯t rocket science. The differences are easy to see if you take the time to shop around.

Start by looking at top-of-the-line tables at interior design showrooms, recommends Jim Santilli, owner of Kansas City Upholstery. Experiencing excellent craftsmanship close-up will make it easier to evaluate the quality of more affordable tables.

At the very high and very low ends of the price spectrum, quality is predictable. An $8,000 dining table will almost certainly be finely crafted, and a $500 table will almost certainly not be.

But in the middle range, say between $2,000 and $4,000, price is a very unreliable indicator of quality. A $2,500 dining table could be a good investment and a permanent addition to your home, or a big waste of money.

Heidi Mikhail of Prairie Village learned the hard way that you can¡¯t judge a table by appearance alone. Last year, Mikhail bought a table and six chairs for $600. ¡°The table is really pretty, and I get compliments on it all the time,¡± she said.

But the table scratches so easily Mikhail is afraid to set anything on it. Plates, glasses or silverware scooting across the surface leave scratches in the very dark finish that won¡¯t come out. ¡°It¡¯s very frustrating,¡± she said.

Mikhail now notices how much better one friend¡¯s more expensive table has held up. It has a ¡°bulletproof¡± finish that seems impervious to light surface scratching. ¡°I would definitely pay more next time,¡± she said.

Here are the main considerations in buying a table:

The look

A dining table is the centerpiece of any room it occupies. Interior designer Patrick McFarland of Madden-McFarland Interiors in Leawood says most of his clients want a formal table with a ¡°wow¡± factor. If that¡¯s the look you want, you probably want a veneered table. Good veneers have more dramatic patterning in the grain than solid wood.

Veneers have been around since ancient Egypt, says furniture designer and restorer Albert de Leon, co-owner of De Leon Furniture in Kansas City, Kan. Done properly, they offer some advantages over solid wood. For example, they are less likely to warp or cup over time.

The best dining table, in de Leon¡¯s, opinion is veneer over solid wood. Such tables are also the most expensive and most often seen at designers-only showrooms.

¡°Veneer is great in the hands of a craftsman, but in factory furniture it is usually a cost-cutting measure. The slightest chip and you¡¯ll see ugly particleboard underneath,¡± said Asa Christiana, editor of Fine Woodworking magazine.

Solid wood can take more of a beating than veneer ¡ª dings can add to its character over time ¡ª and is probably a safer bet in terms of quality than veneer in the middle price ranges. But solid wood definitely has a more informal feel than veneer.

The appearance of the finish is one of the most obvious giveaways of a poorly made table. Many have a high-gloss, sprayed-on acrylic finish that looks artificial.

¡°There¡¯s no character or depth with an acrylic finish as opposed to a hand-rubbed finish,¡± said designer Caroline McCallister of Kansas City.

Legs and leaves

A table with four legs placed at the corners (often called a Parson¡¯s table) is the sturdiest design. Corner legs and pedestal tables are the easiest to seat people around. But pedestal tables can wobble, so be sure to test one for motion when it¡¯s fully extended with all leaves in place.

Leaves add flexibility, allowing your table to grow into a larger home down the road, said designer Joye Adamson, owner of Stoneybroke, an interior design shop in Prairie Village. Or, conversely, if you downsize, the table can be repurposed as an entry table or behind-the-sofa table.

The best place for leaves is in the fully extended table, Adamson says. When the leaves aren¡¯t in the table, they should be stored flat, not standing up, to avoid warping.


Since six or eight good-quality chairs may cost more than the table, Adamson advises clients to start with just a table and add chairs later. She says designers are increasingly moving away from matched dining room suites.

¡°The china cabinet doesn¡¯t have to match the table, and neither do the chairs,¡± she said.

If you don¡¯t have the money to invest in a high-quality wood table, a metal table with a zinc or copper top that costs around $1,000 is a better investment than a poor-quality wood table for the same price.

Or consider a second-hand table until you can afford the table of your dreams.

¡°If you¡¯re on a budget, go to an antique store mall; $1,800 gets you a fabulous table there,¡± McCallister said.

And don¡¯t be too quick to reject hand-me-downs, she said.

¡°When you look at a lot of the furniture that is out there today, your parents¡¯ stuff and grandparents¡¯ stuff is looking better and better.¡±

A TABLE FOR LIFE: Elizabeth Rosin and her husband, Mark Kenneally, looked for more than five years for a table that was just right for the dining room of their 1912 Coleman Highlands bungalow. The Stickley table in solid oak with a cherry finish and six chairs were a ¡°hefty investment,¡± but Rosin says they were willing to save up and pay more for craftsmanship and design. ¡°Less expensive tables we looked at didn¡¯t have the character and the presence that the room demanded,¡± she said. The couple has been making do with furniture from their college days and hand-me-downs from relatives while taking a ¡°slow and methodical¡± approach to buying new pieces.

¡°If someone tells you checking (tiny splits) and cracking is a normal characteristic of a wood table, I would certainly shy away from that. There¡¯s no reason to expect that checks and cracks will develop over time if the table was properly constructed and sealed.¡±

David A. Brown, associate professor of interior architecture and product design at Kansas State University in Manhattan. He builds furniture, teaches furniture construction and has testified in court about furniture failure.

¡°Maple is a good choice for a dining table. It holds a good joint so it¡¯s going to be very stable, and that¡¯s important in a table. Because it has a tight grain, it¡¯s more impervious to water and dirt getting into the grain.¡±

Albert de Leon, furniture designer, restorer and co-owner of De Leon Furniture in Kansas City, Kan. He¡¯s a fourth-generation furniture maker who gives presentations about furniture construction to architecture and interior design students across the Midwest.

¡°Some retail tables are not very wide. You need a 48-inch-wide table if you want to have a centerpiece and seat people at both ends.¡±

Caroline McCallister, interior designer in Kansas City. She took the course ¡°How to Look at Furniture¡± from Sotheby¡¯s in London.

¡°Don¡¯t overlook what¡¯s right in front of you: If your parents or grandparents ever bought a nice table, a table they saved up for and that has endured, take a look at how it was made, how it feels.¡±

Jim Santilli, upholsterer, furniture maker and owner of Kansas City Upholstery. He has been in the business for three decades.

¡°A dining chair should have 2 inches of foam on a solid piece of wood or webbing. The foam should have a density rating of 1.8 pounds per cubic foot. Ask to see the spec sheet on the foam.¡±

Ed Kanter, owner of Comfort Felt & Foam in Kansas City. He¡¯s considered the premier authority on foam by area upholsterers and furniture makers. He has been selling foam since 1974.

The leg ¡ª Pick up the chair; generally the heavier it is, the better. Look for a chair with thick legs that are an integral part of the frame. Cross braces that run around the outside of the chair provide more stability than x-shaped braces. Grasp the chair at the top and try to move it side to side, forward and backward and in a twisting motion to judge how stable it is.

The seat ¡ª Make sure the padding is thick enough that you don¡¯t feel the frame through it ¡ª you don¡¯t want a toilet-seat feel. If you are considering buying a chair, sit in it for 30 minutes to make sure it will be comfortable for the length of a meal. Notice whether any spindles or carvings press uncomfortably into your back. Test the chair with the table you plan to use it with to make sure there is adequate clearance for legs. Turn the chair upside down to see whether the seat is secured with dowels, screws and corner blocks.

The upholstery ¡ª Look for fabric with a double-rub count of 15,000 or higher. Double rubs are an industry standard to test fabric durability.

The glides ¡ª Make sure they are going to work on your floor surface. It¡¯s frustrating when you can¡¯t push back from the table easily.

The front ¡ª Doors and drawers should open smoothly and easily. It¡¯s normal if magnetic push latches seem to require excessive force to open and close; they will loosen over time.

The back ¡ª It should be wood or high-quality plywood, not particleboard. It should be attached with screws, not staples. Look inside the cabinet where the sides meet the back to make sure the back is not pulling away. It should have the same veneer or finish as the rest of the cabinet to prevent moisture from getting in.

The shelves ¡ª It¡¯s good if they are adjustable rather than fixed. Also, make sure they are well supported in the middle so they won¡¯t bow under the weight of heavy china.

When you shop for a dining table, bring:

Pictures of tables you¡¯ve seen that you like

Measurements of the space where the table will go. Allow 4 feet of clearance on all sides so guests can move around easily. If you don¡¯t have experience with space planning, ask a showroom designer for advice, so the table isn¡¯t too large or too small for the room.

A tape measure to measure the height and width of the table.

Comfortable clothing. The first thing you want to do is crawl under the table to check out the finish, joinery, expansion mechanisms and country of origin markings.

Patience. Visit lots of showrooms, and look at lots of tables before you make up your mind.

The wrong shipment. Make sure you¡¯re home on delivery day to prevent the wrong table from getting into your home.

A table that won¡¯t fit through the door. Measure the doorway and any narrow halls it needs to pass through before you buy.

A table that won¡¯t fit your existing chairs. Measure your chairs to be sure the new table is not too high or too low for guests to sit and eat comfortably.

Buying a table online. If you can¡¯t see a table in person and shake it to see how stable it is, you¡¯re taking a big risk.

Read manufacturers¡¯ warranties closely before buying. Question the store to learn how your actions or the options you choose might void the warranty.

Wood surfaces ¡ª Watch out for disclaimers saying checks (tiny splits) or cracks are normal. Ask what voids a ¡°lifetime¡± warranty, for example, a move might.

Joinery ¡ª Ask who pays for the shipping when repairs are necessary and how long repairs take.

Chairs ¡ª Look out for clauses that void the warranty for normal actions such as picking up a chair by its arms.

Seat cushions ¡ª Ask whether applied stain-treatments void the warranty.

Leaf mechanisms ¡ª Ask whether there is a limit to how many times a faulty mechanism (or part of it) will be replaced.

Get the store¡¯s policiesin writing. Ask about returns and what happens if you cancel an order. Most stores won¡¯t let you return custom furniture.

Ask about your rights and recourses for furniture you¡¯ve purchased if the store goes out of business. In recent years a lot of furniture stores (both nationally and locally owned) have permanently closed their doors.

When you order custom pieces, never pay the full amount up front. Half is enough.

Use a credit card instead of cash or check. It makes canceling a purchase or returning furniture easier.

Keep your sales receipt, any construction specifications or drawings and warranty information. These will be your allies if you have a problem.

Care for the furniture as recommended. The warranty could be voided if you don¡¯t.

For well-made dining furniture that will last a lifetime, you should expect to pay at least:

$2,600 for a 7-foot wood dining table

$500 per dining chair with no arms

$550 per captain¡¯s chair (with arms)

$2,200 for a simple china cabinet with base and top.

NOTE: It is a good investment to pay a few hundred dollars more for a four-leaf table than a two-leaf table. Adding more leaves later is difficult at best, and often impossible. The ability to seat 12 instead of 8 may come in handy down the road.

If you want to pay less than these prices, you can find well-constructed furniture at antique malls, consignment and thrift stores. A dining table or chair that doesn¡¯t wobble after 30 years or more is unlikely to develop any serious problems in the future.

A new dining table will last longer and perform better if you invest in these features:

North American or European manufacture ¡ª Tables made in Asia are often made from tropical woods that haven¡¯t been properly kiln-dried; the drier climate in the U.S. can cause them to warp and crack.

Finished on the underside ¡ª Unfinished undersides let in moisture that can cause medium-density fiberboard (MDF) substrates to swell and veneers to lift up. On solid tables, unfinished undersides can contribute to warping because the surfaces do not move evenly with humidity changes.

Hand-rubbed finish ¡ª A hand-rubbed finish has a deeper, more real looking appearance than sprayed-on finishes. They are also easier to touch up, which is important.

Veneer ¡ª A thin piece of wood applied over a wood, plywood, medium density fiberboard (MDF) or particle board core.

Substrate ¡ª The core below a veneer. Usually ¡°substrate¡± implies what is below the veneer is something other than solid wood.

Apron ¡ª The piece of wood that extends down a few inches from the top of the table around its perimeter

Mahogany ¡ª Antique mahogany tables were most often made from Honduran or African mahogany. New mahogany tables are often made with Philippine mahogany, which lacks the rich color and density of Honduran and African mahogany.

Wenge ¡ª A real wood with a naturally dark finish but the term is often used today to describe a dark chocolate stain over any wood, so ask.

If something goes wrong with your purchase, first try to resolve the problem with the store (or delivery company for delivery issues).

If problems remain, call:

Better Business Bureau, local chapter, (816) 421-8188, to file a complaint that becomes part of a report, categorized by problem, about a company. Consumers can read reports online (kansascity.bbb.org) about specific companies.

Consumer Products Safety Commission, (800) 638-2772, to report an unsafe product.

Kansas Attorney General¡¯s Consumer Hotline, (800) 432-2310, for potential legal action.

Missouri Attorney General¡¯s Consumer Protection Hotline, (800) 392-8222, for potential legal action.

Home editor Cindy Hoedel and home reporter Stacy Downs visited 24 area stores that sell new furniture to the public. Sometimes accompanied by furniture experts, they looked at furniture for the living room, dining room and bedroom. They sat on more than 100 sofas, crawled under dozens of dining tables and lay on lots of beds. They also interviewed more than a dozen store owners, managers and corporate spokespeople about store policies, warranties and common complaints.

Additionally, they interviewed furniture experts at length. They also interviewed employees at the Council of Better Business Bureaus in Arlington, Va., and the Better Business Bureau of Greater Kansas City to learn about furniture complaints nationally and locally. And they talked to people who love or hate their furniture.

Their goal was to compile a useful guide on how to buy high-quality furniture that will last for years, rather than rate individual stores or brands.

Hoedel, Downs and photographer John Mutrux have worked on the House + Home section since it launched in 2003.

PARTIALLY DISASSEMBLED A table that can be disassembled for shipping will be less stable than one with traditional dowel-and-screw joinery that locks legs or pedestals into place. SUB-OPTIMUM JOINERY An apron that is stapled and glued at the corners with no blocking will not hold up well over time. FINISHED UNDERSIDE / CORNER A finished underside helps prevent warping by keeping out moisture. Screwed-in corner blocks make the table more stable. HIGH-QUALITY VENEER This beautiful veneer shows no signs of lifting or chipping around the edges.