The perils of aging furniture

Perhaps I should title this post ‘The perils of aging cheap furniture’.  In my days as an active pastor, not so very long ago, I bought half a dozen 36″x72″ bookcases to hold my library.  To my surprise, units made of ‘real’ wood simply weren’t available.  Those I bought – the best of those available in local shops – were made of chipboard with a veneer coating.  I spent some time assembling them and loading them up with my books.

They’ve been with me through a few moves (the last being at the end of January, coming down to our new home in Texas).  Despite their relatively cheap construction, they’ve stood up to the strain of being carried to and fro . . . until now.  It seems that one of them has finally had enough.  Its cheaper chipboard can no longer securely hold the pins that support the shelves.  After two collapses in quick succession this morning, I had to run out and buy some L-shaped support brackets.  I’ll have to drill holes for them and screw them into the shelves and the sides, to make sure my books stay where I want them.  A couple of others have enlarged support pin holes, and I’ve had to plug them and insert conventional wood screws to hold the shelves instead.

It’s frustrating to find that the only bookshelves available for normal consumer purchase (i.e. at less than nosebleed prices) are made of cheaper materials like chipboard or fiberboard.  In browsing through online vendors, I couldn’t find a single bookcase at an affordable price that was made of solid wood, the way I remember them growing up.  I suppose I could make my own if I had the time, space and facilities to do so, but I can remember them being in every furniture store in the ‘good old days’.  Apparently wood’s become too expensive, or is too heavy to be shipped at a reasonable cost when assembled into furniture.

The same thing applies to so much in the way of furniture that I see in the shops these days.  It’s all cheap chipboard and stapled artificial fabrics that rip or come loose as soon as you look at them.  There’s nary a screw or support bracket to be seen.  When I was growing up, a young family starting out could buy cupboards, or bookcases, or chests of drawers, or sideboards, in the sure knowledge that if they looked after them, they’d still be usable well into their retirement.  Not today.  Everything seems to be disposable.  You buy it resigned to the knowledge that in a few years, maybe (if you’re lucky) a decade or two, you’ll have to replace it.

Color me unhappy.  Yeah, I’m an old curmudgeon . . . but I miss the higher-quality world of my youth.



  1. RE: bookcases. Yep, they're all trash now. Trash which the manufacturers charge you to dispose of for them. I settled on 14" wire rack shelving from a restaurant supply house (12" deep is supposedly available, but not commonly stocked) with 1/4" plywood cut to fit the shelves and large bookends. The uprights can be from 63" high to 86" (shorter than 63", dig out the hacksaw), shelves can be positioned at whatever spacing you want in 1" steps, and available in shelf lengths from 24" to 72". Takes little tme to assemble, and while it isn't cheap it's much cheaper than real wood, but much sturdier. Kind of an industrial look, though. When i moved I left them assembled and just put boxes on the shelves. Held up great.

  2. "I couldn't find a single bookcase at an affordable price that was made of solid wood"

    Best solution I've found is to use bricks & boards. I got several 6ft planks (est 11-12" wide) at Home Depot, sanded & stained them (clear Minwax). For best stability, the first plank goes on a set of bricks on the floor (9 bricks total, 3 each at either end and in the center, arranged in an "I" shape). Building upwards, I use 9-12 bricks per layer (divided into groups of 3), with a maximum of five shelves (6 boards) for a height of 50".

    Cutting the boards in half, I've created DVD cabinets/TV stand (my TV's fairly light).

    I have utterly no concern with shelves warping, but going much above 50" isn't very stable. Main downside is that the shelves need to be dissambled whenever they're moved. On the flip side,whenever I need to move bookcases, they need to be unloaded anyway.

    In the basement, I have basic steel shelves, which work fj e.

  3. Heck, the houses these days are made of particle board! The multi-million-dollar ones are gussied up to look vaguely stone-like, but they're still particle board underneath, like Ikea furniture. Not meant to be left out in the rain, never mind handed down to the great-grandchildren.
    If the warranty expires before the loan is paid off, there's something wrong….

  4. We bought a dressing table for my grand daughter from IKEA. It was NOT particle board. They took many small strips of pine and pressure glued them together. I'm not a hug fan of "cheap" furniture, but I was impressed with how well this unit went together. Before you denounce IKEA shelves as particle board (and for all I know, they are), give them a look over.

  5. Wood is generally lighter than glueboard. Comparing weights of tables and desks made of the two materials tells me that.

    You could try fixing the bad holes with some Bondo, and then drilling new holes in that. You may have to open up the bad spot first, to get enough surface engagement. I'd be inclined to use a wood boring bit to get some horizontal engagement surface for mechanical strength.

    Perhaps a workshop could be built on your property? Doing a bit of woodworking as a break from writing might be a good thing!

  6. After my mom died we found an electric razor, still in the package, among her belongings–she was probably planning to give it as a gift. The instructions said "Replacement parts are not available for your new Chinese Crap razor. It has been carefully designed and engineered to give superior service for a period of up to six months."

    They came right out and said it!!!!!

  7. Check your local Universities surplus propery sites.

    I've been seeing tons of old, plywood ones going out.. for $6-8.

  8. I bought a whole 12 foot wall of unfinished bookcases from woodcraft industries. Nice oak plywood and oak face frames They will make custom sizes and modify their standard line Shipping might be a pain, so it might be better to go through a locl unfinished furniture dealer who can combine shipping

  9. Everything these days is designed with a short life. How else could the economy be sustained if we are not constantly replacing stuff?

  10. Unfortunately this has been the case for awhile now. I built my wife a podium (with wheels) for her classroom (for less than $100) because there was nothing vaguely useful that wasn't several hundred dollars. I built a wall to wall bookcase/entertainment center for our basement (for less than $400, including buying a cheap table saw) because everything that was of any quality that would have been useful would have cost us thousands. I built my daughter a nice big play house for the yard for about $250.

    This summer I have aspirations of building a nice china cabinet for the kitchen because I don't want to spend a couple of thousand on one. I'm not a great carpenter. But I can follow directions and make a box.

  11. If your local DIY shop has decent timber it is quite easy to make your own. And if you do you can get a variety of heights that mean your shelves fit the books and don't leave wasted space above. You don't need much more than a drill to construct the shelves the store will usually cut the planks to the correct length. A bit of stain or polish makes even cheapo pine look good

  12. If your local high school has a, increasingly rare, wood shop program, maybe you could work a deal by providing the materials.


  13. Particle board seems to come in two grades: cheap, light weight stuff that falls apart, and slightly less cheap stuff that weighs a ton that seems to hold up pretty well. I think it's the glue they use to make the particle board that makes the difference. Ikea and Dania seem to be okay. And the problem is not that good furniture costs so much, it's that the dollar is worth so little.

  14. A while back my parents bought commercial library shelving for their books. The real heavy duty stuff. Like, the salesguy was worried that their floor was going to be able to support the weight of books that these shelves will hold. Not sure what the company name was, but I can see if they still have it.

  15. Matthias Wandel, who has 'Woodworking for Engineers' website did some destructive testing on an old, cheap table that was headed for the trash. It held up rather nicely, so the engineering worked, but the construction wasn't anything of a keepsake. Basically hardboard shell with a cardboard honeycomb interior.

  16. After my Mom's house fire she had a heckuva time finding quality furniture. She ended up getting a number of items, including bookcases, from Whittier Wood Products, manufactured locally here in Eugene, Oregon. It's kit furniture but she also found a local woodworker/furniture restorer to assemble/finish them.

    No connection to Whittier, just a satified customer.

    Don in Oregon

  17. All commercially produced products are like that.
    I have to replace my god-damn flashlight every two years already!

    I'll pay $85 for a pair of high-quality big-name brand of shoes. Damn soles and heels are worn to a thin strip in two to two-and-a-half years.

    Modern-day consumerism: Just another "Stockholm Syndrome" phenomenon.

  18. I make my own book shelves. 3' wide 5' tall, 4mm plywood backing.
    Takes an afternoon of cutting wood to size, looking for misplaced tools and chasing my tail. I use 3/4 X 12 pine because it's available, inexpensive, ages to a nice color and is easy to work. Out of pocket it costs about $45.00 per unit, I do like working with wood.

  19. " but I miss the higher-quality world of my youth."

    Yup. I miss affordable belts and shoes and billfolds that weren't crap. "Real leather", my ass. I want to know what animal.

    I think we're being deceived, and aren't nearly as rich as we think we are.

  20. Glued and screwed. That's how I put together chipboard stuff. You can't take it apart anymore, but it'll hold.

  21. Hardwood veneer plywood makes good and sturdy bookshelves, without excessive requirements of skill, effort, tools or money. Have the lumber store cut a sheet of hardwood veneer plywood in 8 foot strips whatever width you want your shelves. If you want to leave the edges exposed, sand and fill. Another easy option is iron on matching veneer. Cut the boards to length as needed (much easier to do than cutting the width) and assemble.

    I've built 2 walls of paperback width shelves, mostly non-adjustable (one adjusts for my camera collection) and 2 of hardback width using metal brackets so they are adjustable. One of the main reasons I built my own is the store-bought ones space the shelves too far apart–mine have just enough room for the books, with an inch or less space to the next shelf.

    If you want to be able to disassemble them to move, you can get metal thread inserts from Amazon so you can use machine thread screws instead of wood screws.

  22. I built my bookcase out of pine wood that I got at the hardware store. Lots of shelves, six long poles with round holes drilled for them to pass through, and they're screwed to the wall. I've moved three times with them, they look great, and they cost me the price of the wood.

  23. I'll just echo everyone above, but add:
    Lumber prices for "real wood" boards in my region are silly at the big-box stores. I ran into a situation where spouse wanted custom bookshelves for an alcove (6' tall, one unit 36" wide, one unit 32" wide) and wanted them "right now" and reminded me that I was off work that day, so why wasn't I on my way to Lowes yet?

    After spending $200 on kiln-dried stuff that was already planed four sides, I began to lament that I hadn't stocked up on stuff from a local sawmill a year ago to let it air dry. The price per board-foot was ridiculous.

    I've found the panel-cutting available at lumberyards to be a mixed blessing. I had one home where the nearest place had a sharp accurate maintained saw and good people. Before I go I usually do an optimized cut layout so that I can have them at least cut the panels down enough to fit in the car, one time a chap at the desk saw my sheet in my hand, grabbed it, and came back with all the 7-9 pieces from each panel cut perfectly to size with no ripout, al before I had completed paying the other chap for the panels. Other yards, I've never seen the saw without an "out of order" sticker on the panel saw.
    If you observe that your local lumber place is good with their panel saw, then shelves from 3/4 plywood can be a great and inexpensive option.

  24. Dr. Wife and I have had good luck at unfinished furniture stores as well; the local one here is called the orange crate. The two smallish bookcases we've gotten there are solid pine.

  25. One of the major problems is that cabinet woods (primarily Oak, and maple) have gotten expensive, and availability is not what it used to be as a result of distribution. I could buy African and Philippine mahogany in San Antonio when I was in High School in the early 70s, but Mahogany of any sort has gone through the roof. Domestic hardwoods have also grown more expensive. A friend who visited from the Seattle area when I was still in Ohio looked around to see if he could rent a truck fairly inexpensively when he saw the sawmills in the area and got some prices.

    Particle board has come to dominate the inexpensive furniture market because of the inexpensive nature of the stuff. It is also heavier than solid wood as it has fewer voids than does solid wood (which really isn't as solid as we think it is). Alas, it is also harder on cutting tools. I went through a saw blade in half the time I did with solid wood.

    OSB (oriented strand board) is commonly used as residential sheathing in place of plywood these days. It is not even close to the same thing as particle board, however. Other engineered wood includes such things as GlueLam (glue laminated) beams, and LVL (laminated veneer lumber) which are much stronger than solid wood. I've specified LVL for use as beams in post-frame construction for such places as garage door openings because of its strength and light weight. GlueLam is common in timbered construction and is often left visible. When the Gluelam is made of pressure treated lumber, it is used in timber bridges and is popular in places where the rustic look is desired.

    One thing about woodworking, it is therapeutic. Although I make my living as an Engineer and Surveyor, I love woodworking and it is a joy to complete a project and put it to its intended use. I found I couldn't do it professionally, however, when I worked for a time with an old German Cabinetmaker when I was in high school. I put my heart and soul into one project and it broke my heart to see it go out the door.

    I plan to set up my own wood shop after I retire, which I hope is soon.

  26. My father wanted 3 inch oak trim in his house. Since it wasn't made commercially, and his uncle owned a sawmill, he made his own over the course of several years. He used the leftover lumber to make me a very nice oak half height bookcase – three shelves, thick mantle, built like a tank.

    It's something I'm going to be able to pass down to future generations.

  27. There is a bit of "survivorship bias" in our view of items made long ago. The old stuff we have around- furniture, houses, ect- is the stuff worth keeping around. The poorly made, cheap stuff fell apart and was tossed away years ago.

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