Where and how is your furniture made?

If you bought Messen furniture, then knowing where your furniture is made and what it's made from is easy: right here in Kelowna from 100% Canadian engineered wood. If you acquired your furniture elsewhere, though, you might find this question a little more difficult to answer. In fact, you may even have a difficult time finding out without some concerted effort. Today, we’re going to talk a little bit about the ins and outs of “where” and “what from”.  

Why does it matter?

There’s a lot of reasons we might be concerned about where a product comes from or the ways in which it’s made (this doesn’t just apply to furniture). Here’s just a few possible reasons that being misled about a product’s origins or manufacturing methods could be a concern:

  • It could be made with materials that are less safe or durable than domestic products.
  • It could contribute more to greenhouse gas and other carbon emissions, either from production methods or excessive distribution networks.
  • It could be made using unfair labour practices.

 

container ship

There's a lot great that's great about our increasingly interconnected world, but it can also create problems. 

Many popular furniture retailers refrain from publicly advertising where or how their furniture is made, and this isn’t an accident. Even those that claim to use hardwoods or “reclaimed woods” in their furniture offer notably lacking levels of information about how they manufacture their furniture and this is unfair for at least three reasons:

  • Many of these companies command a higher price for purportedly reclaimed, re-used or otherwise recycled wood products.
  • It is misleading to consumers who are left with the false impression that they have made a responsible consumer decision in their furniture purchase.
  • Consumers may be misled about the origins of their furniture.

 

Reclaimed wood furniture

Reclaimed wood can be great, but it's not always what it's made out to be! 

Again, it is not the case that this is true for all products, and there are some great companies offering beautiful furniture that is not necessarily made locally but is still made by reputable domestic manufacturers or with carefully screened imports. If you can’t find something with Messen, you should definitely take a look at some of the items in the ScanDesign family. Although I could not verify all their products, much of their furniture is sourced from Canadian and American manufacturers. You should also consider L furniture, a beloved local furniture store that offers many Canadian-made products with a special focus on made in BC.

But what about those, err… “other” stores?

Posing a few questions.

I have a challenge for you. Go to one of your favorite large-scale furniture supplier’s website (at almost any price point). Try and answer the following question: “where is my furniture made?”

Sustainable forestry practices often aren't as stringent for foreign or "exotic" wood species because these materials can frequently be sourced from countries without strong forest management practices.
 

Not so easy, eh? In my experience, there is a curious wispy silence around the whole question. In many instances, you cannot find an answer on products pages, FAQ’s or anywhere else. It is like furniture is an enigma that appears from thin air!

Let us try another question: “what is my furniture made from?”

A quick note before continuing to the list that is below: I am making no judgement about the quality of these materials or the furniture that they are describing. I am seeking only to illustrate how confusing they can be. Different materials have different applications across the range of furniture manufacturing techniques, and each of them have their benefits and draw backs. It is for exactly this reason that you should know what your furniture is made from. Now, onwards!

The “made from what” questions at first glance seems a bit easier than the “made where” question because most products seem to at least have a one-liner on the topic. But on deeper examination, is it really any clearer? Let us look at a few I found, keeping in mind that at least one of these is used to describe furniture that is the better part of $10,000.

  • “Shelves are crafted of solid poplar wood and finished in a choice of Rustic Mahogany or Blackened Oak.”
  • “Expertly crafted of solid poplar and MDF with basswood veneers.”
  • “Shelves are crafted of gray wash pine wood.”
  • “Made of kiln-dried solid Meranti wood, engineered hardwood and Sungkai veneer.”
  • “Made of acacia veneers, wood and engineered wood.”
  • “Crafted of American white oak veneers”

(If you’re totally lost on what “veneer”, “engineered wood”, “MDF” and other terms mean, don’t worry, you aren’t alone – I’m considering writing a blog just about this, but I’m hoping I can give you enough to follow along).  

mud

Sometimes figuring out what your furniture is made from is like deciphering the secret code in this mud.

To start, I really don’t know what “solid poplar wood… finished in… Rustic Mahogany or Blackened Oak” is. To get a rustic or blackened look, are they actually distressing or burning the poplar? Or are they just using the same poplar for both, but applying a different stain? For the stain, do they subsequently blacken it and distress it, or are the words “Blackened” and “Rustic” simply adjectives to describe the tone of the colour? Similarly, what is “gray wash pine wood”? Is this a sub-species of pine? Is it a process done to the pine? Is it a stain applied to pine? Is it a non-stain technique used to make the pine look grey? Don’t look at me, I couldn’t tell you.

Beyond this, there’s a lot of terms thrown around that draw particular confusion. For instance, “acacia veneers, wood and engineered wood” doesn’t give you any sense of what proportions anything is made in, or even what these items are. Is it mostly solid wood, or is it mostly engineered wood? I use dowels in my furniture (which are usually made of solid wood), but use engineered wood everywhere else, is it fair to include “solid wood” in the construction?

Perhaps the worst culprit, what is an “engineered hardwood”? Is it engineered wood made from hardwood chips? Or is it just softwood chips with a hardwood veneers? Also while we are here, what is “Crafted of ... oak veneers?”. Is it just thousands of layers of veneers bound together and then used as solid pieces to make the item (I’m joking)? But if it’s just one layer of veneer being discussed, what is underneath that layer? What are they hiding?

I am being perhaps a bit facetious, but these these practices can nonetheless be misleading which really is a shame. It’s a shame because these descriptions don’t invite customers to meaningfully engage with their furniture and understand how it’s made, which is even more of a shame when the furniture is nice furniture (many of those descriptions were from very high-end designers and suppliers). It’s also a shame because even for people who work in this industry, these descriptions border on being completely useless at helping someone understand how something is made.

We try hard at Messen to help our customers understand what our furniture is, and we’ve settled on the following description for all of our products:

  • Made in Kelowna from recycled, 100% Canadian, premium engineered wood with textured veneer.

We felt that this description balanced succinctness and precision which, when combined with the fact that other areas of our website discuss these concepts in much more detail, made us feel that it was a fair description. Made in Kelowna means we cut and assemble our parts here in Kelowna. The materials we cut our furniture from come from Canadian suppliers who use recycled wood to create an engineered wood core (more on this in a second). The veneer used is a not a wood veneer, which is why we kept the word “veneer” distinctly separate from the word “wood”. In fact, the veneer we use is made in Canada from laminates that create the look and feel of real wood – it’s really pretty special, because perhaps ironically it mimics the feel of solid wood much better than “true” wood veneer does. You can read about all of this in much more detail in the “What makes Messen” page, as well as the FAQ.

But I want to go back to what an “engineered wood” is. We use this word deliberately, because as mentioned earlier, there is a difficult balance to strike between being precise or accurate and overwhelming someone with information. Engineered wood is a very broad term that refers to many types of derived wood product. Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF) for instance, is essentially sawdust that is glued together. It can be quite strong, but is also very heavy. Particleboard is another broad term, which refers to larger “chips” of wood that are pressed together with an adhesive and is usually weighs less by volume. Particleboard is also often confused with Oriented Strand Board (OSB), which is commonly used in home framing and structure (but rarely if never in furniture).

Particleboard grades being compared

We proudly use a higher quality particleboard in our furniture. Messen is on the bottom, the "other guy" is up top. 

So, Messen’s furniture is made from engineered wood and, specifically particleboard. So why don’t we just say particleboard in the description? The problem here is that “particleboard” is itself a broad term. We use a higher quality particleboard than other companies – especially companies that take extreme cost-cutting measures. Ours is thicker, denser, and overall of a higher quality than a lot of what people have generally experienced in the past from particleboard. Balancing the succinctness and accuracy (as mentioned earlier), we wanted our customers to know that our furniture is not solid wood, but we wanted to refrain from associating ourselves with a sub-par product, because we proudly make our furniture from some of the highest quality particleboard that’s available anywhere. Do you think this does the job right? If not, feel free to leave a comment!  

Conclusion

Where your furniture is made and how it is made doesn’t just tell you about your furniture, it tells you about the people that make it. At Messen, we choose to proudly make our furniture from a high-quality particleboard. It's not that this materials is inherently any better or worse than others – like all materials, it has trade-offs (and in fact, particleboard is a great material in a lot of ways, especially the variant we use). Rather we believe that customers should have the right to know what their furniture is made from and where it was made. Period.

On the topic of next week's blog, I’m debating between two topics:

  1. A deep-dive into furniture-making lingo, particularly materials (veneer, particleboard, MDF, woods (Ie. Softwood vs hardwood), etc.).
  2. A discussion on how startups should seek to compensate their employees (for when we have them!).

If you have a preference, please leave a comment! I'd love to know what you're interested in hearing about.

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