How to Assemble Any Piece of Furniture

This primer will help you put together any piece of furniture―without spitting nails.

Photo by  John Lawton

When Buying Ready-to-Assemble Furniture…

Come with careful measurements. Before heading to the store, be sure to write down the dimensions of the space where the furniture will go. And remember to allow for breathing room around the pieces. “My husband and I had planned a wall of closets for our little bungalow,” says contractor Amy Matthews, the host of Sweat Equity, a home-improvement show on the DIY Network. “Once we nailed the first closet together and stood the monster up, we felt as if we had shrunk to hobbit size. It was way too big.”

Know your materials. One of the most important things to consider is what your furniture is made of. The most common RTA materials are:

  • Particleboard, engineered wood, and plywood. These materials are generally at the lower end of the price spectrum. Particleboard (wood chips that are glued together) is not particularly strong “and doesn’t hold up well if you need to take it apart and put it together again,” says Barbara Kavovit, creator of the Barbara K tool line for women. Engineered wood, also called medium density fiberboard (MDF), is made of compressed wood fibers; it looks like wood and is just as tough. Plywood is another durable option; it’s composed of layers of wood or engineered wood stuck together.
  • Laminate and wood veneer. Next in line, pricewise, are laminate (layers of plastic glued to plywood) and wood veneer (slices of rare wood, such as ebony or mahogany, glued to a flat surface, which is often a less expensive wood, such as pine). Laminate looks like wood and is fairly durable, but unlike wood, its color and the finish won’t fade. With wood veneer, you get the best of both worlds: the grained, rich look of high-quality wood without the hefty price tag.
  • Solid hardwood. The strongest―and typically the most expensive―material, it’s great for entertainment centers that need to hold a lot of weight. Hardwood often has dovetailed joints (interlocking trapezoidal pieces) and protective finishes.

Inspect floor models for imperfections. Your piece of furniture will most likely fare like the one in the store, experts point out. So check floor models for such red flags as inconsistencies in color, chipped veneers, gaps where the edges meet, sagging between seams, and glued sections that seem to be coming apart.

Ask a few key questions. 

  • Find out about the company’s return policy. Do you need a receipt? Will you have to pay to ship back something that’s damaged?
  • See if the company provides free phone support. This is important should things get hairy.
  • Inquire about the specific material. For example, many times solid-wood pieces will be labeled “wood,” but that could be anything from pine, which can be flimsy, to cherry, which tends to be durable.
  • Take matters into your own hands. If the salesperson’s only response to these questions is a blank stare and a shrug (we’ve all been there), use your cell phone to call the store’s customer-service hotline while you’re shopping. Many representatives have access to information not listed on the label.

When shopping for outdoor furniture, use this guide to pick the right set for your lifestyle.