Learn How to Tell if Wood Furniture is Real Wood, Fake Wood or Wood Veneer

vintage solid wood dresser with dove tail drawer

One of the most frequently asked questions about refinishing furniture is how to tell if wood furniture is real, fake, or wood veneer. Since knowing what you’re working with is important if you want decent results, I’ve put together this guide to help you learn the difference between each!

The good news is, it’s easier than you think once you know what to look for. That’s why I’ve included lots of pictures to make it easier for you to see what I’m talking about.

How to Know When Wood Furniture Is Made of Real Wood, Fake Wood or Wood Veneer

solid wood antique cabinet shelves

When I started working with wood furniture, I wasn’t overly concerned about whether it was real, fake, or wood veneer. I was more consumed with liking the looks or price of a piece (aka free).

But I quickly learned that the type of material the furniture is made from greatly affects how things turn out!

Knowing what you’re working with is important since you have to handle each surface differently. Nothing is worse than planning on staining something but finding fake wood after accidentally sanding through the veneer.

Like in this example here. I had planned on a natural wood top, and despite sanding oh so gently, just look at the mess I ended up with! Yikes! So, after this disappointment, I started to care more about materials 🙂

dirty round wood tabletop
tabletop with wood conditioner applied
wood venner sanded too much and stained showing blotches

The good news is there are several ways to figure out if you’re dealing with real vs. fake wood furniture or some combination of the two.

That’s another thing: even when something is real wood, it’s very possible to have parts of the piece that are wood veneer.

Before I get to how to spot the difference between real and fake wood, I want to clarify what people are talking about when they use all these different terms for wood furniture.


Just a friendly reminder: This tutorial and any opinions or recommendations are genuinely mine, but this is not a substitute for consulting a professional. I also use affiliate links to earn a commission.


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Different Type of Wood In Furniture

Here are the different types of wood and wood combinations used for furniture.

Solid Wood Furniture

solid maple hutch top
  • Solid Wood: Also known as real wood furniture, made of solid wood, such as oak, pine, maple, or other hardwood.
  •  Advantages: Solid wood is generally easier to refinish because you can sand it down and apply new finishes multiple times. It allows for changes in color or style over the years.
  •  Challenges: Solid wood is heavy to work with (literally) and is more susceptible to changes in humidity and temperature, which may lead to undesired changes in the wood. You have to carefully prepare and finish the wood to avoid issues like warping or splitting.

Wood Veneer

vintage soild wood dresser
peeling wood veneer on an old dresser
  • Wood Veneer: Some wood furniture has a thin sheet of real wood applied to the surface, making it look like solid wood. This thing sheet is called a veneer. It’s usually applied to make cheaper wood look more expensive. Don’t confuse this with laminate! Wood veneer is still wood, which means you can sand it, just very carefully!
  •  Advantages: Wood veneer furniture is more readily available and at a more affordable price. The advantage is that wood veneer provides a cost-effective way to achieve the look of real wood.
  •  Challenges: Sanding too much can damage the veneer layer, so caution is needed. Also, some veneers may not be thick enough or be in poor condition, making them a bad choice for sanding or staining. But painting is still totally possible!

Combination of Solid Wood and Veneer

combination of real wood and laminate
vintage soild wood dresser
  • Combination of Real Wood and Wood Veneer: Some furniture may have solid wood frames, legs, and other structural components, with veneered applied over specific areas such as the top or dresser drawer fronts.
  •  Advantages: Offers a balance between solid wood’s authenticity and veneer’s cost-effectiveness.
  •  Challenges: It’s confusing because people often use terms interchangeably, and not everyone has the same definition for “solid wood.” When you often hear people talking about solid wood furniture, there is a good chance it’s not solid wood but cheaper wood with wood veneer. Don’t get caught too hung up on this one- what is most important is knowing how to tell the differences between real and fake wood. And understanding that wood veneer is wood, but it’s a thing sheet covering lower quality wood.

This category of wood furniture makes up most of my furniture makeovers. I’ve only been lucky enough to have snagged solid wood furniture a handful of times- and boy, was it amazing to work with!

What I love about working with wood and wood veneer is that peeling off the veneer is quite satisfying, and then sanding down what’s underneath looks pretty good, especially as a two-toned piece.

Fake Wood

particle board desktop
mdf particleboard furniture joint
  • Fake Wood Furniture (aka Particleboard, aka MDF, aka Ikea furniture): These materials are made to look like wood but are compressed wood fibers with resin.
  •  Advantages: Engineered wood products like particleboard or medium-density fiberboard (MDF) are much less expensive and lighter to lift.
  •  Challenges: Refinishing fake wood takes a very different approach. These materials are often covered with very thin laminates, and sanding can quickly damage the surface. Just like wood veneer covers real wood, laminate covers fake wood. The difference is that laminate is NOT real wood in any way, so you can not sand it like veneer. You can’t sand fake wood, and they are often tricky to paint because nothing adheres well to it.

Although I personally am not a fan of working with fake wood for these reasons, there are furniture refinishers who specialize and love doing Ikea hacks.

8 Signs Wood Furniture is Real Wood vs Fake Wood

Look at the Joints and Seams

Dovetail drawers are a tell-tale sign that the piece is real wood. These pictures show you exactly what this type of joint looks like. They are super easy to spot!

down tail joint of a real wood dresser
dove tail joint on a real wood dresser
dovetail drawers on a real wood dresser

Compared to fake wood, which has seams that look like these pictures. The first picture is the back of an MDF laminated wood cabinet. Notice how the back panel is stapled? Yeah, you can’t staple real wood.

Then, looking at the picture of the dresser drawer, I see no tooth-like joinery, which is a sign that the wood furniture is more likely to be fake wood.

The caveat is that it could still be real wood but cheaply made. So, you’ll want to use some other signs that I will give you to decide on what that wood furniture piece is made of.

fake wood furniture joint
fake wood furniture joint

Peeling

Since wood veneer is real wood, often, it will start to peel as it dries out. Peeling is a clear sign the piece has a wood veneer applied.

Since we know wood veneer is usually applied over real wood, this is a good indicator that the piece is not fake wood.

Also, remember you can sand veneer, so as long as the condition is decent (unlike these examples!), you can sand it and re-stain it.

peeling wood veneer from a dresser leg
peeling wood veneer on a dresser drawer
peel wood veneer

Exposure of the Under Layer

Surface wear on laminated furniture can lead to exposing the fake wood. And as you can see in these pictures, it often looks like paper and if you look even closer, bits of sawdust. This type of surface wear clearly indicates that the furniture is not real wood.

Surface wear on real wood can change the color, so maybe it’s stained a dark brown, but there is a wear spot; it would turn lighter in color but never look like paper.

particle board desk top
particle board desktop

Now compare this fake wood to the pictures below, which are of solid wood (maple, to be exact), hutch top, and solid wood cabinet shelves.

solid maple hutch top
solid wood antique cabinet shelves

Take a minute to look at this solid wood top and compare it to the laminate one. It’s hard to put into words; the best I can come up with is it just looks fake compared to the real one. Real wood furniture has an awe about it that fake wood cannot match.

Also, notice the wearing spot on the solid wood hutch top, exposing wood grain, not sawdust. This difference shows you that you’re dealing with real wood vs. fake wood furniture!

solid wood dining hutch
solid wood dining hutch spot where the varnish is worn off

Stamping

Real wood furniture, particularly solid wood furniture, will have a stamp or company name placed on the piece. Places to look for this are inside the top drawers or on the back.

I have an entire guide on finding the best real wood furniture, and it includes a list of the top solid wood furniture companies that you should be familiar with and on the lookout for because they make great furniture projects!

stamped solid wood furniture

Check the Weight

If you’re looking at furniture in person, then go ahead and move it around, even try to lift it a bit. When you pick it up, is it hard to move? That’s a good indication it’s real wood.

But remember, there could still be wood veneer and sometimes even laminate covering parts of the real wood.

Checking the weight means the wood furniture isn’t fake wood. You can use this signal in combination with the others to determine if something is solid wood or a combination.

Wood Grain

Feeling the wood is one way to tell if something is real vs. fake, but sometimes, this is easier said than done, especially when wood furniture is well-sanded and has a protective coating.

But one wood grain sign that screams this is not real wood- repeating patterns. As you can see in these pictures of a coffee tabletop, this pattern repeats in 4 different squares to cover the entire top.

repeating wood grain pattern
wood veneer coffee table top

What you’re looking at here are either thin wood veneer or laminate strips, all arranged into this perfectly repeating pattern. When you see this, it’s not real wood!

It is common to see patterns like this in oak furniture, such as a dining table, a coffee table, or a cabinet with a larger flat wood surface.

wood veneer oak tabletop

Edges

The edges of wood furniture are a great place to examine and what you find is really helpful in knowing if something is real or fake wood. Check the edges along the top, drawers, and backing.

In this first picture you’re looking at the back if a real wood dresser. See how edge looks compared to the second picture that shows a wood veneer tabletop? The veneer is chipping away in a jagged way, compared to the solid wood piece that when worn down looks smoother.

edge of a solid wood dresser
chipping of a wood veneer table top

Another helpful sign that the edge of wood furniture tells us is that laminated fake wood has a more visible seam where the top sheet meets the banding.

Depending on how well this is done, it can either be really obvious you’re dealing with laminate or, when done well, harder to tell.

Below is an example where it’s pretty obvious it’s laminate. Do you see the dark line where the top meets the banding? This is a seam that you just won’t see with real wood.

Go back up and look at the back of the dresser, then come back to this picture. Can you see the difference?

laminate edge of a table

Large Flat Surfaces

I don’t like to say always, so instead, I’ll say, in general, it is safe to assume that large flat surfaces have some wood veneer or laminate applied to the surface.

You can be more certain when considering some of the other signs of spotting real vs fake wood. But, for a tabletop or dresser drawer front (aka flat surfaces), I assume it’s fake and feel pretty lucky if it’s real.

fake wood dresser top
close up showing a dove tail drawer and a fake wood dresser top

Identify This Wood Furniture

Time to implement what you’ve learned! The best way to get good at identifying wood furniture is to practice. Take a look at these pictures and see how you do!

Dresser

vintage soild wood dresser
back of a dresser showing it is solid wood

This dresser is real wood with wood veneer covering most of the front. The top appears solid wood based on the wearing pattern in the second picture. If this were veneer, it would be peeling, and if it were fake wood, it would look like layers of paper. Also, the nails in the back of the top suggest that it’s real wood because you can’t do that with fake wood.

Nightstand

old solid wood dresser
dove tail joint on a real wood dresser
combination of real wood and laminate
fake wood dresser top

This little nightstand is an interesting combination because the joints on these drawers tell me this is real wood. But take a look at the top; the fact it is so perfectly shinny and almost looks like plastic, in combination with the edge wearing, but not peeling or chipping, tell me this portion of the nightstand is fake wood.

Dining Table

solid wood dining table
solid wood dining table
dove tail joint on a solid wood table

I spent a good amount of time analyzing this dining table, and I believe it’s solid wood! There is no way to tell without getting in there and sanding the top, but there is no sign of chipping, peeling, cracking, or weird edging around the seams, AND underneath, you can see a dovetail joint!

The ReSource store priced this at $129, which tells me my hunch that this is a real wood dining table is correct. That’s because a dining table this size would usually go for well under $100.


Next Steps


Refinishing furniture and having good results depends on the materials used. Solid wood is way more forgiving, while veneer requires more care. It saves a lot of headaches to take the time to thoroughly look at wood furniture and evaluate it from all angles before you begin.

After assessing the piece’s condition and making a good guess on its material, you can choose the appropriate refinishing approach.

Using this visual guide, you know how to tell when wood furniture is real, fake, or wood veneer. Don’t feel like you have to know this by heart; spotting the difference will come with practice. In the meantime, pin this for later because it’s easy to get mixed up!

dovetail drawers on a real wood dresser

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