From Home Furnishing Business
Solid Wood Finding Solid Ground
By Larry Thomas
As wood furniture manufacturing began moving offshore in earnest in the early 2000s and the industry became more price-driven, producers of solid wood furniture probably felt like Clara Peller, the snarky senior citizen who starred in ads for Wendy’s in the early 1980s.
A frustrated Peller became famous for asking, “Where’s the beef” when she ordered a burger from Wendy’s competitors. And solid wood producers became frustrated as they lost market share to wood furniture companies using particle board, plywood, MDF and a variety of other engineered woods.
“The term ‘solid wood’ was stretched and pushed in so many directions that is simply meant that it wasn’t hollow,” said Gat Caperton, president of solid wood producer Gat Creek Furniture. “Almost anything qualified as solid wood. It lost its cachet with consumers because the term wasn’t a very believable term.”
But after a decade in the doldrums, Caperton and other players in the category say solid wood is regaining its mojo.
“Clearly, there’s a consumer out there who not only appreciates, but is seeking out solid wood furniture,” said Max Dyer, vice president of marketing for La-Z-Boy Casegoods, which includes the solid wood Kincaid line. “The consumer is gravitating toward all things authentic and genuine … more than I’ve ever seen before.”
And Dyer said that desire for authenticity gives brands such as Kincaid an opportunity to shine.
“There’s an upside for the industry by telling the story and explaining the construction,” he said. “That would benefit not only the consumer, but also the retailers and the manufacturers. It’s an opportunity for our industry to offer better products and educate the consumer.”
Caperton agreed with that sentiment, but said education also is necessary for retailers.
“Four or five years ago, if you told a retailer you were a solid wood manufacturer, they would say, ‘I don’t care. It’s wood.’ But we’ve come off that trend today,” Caperton said. “Solid wood is starting to be a nice point of differentiation to the consumer as a higher-quality product.”
So just how much room is there for solid wood furniture to grow? That’s hard to quantify because no one seems certain of the size of the category.
Dyer, for example, said retailers typically devoted about 30% of their case goods slots to solid wood when he worked in furniture retailing in the 1990s, but he thinks it has dropped to around 5% today. Tom Inman, president of the trade group Appalachian Hardwood Manufacturers Inc., thinks it’s closer to 10% to 12%, but admits that’s an educated guess.
“But I can tell you that it’s growing,” Inman said of the category. “At the last four High Point Markets, there has been more solid wood in showrooms than we’ve seen in a long time, especially at the middle and upper-middle price points.”
But regardless of the category’s current size, Inman agreed that there’s still plenty of room for growth, which is music to the ears of the members of his organization.
And the customers of his members – furniture manufacturers – seem to agree. Caperton, for example, said Gat Creek’s business has improved to the point where the company has been adding workers at its West Virginia factory recently, while Virginia-based producers Bassett Furniture and Vaughan-Bassett have successfully launched solid wood lines to their product mix in the past two years.
Bassett’s solid wood success has come with its BenchMade line of custom dining tables, while Vaughan-Bassett has had noteworthy success with its Artisan & Post line of solid wood bedroom furniture. And Vaughan-Bassett is hoping to build on that success with a solid wood dining line that was rolled out at the April High Point Market.
The April market also saw a major solid wood rollout from Tennessee-based Cresent Fine Furniture, whose solid wood line currently is made at two factories in Vietnam. But the latest addition, a custom dining program, will feature products assembled and finished in Tennessee using “whitewood” components made in Vietnam.
“We believe that our years of expertise in solid wood manufacturing, sourcing and environmentally-friendly finishing will show in the excellent quality and value of the BenchMark dining selections,” said Taylor Condra, Cresent’s president and chief operating officer, noting that the company produced its entire line in Tennessee until 2006. “We still have the spray booths in place, and many of our employees have been with us ten to 20 years or more.”
Although the exact size of the solid wood market remains unclear, research by Impact Consulting Services, parent company of Home Furnishings Business, bolsters the assertion that consumers are beginning to appreciate solid wood and are willing to pay for it.
In a recent survey, 62% of consumers said solid wood was either “important” or “very important” in the purchase decision, and fully one-third of them (33%) said they are willing to pay up to 10% more for their purchase if they know it’s solid wood.
Another 21% said they would be willing to pay 10% to 20% more, while 17% said they would be willing to pay 20% to 30% more for solid wood.
That didn’t surprise Greg Harden, president of upstate New York-based Harden Furniture. He said his company’s market research “shows that the percentage of consumers who prefer solid wood is significantly higher than the amount of solid wood sold in the industry. That suggests we should be realizing some opportunities.”
Harden, whose company targets the upper-end of the market, said a demographic group that should be targeted by solid wood producers is called Henrys – High Earners Not Rich Yet.
“They want products made in America, and they want products that have been touched by the hands of craftsmen,” Harden said. “They can really relate to that.”
Caperton agreed, but added that marketing a solid wood collection as “heirloom” probably won’t be effective with Millennials, despite their appreciation of quality and authenticity.
“Heirloom is a tough story today with Millennials,” he said. “We just have to communicate that solid wood is more durable and more resilient. It feels like it has a little more quality when it’s a solid wood piece versus something that’s made from MDF.”
And MDF is something that won’t be found anywhere near Gat Creek’s factory.
“We only know MDF by its initials,” Caperton quipped. “We wouldn’t know what it looks like.”
Borkholder Furniture’s Madera
Introduced less than a year ago, this poster bed quickly became a best seller. Shown here in an almond finish, the bed initially is sandblasted to open the grain pattern, and then taken through a 12-step finish process by Amish artisans. This complicated process captures the beauty of the grain and all the nuances of solid wood.
Conrad Grebel’s New Haven
This contemporary solid ash bedroom group features a premium catalyzed varnish finish for ultimate wood protection. Dresser and nightstand drawers have full-extension drawer glides, fully-dovetailed drawers and drawer bottoms that are 3/8-inch thick. Made by hand by Amish and Mennonite craftsmen, it has an approximate retail price of $3,336 in queen.
Cresent Fine Furniture’s Gunnison
Featuring casual transitional styling, this solid poplar best-seller is highlighted by soft rounded corners on the clean-lined case pieces, and functional touches such as a drop-front media drawer in the dresser and a power strip with two USB connections in the nightstand. It is shown here with the optional cedar-lined storage drawers on the sleigh bed.
Durham Furniture’s Cascata
With a nod to mid-century modern design, this solid cherry bedroom collection draws on a design balance between classic Italian elegance and modern creativity. The symmetrical curves of concave drawer fronts and sides are defining design elements. Accented by minimalist nickel hardware, the flowing curves showcase the cherry wood grains.
Gat Creek Furniture’s Alison
This top-selling bed, which is available in twin, full, queen, king, and California king sizes, coordinates with the 13-piece Sabin bedroom collection. The bed and the case pieces are made-to-order and are available in 66 finishes in solid cherry or maple.
Home Trends & Design’s Casablanca
Bringing a sense of timeless sophistication and old world charm to the dining area, this best-seller is made entirely from reclaimed Neem wood. Each exquisite piece features a durable frame-and-panel design with handcrafted details such as hand-turned pedestals and a hand-hewn inlay. This X-pattern inlay, combined with the solid wood construction and antique-rubbed lacquer finish, represents the master craftsmanship of this collection. Approximate retail price is $2,290.
Harden Furniture’s Live Edge
A sweeping V-shaped table leg highlights this best-seller from the Live Edge collection. Shown here in solid curly maple, it also is available in solid cherry, walnut or wormy maple. The starting retail price is about $8,599, but can vary depending on the customization options.
MacKenzie-Dow Fine Furniture’s Cascadia
Inspired by the Pacific Northwest, this end table, part of a three-table collection, is made of solid Appalachian black cherry and solid American steamed black walnut. Besides the organic look and feel, the design focus is the grain of the lumber "flowing over" the sides of the table, which is a tribute to the many waterways found in this area of the country. Approximate retail is $2,397.
Minnick Wood Products’ Luberon
Named after a French province, this dining set is made of solid oak harvested in France and featuring classic Italian craftsmanship. Highlights include dove-tailed drawer construction, spring-loaded stoppers, and hinges made of iron in a vintage look. The table top is 3.75 inches thick, and the serving cart comes with an Italian marble top as a cutting board.
New Ridge Home Goods’ Beaumont
Combining the quality of solid wood with the price points of RTA furniture, this solid birch shelf features modern cottage styling. Designed to fit into space-challenged spaces, it is available in six water-resistant color finishes. Approximate retail price is $100.
Simply Amish’s Wildwood
From the Modern Farmhouse collection, this canopy bed and nightstand highlights meticulously crafted mitered edges, refined scale, and a balance between modern and masculine design. Made of solid cherry, the bed retails for about $4,400 in queen, and the matching nightstand retails for about $1,410.
Vaughan Bassett’s American Maple
Part of the Appalachian Hardwood line, this hot-selling solid maple collection features French dovetail drawers and a smooth acrylic finish on the interior drawer sides and bottom. The collection includes two beds in natural maple, cherry, rustic white and grey finishes. The bed, dresser, mirror and nightstand retail for $2,199.