Skip to Content

What's the Difference Between Engineered and Solid Wood Furniture?

Shopping for new furniture and want to know the difference between engineered and solid wood? Learn how to spot each type and which is best!

solid wood furniture with text overlay "how to tell if your furniture is solid wood"

Are you torn between the classic beauty of solid wood furniture and the affordability of engineered wood options?

Do terms like "veneer" and "particleboard" leave you feeling confused? And what the heck is the difference between plywood and MDF?

This article will explain the pros and cons of both solid and engineered wood, so you can invest in pieces that will serve you well for years to come.

Solid Wood

Solid wood is the gold standard in furniture. As the name suggests, it's made from lumber that has been cut directly from the tree and made into boards.

So why is solid wood furniture so prized?

It's exceptionally durable and can last for generations! It can also be refinished and repaired to keep the piece looking amazing year after year.

refinishing a solid wood table top

However, there are a few downsides. It's much more expensive than the engineered wood options. It also requires some maintenance, such as oiling, waxing or polishing, in order to keep its appearance and prevent damage.

For example, I chose solid wood butcher block countertops for our kitchen. While they're gorgeous, they also require several coats of oil every year to keep them looking their best.

applying butcher block oil to countertop

So how can you tell if that piece of furniture is solid wood? Well, there are a few clues.

First, it's heavy! If it takes two people to move that little coffee table, it's probably solid wood.

Take a look at the grain. Solid wood has unique variations in the grain pattern, while engineered wood typically repeats. On the end grain, the rings of the tree may be visible.

end grain butcher block countertops

Remember that a piece of furniture can have both solid and engineered wood parts. For example, a nightstand may have a solid wood top and legs, but use plywood for the sides or drawer box.

DIY nightstand with drawer and shelf


Plywood is a type of engineered wood that consists of very thin layers of wood glued together with opposing grain directions. This creates a strong and dimensionally stable panel that is typically used in cabinetry.

prefinished cabinet grade plywood

However, because plywood is made of very thin layers of wood, it can be difficult to repair or refinish. Oversanding can reveal the layers underneath, and chips and dents are difficult to patch.

The easiest way to determine if your furniture is made of plywood is to look for edge banding. There are several ways to finish plywood edges, but the most common method is to apply a thin strip of adhesive backed wood to hide the plies.

iron heating up edge banding

If you run your finger along the corner, you may be able to feel a slight ridge where the plywood and the banding meet. In the photo below, you can see solid wood on the top and plywood with edge banding on the bottom.

solid wood vs plywood with edge banding


Veneered wood is similar to plywood, but with a different core. It is a thin sheet of hardwood that is glued to a lesser quality wood or particle board. It gives you the look of nicer, expensive wood without the price tag.

Veneer typically has a repeating pattern to the grain. The log is peeled like a roll of wrapping paper, so it keeps the same grain for multiple passes.

roll of thin wood veneer

You can tell if your furniture is veneer by looking at it closely from the side. You should be able to see or feel a slight transition between the base material and the finished surface. If it seems like you could peel the surface off the table, it's veneer.

While veneer may give you the look of solid wood, it's not as durable. Over time, the protective coating can wear off, exposing that thin layer of wood. Moisture can cause the glue to separate from the substrate, causing bubbling or peeling.

veneered wood samples

Depending on how thick the veneer is, you might be able to refinish the table if you do it carefully. Feel the top to see how much damage has already been done. If you can feel low spots or pits in the surface, you may not have enough wood left to work with.


Laminate is a fiberboard or MDF core with a plastic coating. You can spot it pretty easily because the faux grain looks unnatural and feels perfectly smooth and plastic-y. Melamine is a type of laminate with a hard white resin surface.


Laminate furniture is the most cost-effective option, which is why you see it in lots of IKEA furniture. Unlike wood, it's non-porous and easier to clean. But it tends to sag when holding a lot of weight, such as bookshelves.

I like to use it when building projects like this craft cabinet, because it comes in a variety of different colors so you don't have to paint! Just be careful when cutting melamine, because it's prone to chipping along the edge.

DIY craft cabinet with shelves

You can paint laminate furniture, although you need to prep it with bonding primer first so it sticks properly. I painted my laminate kitchen cabinets, and it held up pretty well. But staining isn't possible since there's no real wood to soak up the stain!

before and after painting laminate kitchen cabinets

I hope this article helped clear up any confusion between engineered and solid wood furniture! Now you can weigh the pros and cons of each and decide which one is right for your space!