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Evaluating furniture finishes

Manufacturers and suppliers of wooden and wood-based furniture need to be aware of surface finish performance.

There are many types of furniture finishes, but whatever form they take, they must be functional, fit for purpose, durable and attractive. Furniture made from wood or wood veneers will probably have a lacquer finish to protect the surface and enhance the beauty of the wood. Other furniture products might have a man-made surface such as a plastic laminate, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) foil, impregnated paper, powder coating or a pigmented paint finish. This article briefly examines some of the main aspects of assessing the performance of furniture finishes, irrespective of their type. In order to concentrate on the aforementioned finishes, waxes and oil treatments are excluded.

Wooden furniture needs protection

At first sight, it would seem to be quite unnecessary to go to the trouble of applying a finish to wooden furniture. However, the surface of wood is absorbent, easily stained and readily picks up dirt. If wood is to retain its beauty, its surface must be protected. This is good sense, as the surface is what customers see and touch. The finish protects the underlying substrate and enhances either the solid wood or the veneer. The finish is, therefore, an important contributor to appeal and attractiveness.

Furniture finishes

Furniture finishes might be regarded as engineered to suit the process of application and the product. They will need to be selected for suitability for the material substrate and the type of end use of the furniture. For example, furniture in a hotel or office environment will encounter a more aggressive set of conditions when compared to furniture in a domestic setting. Likewise, kitchen furniture in a domestic setting will encounter different and more severe conditions than furniture in a bedroom. As a consequence, the manufacturer may choose different finishing materials or systems for different applications. Any bonding agents used must also be selected carefully to ensure satisfactory performance under service conditions.

Minimising complaints

It is important that a furniture finish should look attractive for the duration of the product’s life. It must stand up to normal usage of the furniture to which it is applied, and to some abuse. Finishes for all types of furniture should be able to offer an acceptable level of resistance to being scratched or chipped.

Specifically, tabletops should not be able to be damaged by hot plates or spilled hot drinks, alcohol or foodstuffs, and sunlight should not fade or discolour the surface. Without systematic testing, it is not easy to judge how a finish will cope with these hazards. SATRA can advise and evaluate all types of furniture finishes, thus helping companies in the furniture supply chain to avoid finish-related customer complaints.

Testing the scratch-resistance of a furniture finish under BS 3962-6:1980

When selecting new finishes for furniture, there are number of factors that need to be addressed. These ‘fitness for purpose issues’ are displayed in table 1.

Table 1: Fitness for purpose issues
  • does the finish meet the aesthetic objectives? Does it enhance the substrate, bringing out the features of the wood grain?
  • does the finish protect the substrate from damage – including scratching, knocks or scuffs?
  • is it resistant to attack from chemicals such as bleach, alcohol, acids or alkalis?
  • does the finish stand up to spills of hot liquids, including tea, coffee or gravy?
  • does the finish perform well when hot dishes are left on the surface?
  • how will the finish behave in strong sunlight? Will it fade or change colour adversely?
  • is the finish compatible with common cleaning materials and procedures? Will it be easy to maintain?
  • is the finish safe? Does it contain harmful substances? (This is very important to know this if the furniture is intended for use in a nursery)
  • if the finish is a laminate or foil, will it peel or blister in service?

Evaluation of finishes

In order to assess a new finish for suitability, it is essential to carry out an evaluation using appropriate test methods and assessment criteria. SATRA uses British and European standards which contain relevant procedures and criteria for evaluating finishes. The requirements and specifications for furniture finishes can be used to determine if the finish is durable enough for the chosen application (such as in offices, hotels, kitchens, dining rooms or bedrooms), and can then be regarded as fit for purpose. Results will give companies guidance on making judgements about the suitability or fitness for purpose of a particular finish against an end-use application.

The performance of surface finishes may be evaluated using four criteria:

It is most useful to find that the standards used for evaluating furniture finishes are divided up into categories, representing the different levels of durability needed to satisfy the particular application.

Many trade buyers want to see some form of proof that a manufacturer's furniture meets the standards required. Retailers or importers may wish to evaluate the effectiveness of the finish of the furniture they are buying. A manufacturer or a retailer may submit a sample piece of the furniture to a laboratory, such as SATRA, to undergo a standard test and use this as proof that all furniture produced will meet the standards. A retailer may find himself in a weak position if he attempts to back up his claim that the product is fit for purpose if he has no test results. Testing is not expensive, and a third-party report can be a valuable selling tool for the manufacturer and the retailer.

Diligent suppliers will supply instructions for the consumer to look after, clean and maintain their purchased furniture.

How can we help?


Please click here for information on SATRA's furniture testing services. To discuss how SATRA can help your company or for a free demonstration of the tests at SATRA’s laboratories, email