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How to spot quality furniture at Ikea

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You’ve got to look beyond the particle board

ikea hackable furniture
Pieces from Ikea’s limited-edition collaboration with Dutch design duo Scholten & Baijings.

Ikea is known for producing affordable, Scandinavian-modern furniture, but not all of the store’s flat-pack offerings are shown to stand the test of time. The store can get a bad rap for pieces that fall apart after a move or lose their shine at the first instance of wear and tear. But the Swedish furniture giant actually has a number of sturdy, high-quality items that even your most design-obsessed friends will admire. You just need to know what to look for.

Whether you’re furnishing your first living room or looking to upgrade a worn-out bedroom set, here are a handful of expert tips and tricks from Jules Yap, founder of Ikea Hackers, and interior designer Jen Chu for spotting Ikea’s best-made designs—without getting overwhelmed.

Actually go to the showroom

While online shopping is the most convenient way to peruse Ikea’s 10,000-plus products, you’ll have a much better idea of a piece’s construction and material quality if you see it in the flesh. Nothing beats your own experience testing out a piece of furniture when you’re looking for something that’ll last. If it seems rickety in the showroom, there’s no way it’ll feel more solid in your own home.

If you want to get ultra-strategic about your time in the store, then surf Ikea’s site to make a list of must-see items. That way, you won’t waste time double-checking bedstead measurements or making sure you didn’t miss the perfect side table.

Stick to solid wood, metal, and glass

While Ikea is probably best known for furniture made of compressed wood chips sandwiched between plastic veneer, just steer clear. The material is notoriously damage-prone, and something as simple as over-tightening a screw could split the fiberboard and leave you with a permanently wobbly bookcase.

"If you want something long lasting, read the label," says Yap. "Solid wood is a better bet compared to particleboard. Solid wood shelves don't warp as easily either. Metal is probably next."

Furniture made of solid wood—preferably a hardwood like oak or acacia, but even a softwood like Swedish pine—is always going to be sturdier than fiberboard. If you can’t spring for a more expensive material, then think about adding a higher-quality component.

"Any tabletop takes a lot of abuse, and it's such a bummer when the surface of your table is marred," Chu says. "If you're going to buy an inexpensive laminate table, get a piece of glass cut for the top. Any glass shop can do it, and it's not very costly."

Don’t buy complex, adjustable pieces

Yap also advises avoiding pieces with complicated moving parts. The additional complexity creates more potential for breakdown. "Compare the Olov adjustable leg versus a Lerberg trestle," she says. "You know which wins."

Traditional furniture designs with sturdy cross supports tend to be more durable.

Check the joints and connections, consider glue

As with any furniture piece you’re thinking of buying, check out how all of the pieces fit together. Simple dowel joints—like the ones connecting the top and sides of Ikea’s classic Billy bookcase—aren’t really meant to be disassembled and reassembled. In fact, if you bought this kind of furniture pre-built rather than flat-packed, those joints would be glued.

Both Yap and Chu mentioned that running a small bead of glue along the edge of a piece before securing it in place can make a world of difference. "A dab of wood glue before you put and screws or bolts in will make the furniture 10 times more rigid, and it will endure way more wear and tear," says Chu.

If you know you’ll want furniture that can one day come apart, try to stick with pieces that have sturdier joints.

Keep an eye out for designer collaborations

When working with designer collaborators, Ikea will sometimes experiment with different materials and higher-quality construction techniques. The company’s collaboration with Swedish ceramicist Ingegerd Råman resulted in a set of handmade furniture pieces made of natural fibers woven onto steel frames, and Ilse Crawford’s 2015 Ikea collection introduced a number of items made with cork. Ikea’s more recent Delaktig collaboration with British designer Tom Dixon uses aluminum framing.

Don’t overlook the small things

There’s more to Ikea than its furniture. The company "makes excellent drawer hardware across the board," says Chu. Swapping out your kitchen’s handles and knobs for a sleeker Ikea design is a relatively simple way to refresh the look of your kitchen, and they’re durable enough for everyday use.

"Many of the smaller items—like accessories, linens, kitchen utensils, flatware, and cookware—are a real value for the money," explains Yap. "And they’re long lasting." So when perusing the store, you needn’t feel too bad about impulse-buying Ikea’s housewares.

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