Furniture shopping for my office

I will have a dedicated office in the Mountain Lair, which I am also designating to serve as our library. Over the years, I have collected a number of books, most of them still in Berlin, and now I finally will have a place to bring them all together.

It being a library and also having soaring 15-foot ceiling, I embarked on a search of tall bookshelves that would befit such a room, and not be dwarfed by it. Ideally the shelves would be stained espresso brown and made of solid wood or bamboo, and may have metal pieces. I would tolerate plywood parts, but no MDF or particleboard. Here is an illustration for what I thought would be a good kind of shelf for the library.

As I was soon to find out, solid wood furniture is now only available from super-expensive places such as designer or antique stores. Or if you have it custom-built.

The picture above is from the World Market catalog for a shelf that costs nearly $700. That's not cheap if you ask me, so I assumed it would be true when their website said the shelf was made of solid wood. I bought it, and two very energetic ladies helped me load it into the van with great effort. It was flat-packed in two boxes, and each box weighed 100+ pounds.

When we got home, J and I unloaded the shelf piece by piece, opening the box inside the van, and carrying the parts upstairs in manageable increments. When the shelf was three quarters of the way assembled, I realized with that sinking feeling of doom that the main vertical supports of the shelf were indeed thick MDF.

So the next day, I disassembled the shelf, and we loaded it back into the van in reverse order, putting it inside the original boxes as good we could (which was better than we expected). I drove it to the store, where nobody showed themselves concerned with the reason for the return, and even when I told them, no written note was taken as far as I can tell.

I have crawled hundreds of products in online and physical stores, but it appears that any shelf that's not costing multiple thousands of dollars will be made of engineered wood.

What really puzzles me at this moment is where all the real wood is going? MDF is made of wood that's left over after the good stuff is cut. If the rich folk comprise one percent of the population, they can't be needing that much solid wood furniture, as to make it so outlandishly expensive.

I am not skilled in woodwork, and don't really have the patience or desire to learn. I just want to buy something that won't poison me with formaldehyde and also something that is environmentally sustainable. Like bamboo. For now, the search is coming up empty, but I have a few other angles if that fails. One, I may find a local craftsperson who can build me custom shelving out of inexpensive local wood or bamboo plywood, which I know a source for. Two, I may buy a bunch of used wine crates, stain them, and arrange them as a shelf along the wall. There are tons of pictures online, here's a random one to give you an idea what I am talking about.

With the right stain and some brass brackets and accents to make it look more intentional than just a pile of old crates, I think it may have a chance of achieving the right effect. Not sure though. I have not yet worked with anything as big, and built no furniture, so I hope I won't have to do it.

For the desk, there's actually been a good development. I want a standing workstation, and have been shopping all over the place for one. The thing is, they are just coming into fashion, so the choices are limited, and most are expensive. Again, you'd think a piece of wood on legs should not cost the world, yet $1000 seemed to be about average as standing workstations go. After I gave up on the idea of buying a ready-made one, I decided to buy a tabletop and legs separately, and put it together myself.

An evening of search has yielded a 6-foot long work surface made of thick bamboo at Craftsman, and next day, I bought some 40" table C-legs for it. It's not going to be adjustable, but barring me growing taller 40" is the exact height I need.

All the parts should be arriving in about two weeks, at which point I can start setting up my office for real, instead of just using it to park all the unopened boxes from the move.


  1. There are reasons solid wood is not widely available, and cost is only one of it. Wood "moves" quite a bit (temperature, humidity etc affect its size), and a piece of furniture that big, made out of solid wood, is not going to last, unless special care is taken.

    Plywood is much more stable, because the various layers of wood have different fiber orientations.

    You could argue that old-style furniture (16th century) is solid wood and still lasts. I don't know how they were doing it back then, but I suspect they had a much better choice of boards. There are techniques for cutting wood that will produce more stable boards, but also produce a lot of waste. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quarter_sawing and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rift_sawing

    Finally, forests are getting cut at a faster rate (they may re-generate, but they won't grow as big as they had them back in those days). You still get solid wood, but not from very large trees. So, from that perspective, solid wood is probably the least environment-friendly option for you.

  2. Agree with all your points Mihai. Aging the wood for a long time, and using special sawing techniques and joints all contribute to the 16th century furniture still lasting. After all, we only see the pieces that were built by the top craftsmen for the rich folk like the gentry, so equivalent to the $5000 bookcases that are out of my reach.

    Reclaimed wood, pine or bamboo plywood seem to be the environmentally friendly choices. Green Tea Design in Canada uses wood reclaimed from old buildings, that is unlikely to "move" and that would otherwise be discarded to make their pieces. I would like to give a local workshop a try first.

    The more I think about it, the more I like an idea of bamboo shelves in some sort of a metal frame, actually. I may end up constructing something like that of ready-made metal uprights and ply-boo.