How to Choose a Quality Chinese Cabinet

Posted by Emperor's Attic

How to Choose Quality Chinese Furniture

There are so many options for where to buy Chinese furniture in Singapore, and so many varying price points, it can be overwhelming to know where to start to find a quality cabinet for a reasonable price.  So, how do you know what to buy and where to begin? 

First, beware of just choosing according to at aesthetics alone.  Simply going on how a cabinet looks in a showroom can mean you lose out in the long run.  Chinese cabinets that look wonderful but fall apart quickly also lose their charm quickly!  What looks glossy and beautiful in the showroom might not survive the move to your house, never mind the wear and tear it needs to survive in a family home.  Arm yourself with a little bit of knowledge about what to look for in quality Chinese furniture first, and you will save yourself from falling into the pit of buying expensive but poor quality furniture.  You will be able to find beauty and great quality at a reasonable price – but you just need to know where to look.

For newly made furniture, it sounds obvious but it’s a sage reminder; not all Chinese cabinets are made equal.  The first step in choosing a quality Chinese cabinet, is to decide whether you want to invest in one that’s durable that will last a lifetime (a more sustainable option), or a semi-disposable Chinese Cabinet for the here and now.   The outcome of this will direct you to whether you want factory made or handmade employing traditional Chinese carpentry and joinery. 

Here’s what you need to know about mass produced vs handmade. 



The specific selection of wood a carpenter uses is not accidental – they will take time to assess and hand select the pieces they use to make sure they’re the best piece for the job. 

The best wood to make new Chinese furniture with, is good quality old, reclaimed wood from Northern China.  The older the better.  Aside from being better for the environment, time allows wood to stabilize.  Wood by its very nature, breathes.  It moves and expands when it’s hot and humid, and shrinks and can split if it changes to a colder climate.  Wood that has been pre-loved will have settled and solidified over time and will have done most of it’s movement by the time it arrives in your cabinet.  So if you buy a cabinet made from reclaimed wood you can expect it not to warp, split or move to the same extent as new wood.  The older the wood, the better.  

In Chinese cabinets, wood from Northern China is ideal for the purpose.  The climate in Northern China is highly variable from Hot and humid to freezing cold and dry.  So wood will have gone through a great deal of movement by the time it gets to you, so you can expect it to be solid.  Wood found in Northern China such as Pine, Poplar and Elm, while soft woods, are actually harder than pine you might find in Europe or America for example.  And therefore less likely to cause issues in cabinetry. 

With this in mind, you will be able to feel the difference in quality yourself when you’re shopping for Chinese Furniture; simply feel the weight of the doors when you open them, and attempt to lift the item itself; compare this to a mass produced cabinet.  A quality piece will feel much more solid and durable than an item made with thin pieces of plywood on a factory line. 


Construction methods

Chinese Furniture made handmade using traditional Chinese carpentry methods will have been purpose-built to last a lifetime, using wood that has been carefully selected to withstand the wear and tear. 

Handmade joints are specifically designed to allow wood to breathe and move, thereby avoiding cracking and warping.  All corners, drawers, joins are made by mortise and tenon joints – they are not glued or nailed together (both of which will cause wood to split when it inevitably moves over time).  See in the picture below the complexity of joinery required to simply make the corner of one cabinet.  Each joint requires meticulous tweaking and maneuvering to perfect; for every join in a drawer, each millimeter between joints is pawed over until the piece is as perfect as possible.  These skills require years of learning, time and energy so you can expect this level of quality to come at slightly extra cost to factory made cabinets, but the rewards will be with you forever. 



The paint work on a high quality handmade piece of furniture is not spray painted on, on a factory line.  If you take a moment to look closely at paint work you will very quickly spot the difference between a finish that has been created by a skilled artist, vs a ubiquitous cookie cutter spray finish.  Painting cabinets to a high-quality to produce works of art to be revered in themselves is a skill that’s learned and honed over time and through generations.  Having both a work of art and a cabinet all in one is a privilege – it’s a very different thing to buy a spray painted cabinet that’s uniform in colour and texture.  Buying factory made means you are buying into a relatively ubiquitous in look and feel which certainly has it’s own merits, and comes with its own value proposition in itself.  But it’s just useful to remember that for the same price you might be able to find a Chinese Cabinet that’s beautiful quality, handmade and one of a kind – that speaks to you and you alone.

 With any factory-made cabinet you are buying one of thousands of the same product produced.  When buying from a reputable high street chain, you can expect to know exactly what you are getting, precise measurements, with everything just so. The same, delightfully, cannot be said of handmade furniture.  With anything that has been made by human hand, you will inevitably find what we like to call “perfect imperfections”, and with that comes significant charm and interest. There will be a history behind the cabinet, bestowed upon it by it’s creators. There will be hall marks of the carpenter and artist who made your cabinet. And the learning that led them to the point that they created your cabinet.  There will be a story in the wood used.  There’s a story in the day you found your forever cabinet, reflective of the place and home you lived in when you found it.  There is something delightfully romantic and William Morris-esque about it.



Cost per use will be significantly lower on both your wallet and the environment over the lifespan of a Chinese cabinet that’s been handmade vs factory made.  From the wood used to the manufacturing processes employed, the carbon footprint of a piece handmade will likely be lower than that of a mass produced Chinese Cabinet.  Well made quality furniture will also hold its value significantly better than a mass-produced cabinet, so if you ever find yourself in the position of having to sell any of your furniture for whatever reason, know that quality handmade furniture will be a safer bet to future proof yourself!


As the saying goes, buy cheap, buy twice.  And this can certainly be true for Chinese furniture.  You’ll never regret searching a little harder and spending a little more to enjoy a beautiful quality piece of Chinese furniture that will last you a lifetime.