The frame or body of the table is important for strength, durability, and aesthetics. Formica® and other laminated finishes are easy to care for, and offer protection from burns, scratches and stains. However, the particle board backing usually used on laminated surfaces does not accommodate being taken apart and reassembled too often. Real wood tables will tend to hold their resale values better – especially if the table is re-sold or moved several times. A base frame and cabinet that is stained or sealed on all sides will withstand changes in humidity better than raw, unfinished wood.
In high-humidity areas or rooms with large temperature or humidity changes (unheated rooms, right next to a wood stove, un-insulated rooms over a garage); plywood or MDF will probably be less likely to warp than solid wood. That’s why floors are always plywood. This takes a bit of judgment; because it’s thick solid wood that generally presents the problem of warping or cracking, while thinner solid wood is generally not a problem. Rapid changes on the surface can make thick wood expand or contract before the heat or humidity has made it all the way into the center of it. A good rule of thumb: if you can afford $5,000 for a really thick solid wood table, spring for some heat and a dehumidifier, too! Basements and regular living spaces are usually the best places to put a table because the humidity changes so little.
The best solid wood legs are actually made from blocks of solid wood glued together with grain patterns in cross-directions, then carved. Ask if you can’t tell. Usually, if the stain is dark enough, it is difficult to tell just by looking. Wood legs carved from a single large piece of cheap wood (like rubberwood or fruitwood) are much more likely to develop a large (and potentially dangerous) crack as they dry out. They also tend to match the rest of the table poorly if they are made from a different type of wood than the body.
Of course, a solid wood table will be much stronger and more valuable than a veneer table. Things to remember: “All wood” doesn’t necessarily mean “all solid wood”, because particle board is made out of wood. Carvings in a table body do not necessarily mean that it’s solid. You can router a veneer glued on composition board, and if you do not look closely (or if you stain the under laying composition board), it can look just like solid wood. One could even argue that a maple veneer glued to solid tulipwood is actually solid wood. It’s just not solid maple and it’s not nearly as hard.
American Northern Red Oak is one of the most popular woods used in tables because it is hard, durable, and easy to match to furniture and accessories. Ash and Manchurian or Asian oak are inexpensive substitutes if you don’t mind the wide grain and lack of matching pieces. Alder, poplar, tulipwood, mahogany, maple, cherry and other woods are often used in dark-stained tables where you don’t want to see a grain. Dark, shiny surfaces will show scratches and dents more than a light oak, however. You may wish to avoid that type of table in a commercial environment or in use by young children. Using maple, birch, or rosewood rails on a softer wood table (like poplar or tulipwood) will also help, though the stain may not match as well.