Unfinished furniture is no longer just inexpensive stuff for the kids' rooms. And it is no longer in the same category as orange-crate-type furnishings bought to fill in until you can afford the ''real thing.''
This particular category of home furnishings has taken on a new look, and is obviously no longer a stepchild of the industry. Its upscale versions have far more style and quality today, and the breadth of offerings includes every period from Shaker-style pencil-post beds to pine Colonial corner cupboards, contemporary platform beds and wall systems, cherry French Provincial and Queen Anne groups, and casual and country-style pieces in solid oak.
Beech, birch, maple, mahogany, rosewood, and other fine hardwoods are now being offered in unfinished furniture. Some companies are making the same pieces available finished or unfinished.
There has even been a name change. Many of the 10,000 stores and specialty shops that sell the bare-wood products, made by more than a thousand manufacturers, now call it ready-to-finish furniture. These stores often offer such customer services as finishing workshops or seminars, or workshop facilities where customers can be instructed and do their own finishing on the shop's premises. It pays to inquire.
Obviously, the trend to a wider and better selection of ready-to-finish pieces bodes well for families who are looking for ways to save money, as well as ways, as one young couple put it, ''to work on their own furniture with their own hands.'' Many families are turning to ready-to-finish stores in search of such specialty items as rockers, stools, rolltop desks, etageres, hall trees, tea carts, washstands, secretary-hutches, and storage components for sewing and entertainment centers. One manufacturer is even offering bare-wood ''computer'' furniture for the home.
Early American still dominates the style picture, with 18th-century, country, and contemporary styles increasing each year. Some of the pieces are sold in portable ready-to-assemble kits that can be easily carried home from the store or ordered by mail.
As Ray Passis, executive director of the National Unfinished Furniture Institute in Northfield, Ill., points out, ''While other parts of the furniture industry have been in a slump, the unfinished-furniture industry has experienced rapid growth. I think at a time like this, people are looking for ways to do things themselves.''
With all the new paints, lacquers, stains, oil finishes, polyurethanes, and pigmented and rubbing oils now on the market, anyone can easily finish such a piece to match other wood furnishings in the home, or blend with existing carpets, fabrics, and wallpapers.
Elizabeth Wright, a dealer in Oklahoma City, says that 10 years or so ago it was almost impossible for an amateur to achieve a professional-looking finish. Now, she says, ''working on the choice woods that are available, they can achieve a multitude of handsome, custom finishes.''
Price savings are greatest in those sturdy but standard staples (bookcases, tables, chairs, desks, toy chests, chests, etc.) made by such companies as Harris Pine of Pendleton, Ore., for the last 40 years. A company like Richardson Brothers of Sheboygan Falls, Wis., offers its entire line of handsome oak furniture both finished and unfinished, but the price differential between the two is often as little as 5 percent.
Joan Kelleher, a young magazine writer from New York, and her husband, Aki, contend they saved several thousand dollars on the furnishings of their studio apartment. They were attracted to the ''simple, Scandinavian-like lines'' of the ready-to-finish furniture offered by a cooperative group of carpenters in their neighborhood. They purchased a dining table and Windsor-type chairs to go around it, a platform bed with attached storage side cabinets, a sofa, and a corner cabinet arrangement that provides storage for the dining area.
''We decided that these well-made pieces were an agreeable and affordable alternative to the furniture we priced in the department stores,'' Mrs. Kelleher says. ''We spent less than $2,000 on all the pieces, and that included having them finished for us at the store, since we have little time to spare and are not handy with our hands.''
Experts offer these guidelines to shopping for unfinished furniture:
* Pull out drawers to see if there are center guides. Drawers should be smooth and tight. A dovetail construction is a sign of quality.
* Check that frames are reinforced with glued and screwed corner blocks.
* Make sure that cabinet doors hang true.
* Test for sturdiness by placing the palm of your hand on top of the furniture and trying to rock it.
* Make sure that sides, doors, and drawers are all made of wood.
* For the best selection of such furnishings, and the most service, check out those retail shops that specialize in unfinished furniture. These include those special divisions of Sears, Roebuck and J.C. Penney.
* Remember that most specialty stores offer a finishing service, but establish the price ahead of time, and expect to pay an additional $10 or so for delivery.