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Types of Solid Wood Furniture

The more you know about the unique characteristics of wood and its source, the better you can understand the degree of warmth and beauty that it brings to our everyday décor. Furniture made of wood is one of the few things in the world that all people can own and know that they are the only person in the world who owns that particular grain pattern and its inherent beauty. Each grain pattern is a unique masterpiece of design and texture. Even what some may view as a defect, like a knot or other natural blemishes, can add more beauty and character to any given piece of furniture.

The classification of wood has historically always been either hard wood; any leaf bearing tree, and soft wood; any cone bearing tree. These terms can be confusing since some leaf bearing trees can have very soft wood and some coniferous trees can have very hard woods. To make this easier, below you will find a list of different tree types, classification and then individual wood characteristics.


Oak is the most widely used hardwood. There are more than 60 species of oak grown in the U.S., which can be separated into two basic varieties; white and red. The red variety is also known as black oak as a reference to its bark.

History: Oak was the wood of choice for the Gothic furniture made in the Middle Ages. It remained popular throughout the seventeenth century. Quarter cut oak boards known as wainscot were brought to Northern Europe as early as the fourteenth century. Traditionally, oak has been used for styles that require only a moderate amount of carving.

Properties: Oak is a heavy, strong, light colored hardwood. It is ring porous, due to the fact that more and larger conductive vessels are laid down early in the summer, rather than later. Prominent rings and large pores give oak a course texture and prominent grain. Oak also has conspicuous medullar rays which can be seen as "flakes" in quarter sawed oak lumber.

Uses: Oak is the most popular wood used to craft American and English country designs. It is also used for Gothic and William & Mary reproductions, as well as many transitional and contemporary pieces.


There are 115 species of maple. Only 5 commercially important species grow in the U.S. Two of the five are hard rock maple and sugar maple.

Properties: Maple is so hard and resistant to shocks that it is often used for bowling alley floors. Its diffuse, evenly sized pores give the wood a fine texture and even grain. Maple that has a curly grain is often used for violin backs (the pattern formed is known as fiddle back figure). Burls, leaf figure, and birds-eye figures found in maple are used extensively for veneers. The Birds eye figure in maple is said to be the result of stunted growth and is quite rare.

Uses: Maple is used extensively for American colonial furniture, especially in medium and lower priced categories. It can also be stained to simulate cherry wood, which it resembles.

When purchasing maple furniture, it is important that you understand the nature of this wood and the finishes applied to it.

Note the variations in the shading of the different pieces of wood and the different grain patterns. No two pieces of wood are the same.

Note the variations in the "birds eye" patterns. Each piece of wood will have a different "birds eye" pattern.


Mahogany, also known as Honduras mahogany is a tropical hardwood indigenous to South America, Central America and Africa. There are many different grades and species sold under this name, which vary widely in quality and price. Mahogany which comes from the Caribbean is thought to be the hardest, strongest and best quality. Logs from Africa, though highly figured, are of slightly lesser quality. Philippine mahogany has a similar color, but is not really mahogany at all. It is a much less valuable wood, being less strong, not as durable or as beautiful when finished.

History: Mahogany was known in Europe since the time of the Spanish explorers, but it was not widely used for furniture before the 18th century, when it largely replaced walnut as the predominant cabinet making wood. It was at this time that English Georgian cabinetmakers such as Chippendale and Sheraton, and Americans like Goddard and Townsend used it extensively. The Empire, Federal and Victorian craftsmen were also great consumers of this fine wood.

Properties: Mahogany is strong, with a uniform pore structure and poorly defined annual rings. It has a reddish - brown color and may display stripe, ribbon, broken stripe, rope, ripple, mottle, fiddle back or blister figures. Crotch mahogany figures are widely used and greatly valued. Mahogany is an excellent carving wood and finishes well.

Uses: Mahogany is used extensively in the crafting of Georgian, Empire and Federal reproduction furniture. Mahogany is also used in styles ranging from Victorian furniture reproductions to Contemporary.


Cherry is grown in the Eastern half of the U.S. It is sometimes called fruitwood. The term fruitwood is also used to describe a light brown finish on other woods.

History: Cherry was often used in original American colonial furniture. European cherry was also used for provincial furniture.

Properties: A moderately hard, strong, closed grain, light to red-brown wood, cherry resists warping and checking. It is easy to carve and polish.

Uses: Cherry veneers and solids are used in a variety of styles. Cherry has been called New England mahogany and is often used to craft 18th century, Colonial and French Provincial designs.

When purchasing cherry furniture, it is important that you understand the nature of this wood and the finishes applied to it.

Please notice the small pits in the wood, these are known as "gum pits" and are natural characteristics of cherry wood. Cherry wood is usually finished with a lacquer product, which creates a shiny appearance. In this type of finish when looking at it under a light, you will notice "swirl" marks that appear to be scratches. This is normal and is not a defect.

It is also important to understand when purchasing cherry dining that many companies build chairs in one factory and tables in another. This will cause some variations in color between chairs and tables.

Please consider these facts about cherry furniture before deciding to make your purchase.


Walnut is one of the most versatile and popular cabinet making woods. It grows in Europe, America and Asia. There are many different varieties.

History: Walnut and oak were the primary cabinet making woods in 17th century Europe. Walnut and mahogany were the primary woods of the 18th century. In 18th century America, walnut was often stained to imitate mahogany. The 1820's and 30's in America are often referred to as the "Black Walnut Period" due to the preponderance of this wood. The Queen Anne (1702-1714) period in England is often referred to as the "Age of Walnut."

Properties: Walnut is strong, hard and durable, without being excessively heavy. It has excellent woodworking qualities, and takes finishes well. The wood is light to dark chocolate brown in color with a straight grain in the trunk. Wavy grain is present toward the roots, and walnut stumps are often dug out and used as a source of highly figured veneer. Large burls are common. Walnut solids and veneers show a wide range of figures, including strips, burls, mottles, crotches, curls and butts. European walnut is lighter in color and slightly finer in texture than American black walnut, but otherwise comparable.

Uses: Walnut is used in all types of fine cabinet work, especially 18th century reproductions.


Pine is softwood which grows in most areas of the Northern Hemisphere. There are more than 100 species worldwide.

History: Pine (also fir) was used historically for structural components of furniture and drawer linings in Europe, as well as for simple country designs.

Properties: Pine is a soft, white or pale yellow wood which is light weight, straight grained and lacks figure. It resists shrinking and swelling. Knotty pine is often used for decorative effect.

Uses: Pine is often used for country or provincial furniture. Pickled, whitened, painted and oil finishes are often used on this wood.


There are 16 species of ash which grow in the eastern United States. Of these, the white ash is the largest and most commercially important.

Properties: Ash is a hard, heavy, ring porous hardwood. It has a prominent grain that resembles oak, and a white to light brown color. Ash is differentiated from hickory (pecan), which it also resembles, by white dots in the darker summerwood which can be seen with the naked eye. Ash burls have a twisted, interwoven figure.

Uses: Ash is widely used for structural frames and steam bent furniture pieces. It is often less expensive than comparable hardwoods.


There are 15 species of hickory in the eastern United States, eight of which are commercially important. Properties: Hickory is one of the heaviest and hardest woods available. Pecan is a species of hickory sometimes used in furniture. It has a close grain without much figure.

Uses: Wood from the hickory is used for structural parts, especially where strength and thinness are required. Decorative hickory veneers are also commonly used.


Any of several climbing Asian palms whose stems grow to great lengths.

Properties: The rattan pole is round (1/4 to 2 inch diameter), solid and strong. It can be bent into many shapes or cut into the core material used for wicker work.

Uses: Whole rattan poles, and smaller diameter core materials are often used to make casual dining, bedroom and upholstered furniture (want more info on the uses of rattan? Check out Furniture World’s Outdoor and Casual guide.).


The American beech is a single species which grows in the eastern half of the United States.

Properties & Uses: Beech is a hard, strong, heavy wood with tiny pores and large conspicuous medullar rays, similar in appearance to maple. This relatively inexpensive wood has reddish brown heartwood and light sapwood. Beech is often used for frames, a variety of bent and turned parts. Quarter sliced and half round cut beech veneers are commonly used.


There are many species of birch. The yellow birch is the most commercially important. European birch is fine grained, rare and expensive.

Properties & Uses: Birch is a hard, heavy, close grained hardwood with a light brown or reddish colored heartwood and cream or light sapwood. Birch is often rotary or flat sliced, yielding straight, curly or wavy grain patterns. It can be stained to resemble mahogany or walnut.


Several species of cedar grow in the southern United States, Central and South America.

Properties & Uses: Cedar is a knotty softwood which has a red-brown color with light streaks. Its aromatic and moth repellent qualities have made it a popular wood for lining drawers, chests and boxes. Simple cases and storage closets are also constructed from this light, brittle wood.


Indigenous to the Pacific United States, redwood trees grow to more than 300 feet tall and 2,500 years old.

Properties & Uses: The best quality redwood comes from the heartwood which is resistant to deterioration due to sunlight, moisture and insects. It is used to craft outdoor furniture and decorative carvings. Redwood burls have a "cluster of eyes" figure. They are rare and valuable.


True teak is indigenous to Southeast Asia, but similar wood species also grow in Africa.

Properties & Uses: Teak is a yellow to dark brown hardwood which is extremely heavy, strong and durable. Often strongly figured, teak may show straight grain, mottled or fiddle back figures. It carves well, but because of its high value, is often used as a veneer. Scandinavian modern, and oriental furniture styles are often crafted of teak.



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