Wood Furniture ::
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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