Wood is an exceptionally beautiful and versatile material. The logs used in your bedroom, dining, or occasional furniture may be hundreds of years old. They may have been transported thousands of miles, been bought and sold many times before being carefully cut into veneers or solid boards.
Wood has been used as a raw material for furniture making for thousands of years. More than 3000 years ago, Egyptian woodworkers used mortise and tenon joints and made wood furniture in highly developed workshops. Today, wood is the major component of furniture because of its unique characteristics such as its strength, light weight, and easy care.
Wood boards and veneers are normally flat cut, quarter sawn, or veneered
Sawing the log so that all cuts are parallel to a section straight through the middle makes flat cut boards. Each cut is made tangential to the growth rings, normally producing a series of inverted ìsîn the face of the lumber.
Quarter cut boards are sawed from logs which have been cut into quarters. Cuts are made into the quarters, across the growth rings into the center of the board. On the quarter sawed boards, the growth rings appear as parallel lines. Oak is often quarter cut.
Veneers are thin slices of wood, which are cut or sliced from a log. These thin decorative wood slices are applied to underlying wood solids or particle board (composition board) core material. Contrary to popular belief, high quality composition board cores can be more expensive to use and result in more stable constructions than solid wood cores.
Furniture finishes are used to enhance the beauty and durability of wood furniture. Modern finishing methods normally use multi-step processes where by raw woods are stained, filled, sealed, and top-coated to highlight and enhance the natural color, grain, and figure of the wood. It also protects the surface of the wood from deterioration due to sunlight, chemicals, heat, scratching, and other environmental hazards. This process seals wood to prevent changes in the moisture content which can cause swelling, shrinking, warping, checking, and splitting, and to cover imperfections in the wood surface or joinery.
The types of materials, the amount of hand labor, and the number of coats of stain, filler, sealer, and topcoat used to finish fine wood furniture all affect its price. Furniture can undergo anywhere from three, to 25 or more finishing steps. Two similar looking furniture pieces may differ widely in price due to relative finish quality. These differences are often subtle.
Generally, wood finishes should be deep and rich, with a uniform color and a smooth, even surface. Edges should be free from drips, bubbles, runs, and streaks. Wood grain and figure effects are enhanced and heightened rather than covered by quality finishes. The actual color of the natural wood often bears little resemblance to common furniture finishes. For example, maple is a very ìiteîood, but the most common maple finishes are a honey color.
A lacquer finish, also know as nitrocellulose lacquers are quick drying finishing materials, most often sprayed on furniture surfaces in multiple, thin layers. These cellulose derivatives are widely used because of their relative durability, ease of repair, and crystal clarity. They are produced in various sheens and colors and may be damaged by exposure to substances such as nail polish remover, shoe polish, and alcohol. Heat from unshielded cookware, and combinations of heat and pressure can also mar wood surfaces protected with nitrocellulose lacquers. After application, lacquers are often hand rubbed, producing a very smooth, beautiful surface.
Synthetic finishes such as polyurethanes, polyesters, and polyamides are polymeric coatings that are generally tougher than conventional nitrocellulose lacquers, being more resistant to heat, moisture, chemicals, and abrasion. These finishes can be shiny or matte, clear or colored. Even though they are harder to destroy than nitrocellulose lacquers, they are also more difficult to repair if damaged. Generally, the use of polyester and polyurethane lacquers is limited to the high gloss look, sometimes labeled the lacquer look.
Superfinish is a catchall term given to any finish applied to furniture that endows the surface with unusually high resistance to harmful environmental factors. Superfinishes protect wood surfaces from some or all of the following: weathermarking; damage from corrosive liquids such as bleach, finger nail polish, and alcohol: damage from abrasion and impact; and hot marking problems. These finishes can be synthetics or have a nitrocellulose base. They are sometimes applied selectively to dining or occasional tops.
High-pressure laminates and vinyl wrap coatings are surfacing materials that are bonded to core materials. They are not wood finishes, even though they are often made to resemble wood. High-pressure laminates, often called ìcaîmpart soil, stain, and wear resistance to furniture surfaces. Full laminate tops, tops inserted into wood frames or completely sheathed mica furniture is common. Wood grain laminates should be grain and color matched to surrounding wood surfaces. They should also be free of any marks or abrasions, since these cannot be repaired.
There are thousands of species of wood, and hundreds that are utilized in commercial furniture production. Described here are some that are most frequently used, and most often mentioned at retail. Woods are listed under their common names, which though inexact, refer to one or a number of related species having similar end product characteristics.
Oak is the most widely used hardwood. There are more than 60 species of oak grown in the United States, which can be separated into two basic varieties, white and red. The red variety is also known as black oak (a reference to its bark). Oak was the wood of choice for the Gothic furniture made in the Middle Ages. It remained popular through the seventeenth century. Quarter cut oak boards known as wainscot was 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. 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 medullary rays, which can be seen as flakes in quarter sawed oak lumber.
Maple 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. Maple has 115 different species, with only 5 commercially important species grown in the United States. These are most often called hard rock maple or sugar maple. 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. It is used extensively for American colonial furniture, especially in medium and lower priced categories. Maple can also be stained to simulate cherry wood, which it resembles.
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, 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. Mahogany was known in Europe since the time of the Spanish explores, 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 cabinet-makers 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. 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, fiddleback, or blister figures. Crotch mahogany figures are widely used and greatly valued. Mahogany is an excellent carving wood and finishes well. Mahogany is used extensively in 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 United States and is sometimes called fruitwood. The term fruitwood is also used to describe a light brown finish on other woods. Cherry was used in much original American colonial furniture. European cherry was also used for provincial furniture. A moderately hard, strong, close grained, light to red-brown wood, cherry resists warping and checking. It is easy to carve and polish. 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.
Walnut is one of the most versatile and popular cabinet making woods. It grows in Europe, American, and Asia. There are many different varieties. 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 1820íand 30íin America are often referred to as the ìack Walnut Periodîue to the preponderance of this wood. The Queen Anne (1702-1714) period in England is often referred to as the ìe of Walnut.îWalnut 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. Walnut is used in all types of fine cabinetwork, especially 18th century reproductions.
Pine is a softwood, which grows in most areas of the Northern Hemisphere. There are more than 100 species worldwide. Pine was used historically for structural components of furniture and drawer linings in Europe, as well as for simple country designs. Pine is a soft, white or pale yellow wood, which is lightweight, straight grained and lacks figure. It resists shrinking and swelling. Knotty pine is often used for decorative effect. Pine is often used for country or provincial furniture. Pickled, whitened, painted, and oil finishes are often used on this wood.
Ash has 16 species, which grow in the eastern United States. Of these, the white ash is the largest and most commercially important. Ash is a hard, heavy, ring porous hardwood. It has a prominent grain that resembles oak, a white to light brown color. Ash can be 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. Ash is widely used for structural frames and steam bent furniture pieces because it is often less expensive than comparable hardwoods.
Hickory has 15 species in the eastern United States, eight of which are commercially important. 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. Wood from the hickory is used for structural parts, especially where strength and thinness are required. Decorative hickory veneers are also commonly used.
Rattan is any of several climbing Asian palms whose stems grow to great lengths. The rattan pole is round, solid, and strong. It can be bent into many shapes or cut into the core material used for wickerwork. Whole rattan poles, and smaller diameter core materials are often used to make casual dining, bedroom, and upholstered furniture.
American beech is a single species, which grows in the eastern half of the United States. Beech is a hard, strong, heavy wood with tiny pores and large conspicuous medullary 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, with the yellow birch being the most commercially important. European birch is fine grained, rare, and expensive. 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 southern United States, Central, and South America. Cedar is a knotty softwood, which has a red-brown color with light streaks. Its aromatic and moth repellent qualities have made it 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 too more than 300 feet tall and 2,500 years old. 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 ìuster of eyesîigure. They are rare and valuable.
True teak is indigenous to Southeast Asia, but similar wood species also grown in Africa. 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 fiddleback 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.