Wood Types - Your Furniture Buying Guide

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Wood Types - Furniture Buying Tips

Wood adds beauty and Warmth to your home

Wood is totally unique...no to pieces are the same.  Thus...your furniture is the only one of its' kind in the world.

Even supposed defects, like a knot or other natural blemishes, add more beauty and character to any given piece of furniture.

Two basic classifications of wood:

  1. Hard Wood
  2. Soft wood

Many types of wood:

OAK

Oak is the most popular hardwood.

While there are more than 60 species of oak grown in the U.S., they can all be listed under two basic varieties...

  1. White
  2. Red (Known as black oak)

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.

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.

MAPLE

While there are 115 species of maple. Only 5 are commercially used in the U.S... of which the two most popular  are...

  1.  hard rock maple
  2. sugar maple.

Properties: Maple is so hard and resistant to shocks that it is often used for bowling alley floors.

Maple has a fine texture and even grain.  Some Maple has a curly grain (used for violin backs. 

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.

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

MAHOGANY

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.

Mahogany which comes from the Caribbean is thought to be the hardest, strongest and best quality.

Mahogany from Africa are of slightly lesser quality.

 Philippine mahogany, while it  has a similar color,  is not really mahogany.

History: Mahogany was introduced in Europe by  the Spanish explorers.  But, for some reason, was not widely used for furniture until 18th century.

Once the Europeans started using mahogany,  it soon  replaced walnut as the predominant cabinet making wood.

English Georgian cabinetmakers such as Chippendale and Sheraton, and Americans like Goddard and Townsend used it extensively.

Properties:

  • strong
  •  uniform pore structure and poorly defined annual rings
  • reddish - brown color
  • 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  

Cherry (fruitwood) is grown in the Eastern half of the U.S.

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

Properties:

  • 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.

The small pits in the wood are known as "gum pits" and are natural characteristics of cherry wood.

Cherry wood is usually finished with a lacquer, which creates a shiny appearance. In this type of finish when looking at, lacquer finished cherry wood, under a light, you will notice "swirl" marks that appear to be scratches. This is normal and is not a defect.

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

WALNUT

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: In 17th century Europe walnut and oak were the primary cabinet making woods. The Queen Anne (1702-1714) period in England is often referred to as the "Age of Walnut."  In the 18th century Europe favored  Walnut and mahogany.

While mahogany may have also been the preferred wood in the new world...they often used walnut and stained it to look like mahogany!

Actually, the 1820's and 30's in America are often referred to as the "Black Walnut Period" due to the popularity of this wood.

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

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.

ASH

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.

HICKORY

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.

RATTAN

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.).

BEECH

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.

BIRCH

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.

CEDAR

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.

REDWOOD

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.

TEAK

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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