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Wood Used In Furniture Design
( Original Published 1918 )
The essential points which should be considered in the purchasing of furniture for the home are comfort, lightness, and strength. Comfort and lightness are largely matters of design, but the strength and durability of a piece of furniture is mainly due to the selection of the wood of which it is constructed. The highest skill may have gone into the making of an individual chair or table - the different parts may have been so joined that the whole structure has become one piece, but if the wood appropriate for the use has not been chosen, the careful workmanship has been wasted. The prospective buyer of household furniture, then, should have some idea of the general characteristics of the more commonly used woods so that he may have some independent knowledge to supplement information given by dealers.
Probably the best known of all the furniture woods is mahogany. It is so well known that a description of its appearance is unnecessary. The most expensive and best known of the mahoganies is the Spanish. The cheapest wood of this variety is the Honduras, or the Baywood, as it is commonly called. The Spanish mahogany comes from the West Indies and is very beautifully figured. The Honduras mahogany has little attractive marking and is a much softer wood than the Spanish mahogany. However, it is usually free from knots and other defects and is well adapted for furnituremaking where plainness is not objectionable. Compared with the finer varieties of this wood, the grain is rather open and coarse, but it is used for much of the less expensive furniture and is often employed for the foundation work in veneered furniture of fine quality and for the backs of cabinets or other parts which are not generally exposed to view. There are many varieties of mahogany, ranging from the finest to that cost ing little more than the best pine. It is all good furniture wood and takes a high degree of finish.
Oak, like mahogany, is so well known that a description is not necessary. Oaks oak of all kinds are becoming quite expensive and are now used with care which would have astonished our colonial forefathers, to whom oak was the common est building material. White Oak is the strongest, toughest, and most durable. It is characterized by its figure, which consists of hard, glossy marks unlike those in any other wood. Brown Oak is considered the choicest of all the different varieties. It is very hard, closely marked, and the best grade, which is called the Pollard, is much used for veneers. The lighter oaks are often successfully stained to imitate Brown Oak. Red Oak is another variety which is used often in cabinet work. It costs about the same as White Oak, but is usually of coarser texture, is more porous, less durable, and is often brittle.
Another wood which years ago was considered very common and is now classed among the most expensive varieties of furniture materials is Black Walnut. It is of coarse texture, but is heavy, hard, stiff, and very strong. The narrow sapwood is whitish and the heartwood is chocolate brown.
The wood is durable and takes a good polish, and is so handsome that it has become the favorite cabinet material in this country. Although, in colonial days, Black Walnut was also used as an ordinary building material, it has now become so scarce that at the present time it is too expensive for most furniture, and is employed largely as a veneer. Because of its strength and elasticity walnut is especially desirable for gunstocks, and the recent demand for the wood for this purpose both at home and abroad has considerably reduced the available supply.
There is a very valuable wood which is used as a veneer commonly known as Circassian Walnut. It is not a walnut at all, but is an ash called by the name of Ash Hungarian Ash. It is very beautiful, with fine markings ranging in color from white to a medium shade of brown. When it is used as a veneer, poplar is generally the foundation wood. The common ash is a very different wood. It is light in color, tough and hard, with somewhat of a resemblance to oak. As a rule there is almost no figure. The beauty of the common ash is considered to consist mainly in its color, which is unusually light, and for this reason it is especially popular for bedroom furniture.
Three other woods which are suitable for dainty bedroom furniture are Maple, Beech, and Birch. Birch is more beautiful than ash because of its figuring, which is similar in character to the figure in mahogany. For this reason it is often stained to an excellent imitation of that wood. Beech is a similar wood and is often also stained to imitate mahogany or rosewood. Furniture of maple rivals that of oak. The wood is heavy, hard, strong, and tough, and of fine texture. It is frequently wavygrained, giving rise to attractive "curly" and "blister" figures of a creamy white, with shades of brown toward the heart.
Although the majority of woods are characterized by their grain or peculiar figure, Rosewood may be identified by its remarkable fragrance. There is probably no other wood which is so often imitated and sold as the genuine. The color is a dark red or brown with strong markings of a much deeper tint.
Red Gum is a comparatively new wood in furniture manufacture. It is a rather heavy wood, soft, quite stiff and strong, tough, commonly cross-grained and of fine texture. It is being used in large quantities the past few years to take the place of the less abundant oak, and is popular because of its beautiful grain and because of the fine finish which it takes.
Because of the scarcity of the best woods, much of the furniture of the present day is veneered. A cheaper grade of wood is used for the foundation and the surface is covered with a thin layer of more expensive wood applied with glue under strong pressure. By the use of a veneer rich appearing furniture may be manufactured at comparatively small cost, and very beautiful effects may be obtained by the use of small and very rare pieces of timber. Veneering also keeps out the dampness from the inner, and usually more porous, wood of which the furniture is constructed.
When veneer is employed in preference to solid wood for the purpose of reducing the cost of production, it is often the case that a piece of furniture made principally of pine may look as handsome as if it were made of solid wood of the more expensive kind. For practical purposes it is entirely satisfactory and provides really good-looking furniture for people of moderate means. The practice of veneering furniture may be regarded as a means of placing beautiful objects within the reach of those who could not otherwise afford them. If the wood serving as the foundation is good and sound, free from knots and cracks, and if the veneer is applied with careful workmanship, there can be no valid objection to work of this class. Of course it should be sold for what it is.
Not all veneered furniture is less expensive than the solid, however. A fine veneer is more valuable than the solid wood which is less beautifully figured. The rarest French or Italian walnut is sometimes veneered on mahogany, as it lasts better in this condition than if it were solid, and large surfaces and thicknesses of walnut are difficult to procure in perfect condition. Very precious woods such as ebony or satin wood can only be obtained in small quantities, and other woods of especially handsome grain are cut from roots and excrescences of the trees which have produced unusual conditions of growth.
In addition to the cost of materials there is the labor to be taken into consideration, for good veneering requires careful work.
A valuable veneer is usually laid on an expensive wood as a foundation, and this unnecessary cost in manufacture adds to the price of the finished product. For example, a choice Spanish veneer is often applied to mahogany of a less beautiful grain. In the making of reliable furniture great care is taken by the manufacturers in the selection of wood which is to be veneered upon to be sure of successful results. The foundation wood is dry and free from all imperfections. Honduras mahogany is considered the best wood for the purpose, but Yellow Pine, Whitewood, and oak are often satisfactorily used.
Whenever possible, both sides of the ground wood are veneered to prevent warping, and the veneer used on either side is of the same grain and strength, so that the tension of the one side counteracts the tension of the other. When only one side of the foundation wood is veneered, it is laid on the heart side, or the side of the wood which lies nearest to the center of the tree before it is cut.
There are many other facts which should be learned before the amateur buyer could hope to be able always to detect imitations and frauds in the furniture which is offered for sale. Even though the purchaser may have a certain knowledge of woods, veneers, and construction, the best safeguard against imposition is in the choice of a reliable manufacturer and a reputable dealer. Furniture bearing the stamp of a well-known firm which is carried by a dealer who offers it for sale at a fair price is apt to prove to be what it seems.