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Woods Used By Cabinet Makers

( Originally Published Early 1900's )


THE English alder tree, the Alnus glutinosa, grows in wet and marshy soil. It has been much used for Windsor chairs of the hooped pattern, which in the eighteenth century were made with carved or fretted splats of alder.


The amboyna wood, Pterospermum, comes from Amboyna and New Guinea. It is very hard and durable, and is not at all unlike bird's-eye maple, but it is of a somewhat browner colour. It was much used in Stuart days for inlays, and in the eighteenth century for veneers, panel inlays, and bandings, by the Brothers Adam, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton.


The varieties of ash are the Fraxinus excelsior, the common ash of England, Europe, and North America ; the Pyrus aucuparia, the mountain ash of Britain, Europe, Asia, and North America ; the Fraxinus Americana, or American ash, chiefly grown in North America ; and the Pyrus sorbus, the true service brown ash, grown in the South of England. The last - named variety is very fine in the grain, and somewhat heavy. Ash is tough and pliable, and when polished somewhat resembles oak.

Among the earlier uses of ash was that of making lances and staves. In more recent years much furniture was made from the timber, especially the hooped-back Windsor chairs. Ash is also used for veneers and inlays.


The Fagus sylvatica, the white or common beech, grows all over Europe. The Fagus ferruginea, or red beech, grows in North America. Both varieties are tough and hard, the trees growing to a height of 100 ft., the most noted specimens in England being at Burnham Beeches. Beech was used in Tudor days for chairs. It is still employed throughout the High Wycombe chair district for common kitchen chairs and other furniture. Sheraton and his contemporaries used beech for making chairs which were to be painted or gilt.


The European birch, the Betula alba, grows throughout Europe ; the black birch, Betula lenta, and the red birch, Betula rubra, are met with in North America. The wood is easily worked but not very durable. It was sometimes used in the eighteenth century as the groundwork for satin-wood veneer. Some portions of the wood present a beautifully rippled appearance when polished, not unlike East India satin-wood.


The Buxus sampervirens or box-wood grows in Europe and in some parts of England. It is extremely hard, smooth, and tough. It was used as a veneer by the Romans, and at different times has been made use of in small quantities in this and other countries ; but it has never been ranked among the favourite woods for inlays by furniture makers.


The most familiar cedars of practical use are cedar of Lebanon, Cedrus libani, grown in Asia, chiefly in the famous grove at Lebanon, where many of the trees are said to be upwards of two thousand years old ; the Indian cedar, Cedrus deodara, grown in the Himalayas ; Mexican cedar, Cedrus odorata, from the West Indies and Honduras ; and the West Indian cedar, Cedrala toona, from the West Indies and from India. Cedar is very brittle and easily worked. It was used for inlays in Tudor times, and later was made use of for carvings by Grinling Gibbons. Pencil cedar was used for the bottoms of small drawers by many of the cabinet-makers who fitted up bureaus, desks, and cabinets with small compartments and fittings. Many cedar trees were planted in England in the seventeenth century, having been given popularity by the Earl of Pembroke who brought them to England in 1640. Some beautiful cedars have been grown in Wilton Park.


The two varieties of chestnut are the AEsculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut, which grows in England ; and the Castanea vesca, Spanish chestnut, growing chiefly in Southern Europe. The colour of the wood varies much and darkens with age. Much of the old chestnut Renaissance furniture of France looks like walnut, but the grain is coarser. Chestnut was used in England in the eighteenth century instead of satin-wood. The Spanish chestnut originally came from Asia Minor, and was brought to Europe by the ancient Greeks on account of its fruit.


The true ebony, Diospyros ebenum, grows in Southern India and Ceylon, and the Diospyros melanoxylon in India. Ebony is close grained and very heavy. It is not much used in furniture other than for veneer, although there are some exceptional pieces of ebony furniture inlaid with ivory. Its chief use was in France, Spain, Italy, and Holland in the sixteenth century.


The Ulmus campestris, or English elm, grows freely in England, Scotland, and throughout Europe, some-times attaining a height of from 60 to 80 feet. From its peculiarity as being very durable in damp places it is much used for coffins. In furniture the seats of Windsor chairs are made of elm, and in the eighteenth century it was used for constructional work. The Ulmus montana, or wych elm (" witch hazel ") grows in Scotland, and in some parts of England. Its peculiarity lies in the gnarled protuberances of the trunk which are knotted and produce pollarded elm.


The English holly, the Ilex aquifolium, is a white wood with a speckled grain. The Quercus ilex is some-what darker than English holly. The holly has been used by marqueterie cutters from Tudor days, especially for inlaying small panels.


The laburnum tree, Cyticus laburnum, has been cultivated in England from the end of the sixteenth century. Its chief use by cabinet-makers was during the reigns of William III. and Anne, when it was used for veneering, chiefly in oyster" pieces.


The large-leafed lime, Tilia platyphyllos, and the small-leafed lime, Tilia parvifolia, both of which flourish in England and throughout Europe, were at one time much used by furniture makers. The lime was used in Tudor days for the panels of beds, and the constructional portions of furniture. It was afterwards selected by Grinling Gibbons as being peculiarly appropriate for carving. The European variety is white and soft, and without cross grain. The American lime is known in the timber trade as American white wood or bass wood, and has a somewhat greenish tinge. It is, however, free from knots, and, as the trees grow to a large size, it is procurable in wide boards.


Although not introduced into this country until 1595 mahogany soon became the favourite wood of the cabinet-maker. The varieties which have been chiefly worked are Honduras mahogany, and Swienia mahagoni, from Central America. Most of the mahogany used in the eighteenth century by Chippendale and others came from Cuba. There are several varieties, the noted curl mahogany not appearing before 1750. When polished in the natural colour mahogany is of a golden brown shade. It is often stained with bichromate of potash, in order to give it a reddish tinge, some of the old figured mahogany being almost black. The dark staining seems to have come into use about 1880, but the old furniture now so dark has mostly been blackened or darkened with age.


There are many minor varieties of the maple tree, including the Acer pseudo platanus, which grows in the British Isles and throughout Europe ; and the Acer saccharinum, or sugar maple, more commonly known as bird's eye," obtained from Canada and North America. The bird's eye variety, which is so much valued by cabinet-makers, is really that portion taken from the knotted parts of the tree. This maple was used by the Romans, and in Iater days by late eighteenth- and early nineteenth - century cabinet-makers. The Acer striatum is a North American variety, which has been much used by marqueterie workers. The figured maple known as sycamore is stained to produce hare-wood veneer, and was employed by Adam, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton.


The oak tree has gained more notoriety than any other wood of commercial use, and its splendid properties have become synonymous with strength, vigour, and force

" Their hearts were made of English oak."

There are about two hundred and fifty species of the genus Quercus, or oak ; the varieties best known in this country as British oaks are the Quercus robur, Quercus sessiflora, and Quercus pedunculata—all of which grow freely in Britain. The forests of Britain provided the timber for the " Age of Oak," which lasted until the time of the Commonwealth. English oak is of a somewhat yellow-brown colour, assuming a rich black-brown with age. The oaks used in more recent times are derived from other sources. There is the Baltic oak, of Poland and Danzig ; the Austrian or wainscot oak ; and the Bavarian oak. The American white oak, Quercus alba, the Canadian oak, and oak from the United States of America, are straight-grained and more easily worked than the English oak, especially more so than the pollarded oak.


The Pinus sylvestris, or Scotch pine, was used in the eighteenth century by cabinet-makers. It is straight in grain, easy to work, and tolerably free from knots.


There are three varieties of rose-wood used in cabinet-work. These include the Triptole from Brazil ; Palisandre wood and Dalbergia nigra, from the West Indies and Ceylon ; and Dalbergia latifolia, from India.

Rose-wood was used as an inlay in Stuart days, and later by the Brothers Adam and Sheraton. The name is derived from the peculiar scent it gives off, a scent not unlike that of the rose.


There are two varieties of satin-wood, the Chloroxylon swietenia (a name said to have been derived from the Greek words chloros meaning green, and xulon, wood ; the second name is that of Swietan, who was physician to Maria Theresa of Austria), grown in Central and Southern India and in Ceylon. The Zanthoxylon is a West Indian satin-wood. There are said to be nine genera and twenty-five species included in satin-wood.

The chief characteristics of the wood are its straight grain and hard texture. When first cut it is pale in colour, but when exposed it becomes darker, and in time assumes a rich golden brown or orange hue, making it very suitable for veneers and ornamental inlays. This decorative wood was much used by the Brothers Adam, Shearer, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton.


The Acer pseudo-platanus is a variety of maple known as sycamore. It was much used for the interior of small cabinet-work in the days of Hepplewhite and Sheraton. Sycamore was also used in making harewood.


The West Indian tulip-wood, Physocalymma floribunda, grows in Brazil and Peru. Its appearance is not much unlike: satin-wood. It is technically described as yellowish brown with longitudinal stripings of a pinkish red. Its use is for inlaying or friezing, and it was much favoured by the Brothers Adam, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton.


There are several varieties of walnut-wood trees, those employed in the cabinet-making industry being chiefly of two species. The Juglans regia, the English walnut, which was introduced into England about 1565, was the variety much used for furniture at the time of the Restoration, the so - called " Walnut Age " of furniture, continuing through the reigns of Charles II., James II., William III., and Anne. The Romans are reputed to have introduced walnut trees into Britain, but much of the timber used by furniture makers in the period referred to was imported. The Juglans regia finds its true home in the Himalaya, from whence it travelled westward. The timber grown in England is distinguished by experts in that it is somewhat lighter in colour and more open in the grain than that grown in foreign countries. The so-called Italian walnut chiefly grows on the borders of the Black Sea.

The second variety known in furniture is the Juglans nigra, or American walnut, which is met with in North America, and has been largely used in Victorian and more recent days in the furniture industries. In olden time there was a proverb :

" A woman, a spaniel, a walnut tree, The more you beat 'em, the better they be. "

This old couplet took its rise in the Italian custom of beating the walnut trees to loosen the fruit when gathering.


The yew, Taxus baccata, grows naturally in Britain, many of the trees attaining a great age. There are many known to have been planted more than a thousand years ago ; and there was a general planting of yews in the reign of Richard III., at a time when they were held to be invaluable, as they supplied the material for the bows of English archers. The chief use of yew in Tudor times was for inlays and decorative ornament by chairmakers.

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