WRITTEN BY Charles Harold Hayward
Modern methods of furniture construction are largely based on the availability of man-made materials such as reliable plywood, laminated board, chipboard, and hardboard as distinct from natural solid wood. It is not merely that manufacturers prefer the one to the other but rather that these substances are free from the great drawback fundamental to wood—movement. Natural wood shrinks as it dries or swells as it absorbs moisture from an atmosphere more humid than itself, and this movement must be allowed for in the method of construction. Unless this is done troubles may arise: splits along the grain or open joints on the one hand or jammed drawers or doors on the other. Over the years cabinetmakers have worked out ingenious systems to avoid these troubles in the use of solid wood, but today made-up materials may be regarded as inert if of good quality. To an extent solid wood has still to be used, notably for items that have to be turned, cut to shape, or moulded, and for lippings to conceal the edges of manufactured boards; but virtually everything in the form of flat panels is made up.
The increase in the demand for reasonably priced furniture has placed a premium on the economical use of wood. Natural wood is extremely wasteful as a material. Hardly more than 25 percent of the natural substance of a tree actually goes into the furniture made of solid wood. When account is taken of the loss in sawdust in conversion from the tree trunk (taking off the outer slab portions and sapwood) and the further loss in bringing the lumber to usable size in the workshop (the offcuts, waste in sawing shapes, in turning, in planing, cutting joints, and final cleaning up), it becomes evident that much more wood is wasted than used.
In making plywood, the veneers are peeled rotary fashion from the log by a long knife fitted to a lathe like machine. The resulting veneer can be of unlimited width to be cut up as required. There is no loss in sawdust, and the peeling is continued until only a pole like centre is left. Much the same applies to laminated board in which both the core material and the outer plies are peeled. In the case of chipboard the timber is merely regarded as raw material to be reduced to fine chips that are dried, compressed, and assembled into boards, with resin glue as an adhesive. Where a natural wood grain is desired, a veneer is flat sliced from a flitch (longitudinal section) selected for the beauty of its grain.
Certain materials, notably chipboard, must be machined, because trimming at the edges by hand almost always shows as a deterioration. It cannot be planed; the plane merely forms dust rather than taking shavings and, owing to the abrasive nature of the material, the edge of the cutter is quickly lost. Consequently, when a panel of a certain size is required, it needs to be machine sawed to size, no further trimming being needed. This is only practicable with a precision saw capable of fine adjustment. Furthermore it requires a saw blade having tungsten teeth to resist abrasion. The same applies to any plywood or laminated board assembled with resin glue.
Another influence on the construction of furniture is the introduction of new types of adhesives in place of the traditional animal glue. Many are highly water resistant, some waterproof. Some can be applied cold, avoiding the complication of heating joints before assembly. They can be cured by heat in a matter of minutes, leaving presses and other apparatus free for other work.
Although wood has always been regarded as the traditional material for furniture making, several other materials are now used, either entirely replacing wood or combined with it. Plastic laminate, widely used for table and other tops, is obtainable in various colours and designs and in photographically reproduced natural wood grain. Its advantages are that it resists all liquid stains, is largely heat proof against burn marks, is mark free, and is easily wiped clean. It is laid as a form of veneer on any of the man-made materials—multiply, laminated board, or chipboard, usually with a contact adhesive. As a plastic edging is needed that must be applied before the main top is put down, an essential machine tool is the portable router with veneer-trimming unit. It trims the overlapping edges of the main plastic panel without cutting into the edging.
Metal is also used to some extent, particularly for the stands and legs of furniture. Iron is generally preferred, the parts joined by welding.
Finishes too have been revolutionized. French polish, the traditional finish of the Victorian period, and indeed up to the 1930s, has been largely replaced by gloss or eggshell lacquers, which are sprayed on and are heat and water resistant and are so hard as to be practically mark free.