General considerations

Materials

Wood

WRITTEN BY Edward J. Wormley

Wood is the material most often used for making furniture. Although there are over a hundred different kinds that can be used for furniture, some woods have natural properties that make them superior to the others.

A relatively cheap material, wood lends itself to various kinds of treatment; for example, it can be stained, painted, gilded, and glued. It can be shaped by means of hand- or power-operated cutting and drilling tools. Heated, it can be bent to a certain extent into a predetermined shape and thereafter will retain the shape. The grain in wood creates a structure with varying character, which in itself provides a natural ornamental surface, in which patterns can be formed by means of precalculated juxtapositions. Colours range from white, yellow, green, red, brown, gray to black through countless intermediary tones. By juxtaposing wood of different colours, extremely rich effects have been achieved, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries. Wood, if stored under favourable conditions, is durable, and pieces of furniture from the oldest civilizations—Egypt, for example—are still extant. Lastly, most wood has an aromatic scent.

Walnut armchair attributed to an unknown Philadelphia craftsman, c. 1730–40; in the Art Institute of Chicago.
The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of the Antiquarian Society through the Jessie Spalding Landon Fund, reference no. 1944.207 (CC0)

Developments in the sphere of craftsmanship and mechanical techniques, during the past 200 years or so, have made furniture production both cheaper and quicker. Using timber as a basis and applying techniques such as shredding, heating and gluing, it has been possible to evolve new materials. To an increasing extent, cabinetmakers and furniture factories are using semi-manufactured wood such as veneer, carcass wood, plywood, laminated board, and hardboard (fibreboard).

Veneer is a very thin layer of particularly fine wood that has been glued on to inferior wood in order to produce a smooth and attractive surface. It would hardly be possible to achieve such a surface by using solid wood, partly because of the expense, partly because of its brittleness, and partly because the grain can never be shown off to its best advantage when the timber is cut into solid boards.

The practice of veneering furniture has been known since the time of pharaonic Egypt, but it was not fully exploited until the beginning of the 18th century. During the Rococo period, especially, great virtuosity was displayed by the craftsman in the veneering of curving, concave, and convex surfaces; for instance, as found on chests of drawers.

Veneer is made by sawing, machine-cutting, and peeling. Saw-cut veneer is of the highest quality, but because of the relatively large loss of wood in the form of sawdust, it is also the most expensive. Therefore, furniture veneer, as a rule, is machine-cut.

Veneering is done on carcass wood, either in the form of a solid surface or a surface composed of several layers glued together. Old furniture is nearly always veneered on solid wood of an inferior quality to the veneer, such as beech, oak, or deal. High-quality English mahogany furniture made in the 18th century, however, was veneered with mahogany on mahogany. In the 20th century, machine-made laminated board of various thicknesses was generally used. The advantage of ready-made laminated board is that it does not shrink. Wood expands and contracts in various ways, and its strength can vary axially, radially, or tangentially; by blocking the wood—i.e., gluing pieces of wood together in different directions—such differences are eliminated and equal strength is obtained both longitudinally and laterally. The characteristic feature of laminated board is that the veneer on both sides encloses a wooden board composed of narrow strips of wood glued together on edge. The board is therefore thick enough to be suitable for table tops or doors.

If laminated board consists only of single sheets of veneer glued together, it is known as plywood. Plywood is widely used in the manufacture of furniture, particularly as backing for chests and other storage pieces, for the bottoms of drawers, and for shelves.

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