Carpentry's clues

PUBLISHED: 12:06 08 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:17 20 February 2013

The wood a piece of furniture is made from reveals its age and the bank balance of its owner By Andrew Beeston, senior valuer and auctioneer at Halls in Shrewsbury

The wood a piece of furniture is made from reveals its age and the bank balance of its owner
By Andrew Beeston, senior valuer and auctioneer at Halls in Shrewsbury

The design of a piece of furniture is influenced not only by fashion and purpose, but also by the timber and other materials used in it and by tools and techniques available when it was made.
Identifying the wood can often give a first clue to date. Although local joiners always made full use of native timbers, such as ash, beech, elm, yew and fruitwoods, for every day furniture, finer items tended to be made of certain woods at certain times.
Most surviving furniture of the 16th and 17th centuries, for instance, is made of oak and this 'Age of Oak' was followed by ages of walnut, mahogany and satinwood (along with other exotic timbers such as rosewood). You can therefore assume that an English satinwood table cannot pre-date 1760 because the wood was not in general use until after that date.
So versatile was mahogany that it never went out of use after the 1720s, but in the late 18th Century it was overshadowed for the finest furniture by satinwood. On the other hand, a walnut table purporting to date from the mid 17th Century must either be a top quality piece because only the wealthiest could afford walnut in this period, or a later copy.
We first look to English oak, which was in plentiful supply, for home furnishings in the 16th and 17th centuries. This hardened, durable wood was not easy to work finely with the tools of the time and was mostly made into heavy, solid furniture. The timber was usually cut or split vertically into quarters and then each quarter riven radially. The quartering process also produced a better grained pattern or figure than straight cutting. Adze marks are often seen on early oak furniture where the wedge shaped planks were roughly hewn with a trimming tool.
English oak ranges in colour from pale yellow to very dark brown and has a straight course grain. It darkens with age and polishing, and many old pieces are almost black, sometimes known as 'bog oak'. Cabinetmakers of the 19th Century experimented with various cuts to produce different effects.

Until the late 17th Century, solid walnut furniture was the province only of the very rich but, by the end of that century, it had become the fashionable timber for much high quality furniture. Growing demand for a wide range of furniture, especially cabinet or case furniture of various kinds, coincided with the revival of veneering techniques and recognition of the attractive walnut grain patterns as suitable for veneers. Walnut's close grain meant that it could be more finely cut, carved, turned and polished rather than oak and this lead to a host of innovative constructions and decorative techniques in the late 17th and early 18th Century. The elegant, curving cabriole leg became fashionable and joints could be cut far more precisely.
From the second quarter of the 18th Century, mahogany became the wood of choice, 'The Age of Mahogany'. Fable has it that trading ships returning from the West Indies used mahogany as a ballast cargo, and cabinetmakers soon found that it was ideal for solid and veneered furniture alike. It proved strong and durable, polished to a deep reddish brown and could be carved with minute detail. The huge trees could be cut into wide planks, which would not shrink or warp to any great degree.
The first mahogany reached Britain from Jamaica in the early 18th Century but soon so called 'Spanish mahogany' was arriving from Cuba and other Spanish Caribbean colonies. Later in the century, much Honduras mahogany, lighter in weight and colour and more open in grain, was imported and used for middle quality furniture. In the 19th Century came the much lighter and paler, only distantly related, African mahogany. Timber colour varies with the type of wax polish or other finish used on it, how much it has faded and the patina of age. The type of wood gives us a snap-shot into the history of a piece of furniture but should only be used as a pointer rather than unequivocal evidence. Many pieces of furniture in the style of earlier examples are sometimes constructed using timber from an earlier period and, with the right polished finish, can look to be of that period.

For furniture valuations contact Andrew Beeston at Halls' head office, Welsh Bridge, Shrewsbury, tel: 08451 309610.

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