Probably the third most frequently asked question about a piece of furniture, after “how old is it?” and “what’s it worth?”, is “what is it made of?”. After brushing aside the original inclination to just say “wood”, the real work begins. Often the identification of the actual building material is the most daunting task a furniture researcher or collector faces.
It turns out that even many so-called experts are remarkably uninformed on the subject of wood identification, falling back on the basic theory that if it is red, its cherry or mahogany, if it is brown, its walnut and if it is a blonde, its maple, pine or oak. But that’s really not good enough.Or is it? Does it really matter if the wood is correctly identified? If you want to come up with the right answers for the first two questions about age and value then correct wood identification is very important. For example, without knowing anything at all about the nuances of style or proportion, if you can identify the wood in a Queen Anne chair as being gum rather than walnut, you know with a certainty that it is not a period piece. And if you can tell the difference between an oak drawer side and a poplar one, then you can differentiate between a Pennsylvania chest and one made on the Continent.
The proper identification of primary and secondary woods is also an extremely important aspect of any restoration project in order to retain structural integrity and as much historical accuracy as possible.
The two primary considerations in wood identification are CONTEXT and CHARACTERISTICS. CONTEXT is what you expect to see. CHARACTERISTICS deal with the actual physical properties of wood that may help us with identification.
Certain styles and periods have woods closely identified with them due to a number of influences including politics, economics and plain old taste. Here is a chart of styles and the woods most closely identified with them. However, this is not to say for example that ALL early period Queen Anne chairs were made of walnut but you can bet that most of them were and that’s where you start if you think you are dealing with an early 18th century chair. Of course this means that you have to have at least a basic knowledge of historical furniture styles. The best place to get the straight story on styles without a lot of extra garbage is the book “FIELD GUIDE TO AMERICAN ANTIQUE FURNITURE” by Joseph T. Butler, published by Henry Holt.
Here is the CONTEXT chart –
WHAT YOU EXPECT TO SEE
A. 17TH CENTURY – Oak
B. WILLIAM AND MARY – Walnut
C. COLONIAL- Indigenous Woods, Maple, Oak, Walnut, Cherry
D. EARLY QUEEN ANNE – Walnut
E. LATE QUEEN ANNE – Mahogany
F. WINDSOR – Oak, Ash, Pine
G. CHIPPENDALE – Mahogany
H. FEDERAL – Mahogany, Cherry, CurlyMaple
I. EMPIRE – Mahogany
a. GOTHIC – Mahogany
b. ELIZABETHAN – Mahogany
c. ROCOCO – Walnut, Rosewood
d. RENAISSANCE REVIVAL – Walnut
e. EASTLAKE – Walnut, Oak, Chestnut
f. COLONIAL REVIVAL/CENTENNIAL – Mahogany, Walnut
K. ARTS & CRAFTS/MISSION – Oak
L. ART NOUVEAU – Walnut
M. ART DECO/ART MODERNE – Walnut, Maple
Click here to read Part II