The good news is that when you get right down to it there just aren’t that many woods to choose from in the bulk of American furniture. And all are native woods with the exception of mahogany. The short list begins with the various members of the related oak family – oak, elm, hickory, pecan, ash and chestnut. It concludes with walnut, mahogany, maple, cherry, birch, beech, pine, poplar and gum.
Of course there are exotics, which are always a problem, but fortunately they do not show up in great quantity. Examples are the several varieties of rosewood, which appear mostly in the 19th century, as well as some of the rarer European species like kingwood and Circassian walnut that sometimes made their way across and found their way into furniture. In the 20th century, manufacturers used many imported veneers, most notably Oriental walnut and zebrawood to achieve striking patterns but they are easily identified by their very nature.
The things that distinguish one wood from another are the tools that can be used to identify the wood, or, sometimes more successfully, eliminate what it isn’t. Those tools primarily are density, color, figure and texture.
I will cover the first two properties here.
Is the wood dense or lightweight? In most cases we never get the chance to find out conclusively. An older dense wood could have dried and shrunk as it aged giving the impression of a lightweight wood. Is it a hardwood or a softwood? Here again we seldom get the chance to test the surface hardness of apiece of antique furniture wood. Not very many people are going to allow us to knock on the wood with anything harder than a finger. And the definition of hardwood versus softwood may surprise you.
A softwood is an evergreen tree. Period. It doesn’t matter how hard or dense the wood may actually be. For scientific purposes the only thing that matters is the absence or presence of leaves in the winter. You may have to drill pilot holes to drive a nail in piece of cured heart pine but it is still classified as a softwood.
On the other hand a hardwood trees is simply a deciduous tree. Period. If it goes bare in the winter it is a hardwood. That even includes softer woods like basswood, preferred by carvers for its workability and fine soft texture and goes up to traditional hardwoods like birch and maple.
Color is the least reliable of the tools. At first glance it would appear to be the basic clue but advances in the chemistry of dyes changed all that around the turn of the 20th century with the introduction of aniline dyes. Another stumbling block to using color as the primary key is the natural aging process of the wood itself. Over time mahogany that might have been a delicious warm reddish brown when the piece was made and finished has a tendency to lose its red and become more brown, especially if it has been exposed to the elements or sunlight. Walnut on the other hand, especially air dried walnut as opposed to kiln dried walnut, has a tendency to take on a little reddish cast, often making the difference between walnut and mahogany very slight.
Natural color plays other tricks as well. Cherry can have blonde streaks, which are as bright as maple or birch while other parts of the same tree are pinkish brown and yet others are almost red. And the heartwood of poplar, which starts out as a distinctive olive green, ages to warm brown.
Add to all of this the effects of bleaching, staining, fuming, toning, shading and finishing done by craftspeople over the centuries and color becomes all but irrelevant to the identification of the wood.
Looks like density and color didn’t help us much. Maybe the remaining properties of FIGURE and TEXTURE will be more help.
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