This table top is Golden Oak, quarter sawn white oak, tiger eye oak and cat’s eye oak all at the same time.
I frequently field questions from readers about what kind of wood a piece of older or antique furniture is made of. There seems to be a great deal of confusion among some collectors about what a certain type of oak is called and where it comes from. One reader told me that a veteran dealer informed him that “tiger eye” oak was so rare and expensive because less than 1 percent of all oak trees had that pattern. That actually turns out to be more or less partially true. The other part of that is that the other 99-plus-percent of oak trees also has that pattern. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Another reader informed me that Golden Oak is totally different from “tiger eye” oak and besides, it should be called “cat’s eye” rather than “tiger eye.” OK. Or you could call it any other kind of eye. It doesn’t matter.
All of those terms are used to describe what is technically known as “quarter sawn” or “quarter cut” oak. It is a method used to saw a piece of timber to produce a piece of lumber that has certain desirable characteristics. One of those characteristics is the large flaking pattern found in white oak (Quercus alba) that has been quarter sawn. White oak was the most commonly used wood in the “Golden Oak” period of American furniture—from around 1880 to about 1920—because of its pale natural color and the mellow golden hue it acquires when coated with shellac or varnish. That is the genesis of the term “Golden Oak” used to describe furniture of the period.
All Golden Oak is white oak but not all Golden Oak is quarter sawn. A large percentage of most pieces of golden oak furniture are not quarter sawn and do not exhibit the tiger eye flakes. Why not if the effect is so desirable? Because it is expensive and wasteful of the wood.
When planks are sawn from the log straight through, called flat cutting or plain cutting, it produces a grain pattern with steeples shown at the right.
When an oak log is cut into quarters and planks are then sawn from each quarter the result is the pattern seen on the right.
Quarter sawn lumber—mostly oak—produces its outstanding pattern by cutting across the medullary rays. In a hardwood tree the vertical grain carries moisture to the leaves but something has to feed the only living layer of the bark, the soft liner called the cambium. The medullary rays, actually horizontal grains, do this. When a log is quarter cut it exposes these rays as flecks or flakes. These flecks are called “tiger’s eyes” or “cat’s eyes” because of the shape. So quarter cut, tiger oak, tiger eye oak and cat’s eye oak are all the same thing.
The normal way of cutting a log into slabs of lumber is to start at one side of the log and cut boards all the way through the thickness of the log. This is called “flat cutting” or “plain sawing.” It produces the most lumber in the shortest period of time. However, it also produces lumber with a variety of grain patterns in the wood including the familiar “steeple” pattern seen in most lumber.
This cabinet is made of flat cut oak and shows the distinctive steeple pattern.
Simply by accident some of the wood will have the pattern of the growth rings seen on the end of the wood running almost horizontally to the surface of the board. Other boards will show the end growth ring pattern almost perpendicular to the surface. Those with the pattern at close to a 90-degree angle are said to be quarter sawn. If the lumber is oak, the board will show the decorative flecks. But the other major advantage, besides the cosmetic value, is that lumber cut with most of the grain at 90 degrees to the surface does not cup and warp. It will be a board with a long straight grain pattern on the surface that will remain flat over most of its useful life. This is especially desirable in furniture building and in wooden flooring. Those boards that are plain sawn or flat cut with the growth ring pattern parallel to the surface will warp quickly.
This desk appears to be vividly patterned quarter sawn oak but in reality it is a printed finish and there is no oak in the cabinet. Items must be closely examined so as not to get fooled by a good imitation.
One method of assuring a good yield of lumber with the growth rings close to 90 degrees is to cut the log in quarters. The lumber is sliced from each quarter to produce the most pieces with the desirable pattern. This produces a greater number of smaller boards than plain sawing but they have the desirable pattern. This also means that not as many useable board feet of lumber with the proper dimensions are produced from quarter cutting a log as is produced from plain sawing. That’s why not too long into the Golden Oak era of furniture production the manufacturers realized that producing quarter sawn veneer made a lot more furniture than producing quarter sawn lumber. It was much more economical and it also fit well with the growing environmental conservation movement in the country around the turn of the 20th century.
So, it turns out that all the beautiful oak with all those wonderful flake patterns are the result of a clever method of turning timber into lumber. While all timber, not just oak, can be quarter sawn to produce stable flat boards, only oak produces the magnificent tiger eye pattern. And not all oak trees produce equal patterns. The most distinctive patterns are produced in lumber cut from the oldest, biggest trees that have had hundreds of years to develop the medullary ray system. Younger trees, while they have the rays and can produce the pattern, do not produce the striking examples seen from wood cut a hundred years ago.
Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).
Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email@example.com.
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Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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