This mahogany parlor set from the turn of the 20th century actually has no mahogany in it. It is made entirely of birch, with an aniline mahogany finish. This is called “simulated mahogany” and was correctly explained in the 1902 Sears catalog as being both stronger and less expensive than genuine mahogany.
In almost any conversation or article regarding older or antique furniture, sooner or later the terms “primary” wood and “secondary” wood or woods appear. Why is there a distinction between types of wood used in furniture construction and can the different woods in a piece be used to help identify period or style of a piece?
Primary woods are the ones used for the main body of a piece; the areas most likely to be seen. Primary woods are usually chosen for their visual characteristics rather than for their structural features. Mahogany is used because of its beautiful depth of color. Oak is chosen for its distinctive grain pattern. Veneers used as decoration are chosen strictly on appearance. Secondary woods, those used on concealed areas, such as the backs and bottoms of chests and drawer sides, backs and bottoms, on the other hand, are chosen for a variety of factors. The most obvious of course is cost.
For example, mahogany has been one of the most popular furniture woods since its introduction to England in the 1720s. It was used extensively for early Queen Anne works in England and Europe and caught on in the America Colonies a few years later. It was the wood of choice for Chippendale- and the Georgian-period pieces, but since absolutely no mahogany grows in Europe and was found only in limited quantities in the far southern reaches of the Colonies, virtually every board foot of mahogany used in furniture production had to be harvested in the tropics and imported by ship, a costly and time-consuming process in the 18th century.
The most common secondary wood found in 18th- and 19th-century American furniture is the poplar seen in this drawer from the mid 19th century. Pine was also a common secondary choice.
A corollary to cost is availability. In addition to being expensive, mahogany was not always available—a common trait of imported items—so quantities had to be reserved only for visible applications. More easily obtainable wood had to be used for other parts of a piece. Sometimes technology has played a part in the choice of secondary woods. Around the turn of the 20th century, for example, the discovery of aniline dyes—which can be used to impart a deep color to a very hard piece of wood—allowed the use of indigenous woods, such as birch, to be used in visible locations in place of imported mahogany in the factories of the Midwest.
Another factor in choosing a secondary wood is weight. Many of the primary woods, such
as walnut, oak and maple, are relatively dense and heavy, and present structural problems on occasion. A lighter secondary wood, such as poplar or gum, lends itself to more design variations and lower shipping costs in the long run.
Oak secondary wood usually means a European or English origin, especially if combined with handmade dovetail joinery. This drawer has oak secondary wood but also has machine made dovetails. It is from an American Art Deco chest, circa 1935. Oak is commonly found as the secondary wood in 20th-century American drawers.
Secondary woods are also chosen for their workability and compatibility. Poplar and pine are much softer than walnut, maple or oak, and are easily shaped with hand tools, an important consideration in the days before the Industrial Revolution. These soft secondary woods also speed construction and are easily colored when the need arises. These choice secondary woods also perform an important function in the application of veneer. The substrate for veneer needs to be smooth, so as not to telegraph its details through the veneer, and it needs to be stable over time so as not to distort the veneer.
The choice of both primary and secondary woods can indeed sometimes be used to determine the origin of a piece. For example, while oak was the primary wood used in early Pilgrim construction in the Colonies in the early and mid 17th century, it was used almost not at all from the late 17th century to the late 19th century in the U.S., while being used extensively in England and Europe during this period. Oak was used not only as a primary wood but also as the secondary wood in England, but the secondary wood dimensions were reduced: i.e., drawer sides and bottoms were thinner, to reduce the weight. A type of pine known as deal is also sometimes used in English furniture, but not as frequently as thinner pieces of oak.
The entire table base as well as all of the chair frames to this Jacobean style dining set of the 1930s is made entirely of red gum stained to match the walnut veneer on the table top.
During the great non-oak period in America—which encompasses late William and Mary, Queen Anne, Chippendale, Federal, Empire and Victorian—the favorite primary woods were walnut, mahogany, cherry and maple. Pine and poplar are the favorite American secondary woods since they are abundant and inexpensive and oak was used frequently used as a secondary wood in American Victorian construction. It was also used as the secondary wood for a large part of the great “Golden Oak” period in this country in the early 20th century. A lot of the beautiful quarter cut or “tiger’s eye” oak veneer so popular in this period was laid over an underlayment of flat cut oak.
The most-used secondary wood of the first half of the 20th century was gum. Gum was inexpensive and readily available in commercial quantities in the United States, but it had the unpleasant characteristic of warping and splitting while being dried in a commercial kiln. In the early 1920s, that problem was solved and gum, especially the heart wood called “red gum,” became the almost universal secondary wood in American furniture construction.
This mahogany gossip bench from the late 1940s has no actual mahogany. It is made completely of red gum with a mahogany finish.
In 1931 the United States Department of Commerce published a small paperback book called “Furniture – Its Selection and Use,” in a typically misguided government attempt to educate consumers during the Depression on how to get the best value for their furniture dollar. It denigrated anything Victorian and patriotically recommended buying new furniture instead. It said about Victorian furniture:
“It is a recognized fact among connoisseurs that little artistic furniture was produced in this country during the last half of the nineteenth century . . . Unfortunately, there are being hoarded today many hideous pieces of the Victorian era which the owners fondly believe to be antiques. These really belong in a museum of monstrosities. A nation which grew from 3,000,000 to 122,000,000 in population in a century and a half, could not escape growing pains, and of these the mid-nineteenth century pieces of furniture are among the most painful.”
It also felt strongly about the then current movement of the day, Art Deco saying:
“A number of gaudy and absurd productions have appeared, showing absolute disregard for the principles of art . . . This is true of every new and radical movement . . . In modified form and with suitable restraint, some of it undoubtedly expresses the effort of youth to free itself from that slavery to the conventions which prevent individuality.”
An illustration showed that in the furniture model year of 1928, gum accounted for 33-percent of all American hardwood used in American furniture and 29-percent of all wood—import or domestic, hardwood or softwood. The amount of gum used in 1928 was almost three times the amount of oak used and almost four times the amount of maple. In fact, most of the chair frames, case goods frames and table legs in dining sets and bed frames in bedroom sets of the Depression era are made of gum, but stained to resemble the main wood, either walnut or mahogany. In many cases, there is no walnut or mahogany at all. The entire set is made of stained gum. A close look by an informed customer will reveal the use of the secondary wood in cases like this. The key is the grain. Mahogany and walnut have distinctive texture, grain and grain patterns. Secondary woods, like poplar and, more importantly, gum, have very little grain and appear to be almost smooth like birch or maple, without the texture of walnut or mahogany.
This is a close up of the five layer lumber core plywood that is the base for most veneered furniture in the first half of the 20th century. It shows the central lumber core with two layers of secondary veneers on each side.
With the advent of so-called “lumber core plywood” early in the 20th century, the choice of secondary woods as veneer underlayment became less of an issue because the new construction technique was so uniform. It allowed the use of extremely low-grade lumber in veneer construction and saved higher grades for primary applications. In modern furniture production, the use of particle board and medium-density fiberboard (the ubiquitous and infamous MDF) has replaced most secondary wood in back panels, surface underlayments, drawer sides, bottoms and backs and has reduced the question of secondary woods to one of glue blocks, wooden handles and packing crates.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.
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 email@example.com.
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