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The History of Oak

Aug 17, 2007
About fifty years ago, when the subject of English furniture first began to be studied and to be written about, it was divided conveniently into four distinct types. One writer called his books on the subject The Age of Oak, The Age of Walnut, The Age of Mahogany and The Age of Satinwood. It is not really quite as simple as that, for each of the so-called Ages overlaps the others and it is quite impossible to lay down strict dates as to when any one timber was introduced or when it finally, if ever, went out of favor. However, these clear-cut divisions do make it easier to deal with the subject, and it may be as well to keep to them; bearing in mind that the dates given are no more than very rough guides.

Oak is the traditionally English wood and while it alone was almost solely used for the making of furniture from the earliest times until about 1650, it has actually continued along with other woods right down to the present day. Old oak furniture is solidly made - the wood is very hard, and not only resists decay and woodworm but calls for time, patience and strength to fashion it - and many surviving pieces are of large size and noticeably weighty.

At the time when it was popular, the houses of those who could afford furniture (other than plain and simple pieces) were large and the principal room, the hall, was quite often vast in size. Tables and cupboards were correspondingly big, and to find a small and attractive piece of English oak furniture of sixteenth-century date today is thus not at all easy. The surviving specimens are eagerly sought and fetch high prices. Whereas a seventeenth-century chest may be bought for twenty pounds or so (on the whole, the larger the cheaper) a small cupboard of earlier date will cost several hundreds.

Oak furniture was made also on the mainland of Europe, and in appearance it is not unlike that made in England. Much was imported at the date it was made, and a further quantity of it was sent to London during the course of the nineteenth century.

As has been said above, oak continued in use for making furniture long after the wood had gone generally out of fashion. Pieces were made from it throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; pieces one would expect to find in walnut or mahogany which are discovered to be of oak. This was done mostly in the smaller country towns, where local craftsmen used timber that was available readily. While transport was both difficult and expensive, imported woods like walnut and mahogany would have been obtainable normally only near a seaport or a large town.

While oak is recognized by most people, and one or more of them is present in almost every home, there are a large number of other woods used by cabinet-makers in the past that are not so easily identified. To describe them in words so that they can be named positively is not possible, but a general indication of their appearance and uses may be helpful.
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