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Woods for Furniture Making Explained

Nov 23, 2007
The identification and selection of woods for use in the cabinet shop is not a subject that can easily be learned from books. Colored illustrations would help, but you need to become acquainted with woods by actually handling them, and having someone, expert on the subject, identify them for you. Frequent visits to the furniture-wood dealers is a great help in this respect because you can see the different varieties side by side and know exactly what you are looking at.

In many, if not most, pieces of furniture, a variety of woods is used. For example, a walnut piece might have drawer sides, back, and bottom of poplar, and drawer slides and other hidden parts of pine. Such things are recognized good practice and that does not necessarily cheapen a piece in any way. This is particularly true in the case of pieces made to be painted. The important factors here are design, resistance to damage and wear, and the ability to take and hold the finish.

The Furniture Woods

The principal woods used in furniture making are poplar, basswood, pine, maple, oak, birch, cherry, beech, walnut, gumwood, mahogany, apple, and pear.

In furniture making the choice of wood depends upon a number of things such as strength, hardness, and resistance to damage that is required as well as the color and decorative markings. For painted pieces the plainer woods like poplar and pine may well be used.

Pine. There are two kinds of pine commonly used in furniture - the white and the yellow varieties. White pine has a straight and even grain and a pleasing texture, and finishes well. It is light in weight, and the sapwood is white, with the heart-wood ranging from pinkish white to gray.

Though quite soft and easily dented, white pine does make attractive provincial furniture, especially when antiqued. It is used largely for small pieces and accessories such as hanging shelves and cupboards, and kitchen furniture such as Welsh dressers, corner cupboards, and so forth.

The yellow or short-leaf variety of pine is not a good cabinet wood. Like fir it has a very pronounced grain that makes it difficult to finish to a very smooth surface. If it is used at all the sapwood is to be preferred, and it should be fairly free from knots. The so-called knotty pine is colorful and has its uses, but it should not be used for large areas. A knot here and there helps, but a rash of them spoils any piece. Such wood is best painted, as it was in the old days.

Maple. Maple is of course a perennial favorite, both for painted and unpainted pieces whether of modern or traditional design. Some striking effects can be secured by using the modern transparent finishes.

Maple comes in a variety of colors from off-white to light brown, and with wavy, curly, or birdseye grain markings. Because of its hardness it can be given a sharp edge, and make turnings with thin edges that do not break off as pine does. The hard sugar maple is the variety most commonly used.

Oak. Oak is another furniture wood with a marked grain that is often variegated and quite ornamental. Both the white and red oaks are much used, the principal difference being deeper redbrown color of the red oak heartwood. The white oak is more durable and less porous than the red and seems to finish better.

Being somewhat hard and brittle, especially when old, oak is not as easy to work as pine, but it lends itself very well to carving. It can be left its natural color, bleached, filled with white filler, or darkened to a very rich antique-looking tone.

Old oak often becomes very brittle and joints need to be made of ample size if they are to be subjected to bending or twisting stresses.

There are other woods which can be used of course, but these are three of the most commonly used.
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