Trying to classify the breed of wood in an antique, for me is a geeky pleasure but learning valuation always begins with the question of wood. How does the species of wood relate to history; how can we use this information to help us date and care for our hallmark pieces? You can surprise yourself with how engrossing this can be. Some questions I ask myself are: why was this particular lumber used and what are some identifying markers? There are volumes written on this topic but for our purposes we wanted to break it down to only the most essential and accessible, ie: What you will run across when scouring your hood for antiques.
Craftsmen and their tools through the eras
In the 16th and 17th century, shipping furniture was not something done with ease, is it even now? Because of this, families that could afford it would employ craftsmen to come and stay on the property for a time. Here they would mill trees for lumber, allow the timber to dry and then set to work. Royalty or popular aristocrats of the time were stylistic standard bearers. Clients would take that royal template and then cherry-pick the design features that most appealed to them; creating something wholly original was a happy by-product, a sort of natural selection. This is why provincial furniture is often a mash-up of Louis XV and Louis XVI, making it complicated to date an antique in this era with a blasé confidence. The wood used then were the choicest pieces of whatever was on hand, be it walnut or some other lesser known poplar. That’s why so often we see (in provincial antiques) a blend of different woods, exhibiting a more unique palette of colors. Even now, when a seller isn’t completely sure of the wood, they refer to it as fruitwood, which really means any fruit-bearing tree.
Furniture style of Louis 15th and 16th respectively
Before we get into our list of most popular antique woods, we wanted to define some of the phrasing used when describing these timbers. The term softwood, simply means it’s a softer more malleable wood. Hardwood means it’s a denser wood. You can press a fingernail into the underside of the wood and determine whether it’s soft or hard. If it’s a softwood the wood will bear the mark of your nail while a hardwood should leave no depression. Perhaps counter-intuitively, certain softwoods can actually be the stronger wood owed to their flexibility. Cypress and Douglas fir are soft woods and they can be used in structural framing, joinery, flooring, etc… Hardwoods are more typically seen in furniture making. It can be more expensive because of growing shortages and these days it would be unlikely to be used for things like joints. Close-grain wood simply refers to tightness of the grain. It makes this type of wood the best for detail work like carving because it won’t split. A fine-grained wood is even and smooth. It has a delicate configuration of fibers used often and well in detailed work like inlay and marquetry. Straight-grained wood is when the fibers run parallel to the length of the piece.
- Walnut is one of the most prevalent types of wood used in French antiques because of the pervasiveness of the tree. Walnut is characterized by a rich brown color and is a hardwood with a fine grain. This variety of wood is seen in just about every era so it’s impossible to judge the real period of an antique just by identifying it as walnut. You will need other identifying markers. Though walnut isn’t a rare wood it is used preciously in carvings and the more highly valued pieces of furniture. There are variations of walnut such as burled Walnut, Circassian Walnut, American Fireside Walnut; each with a slight pigment variation. To care for Walnut use a good French polish, wax, or oil.
French 19th century walnut commode-$4,300.00, A walnut botanical print
- Burls can be seen in a high contrast of browns and blondes. Burls are highly figured slabs, with knots and roots. You can find them in Louis XIV and Art Deco more often than other periods. It’s used as a precious veneer. An option for treatment is a high-gloss finish or French polish.
- Mahogany is probably the most famous wood but it’s used slightly less than you would imagine. The color is a reddish brown. It’s a hardwood with a closed grain. Mahogany timber started being harvested and used for furniture in the 18th century. Seen mostly in Queen Anne, Georgian, Louis XVI, Federal, Empire, Victorian, Second Empire. It had the designation as the most expensive wood until the 19th century. This wood is well maintained with any fine finishes, like French polish.
French 19th century hand-carved mahogany armoire-$12,995.00, A mahogany botanical print
- Elm has a palette of pale blond. It’s a hard, dense wood with a medium grain. Typically seen with a veneer because of it’s coarser grain. Seen predominantly in Biedemeier, Gustavian, and American Colonial Periods. Wax, staining or paint is typical for treatments.
French burled and book-matched elm empire style low table-$2,200.00, An elm botanical print
- Oak can be red or white. It’s a very hard wood with an open grain. The periods in which it is most often seen are: Tudor, Jacobean, Dutch, Flemish, Louis XIV, Willam and Mary and Victorian. Likely used in massive pieces, the way to treat it is with oil and wax or leave it with a rustic finish.
French 18th century carved oak buffet-$3995.00, An oak botanical print
- Cherry wood is typically a rich reddish brown. It’s uniform and straight; It has a fine grain with a smooth texture. This is a wood that will also darken with age. You’ll see it used in American Colonial, Queen Anne, Louis XV, Chippendale, Shaker, Federal, and Biedermeier. The recommended care is oil, wax or shellac.
French 19th century tall dark cherry buffet-$6,550.00, A cherry botanical print
- Rosewood boasts rich red or black hues. It’s a hardwood with a close, straight grain. This timber is seen mostly in Regency, Sheraton and Victorian periods. Tasked to work in valued pieces with veneer, inlay and marquetry. French polish, shellac or clear wax is advised for care.
French 19th century rosewood commode-$1,350.00, A rosewood botanical print
- Pine has a blonde to light brown pigmentation. It’s a softwood with a straight grain. We see it featured mostly during William and Mary, Dutch Colonial, Pennsylvania Dutch, Alpine and Rustic, European furniture and English pitchpin. As it’s a softer wood it’s used quite a bit for inexpensive structural support. This wood is fine to paint, wax, or oil.
English 19th century pine pot baord dresser-$6,450.00, A pine tree botanical print
This is the tip of a obstinately large iceberg! If you have any tips or tricks to define the species of wood in your antiques, we would love to know.