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--- ellen (4/23/2013)
Almostany type of wood could be used to build furniture, but some woods havealways been favored for their beauty, durability, and workability.Before 1900, most furniture was made with these woods: walnut, oak,mahogany, rosewood, fruitwoods, and rare wood veneers and inlays werein common use. American Colonial furniture, dependent on localavailability, was made with maple, oak, walnut, birch, and cherry, aswell as pine. The preferred furniture woods were readily available, soless attractive or durable woods were used only for hidden parts insidea piece. For this reason, pre-1900 furniture is almost always worthrestoring.

Asthese preferred woods have become scarcer and more expensive, furniturehas been made with more abundant woods, the traditional favorites havebecome rare. Today, most furniture is made with ash, pine, gum, andpoplar, pine, fir, and other inexpensive woods are used for hiddenparts. The rare woods are used only for very good furniture, andthey're often used in combination with the less expensive woods.

Beingable to identify the type of wood used for your furniture can help youdetermine its real value. Wood identification can sometimes be thedeciding factor when you aren't sure if a piece is worth refinishing orif it should be thrown away. There's a good chance that a beat-up olddresser, for instance, was built with what today is considered a rarewood. Inthis article, we'll show you how to examine a piece of furniture andwhat details or identifying marks to look for to easily identify thetype of wood used to create it. It will be helpful to know the basiccharacteristics in all woods, such as hardness, grains, and color.

Wood Characteristics

Hardness:The simplest way to describe a wood is to say it's a hardwood or asoftwood, but this description can be deceptive: not all hardwoods arehard, and not all softwoods are soft. The hard/soft classification is abotanical one -- hardwoods are flowering trees, softwoods are conifers.Although most hardwoods are harder than most softwoods, there areexceptions.

Ingeneral, hardwoods are more valuable than softwoods, because the woodis scarcer. But this isn't always the case -- gum, for instance, is ahardwood that competes in price with softwoods. A more practical way toidentify wood is by its grain and color.

Wood grain and color:The cell structure of a tree, different for each species, determinesits grain. Hardwoods have tubular cells called vessels, visible aspores in the wood. If the cells are large, the texture of the wood isslightly rough, or open, a filler may be needed to smooth the surface.If the cells are small, the texture is smooth, these woods, describedas close-grained, don't require filling. Oak, walnut, ash, mahogany,rosewood, and teak are all open-grained woods, beech, birch, maple,cherry, satinwood, gum, and poplar are close-grained. Softwoods don'thave vessel cells, but for all practical purposes can be considered close-grained.

Alltrees have annual growth rings, made up of the cells formed during eachyear's growing season. The types and arrangement of the cells determinehow the wood looks. There are woods with subdued and with clearlydefined grains, there are straight grains, stripes, swirls, waves orcurls, ripples, eyes, and mottled effects. There are colors from whiteand pale yellow through red, purple, and black. Every species has itsown particular grain and color, and although they vary from tree totree, these characteristics can almost always be used to identify thewood.

Furniturewoods are chosen and valued for the character of their grain and color.Hardwoods usually have a richer and finer-textured grain thansoftwoods, but there are rich grains of all colors and patterns. Woodswith very distinctive patterns are usually more valuable than woodswith subdued or indistinct patterns, and the weaker-grained woods areoften stained to give them character. This is why the old finish mustbe completely removed before you can tell for sure what wood a piece offurniture is made of.

How to Assess Wood

Howdo you begin to identify the type of wood used for your furniture? Thismay seem difficult at first, but you'll find it easier as you gainexperience. With practice, you may be able to recognize various woodsby smell and touch as well as by color and grain. You should askyourself some key questions:

Considerthe piece of furniture itself. About how old is it, and what style isit? Some types of furniture are made with specific woods -- ash, forinstance, is widely used in bentwoods -- and most new furniture is madewith woods not used for older furniture.

Lookat the color. Although color can vary considerably from tree to tree,its tone is fairly constant within a species, the color intensity maychange, but not the quality. Some woods have very distinctive colorcharacteristics -- poplar, for instance, is the only wood with a greentinge to it, and rosewood can be dark purple.

Finally,look at the grain. Is the wood open- or close-grained? Are the poresevenly distributed, or are they concentrated at the growth rings? Isthe grain straight or wavy, mottled or swirled?

Nowthat you have closely looked at your furniture, you might notice it ismade with veneer (thin layers of wood) or a combination of woods. Bothare common practices for furniture building.

Veneers and Inlays:Because rare woods are scarce, and because they've always been moreexpensive than other woods, many types of furniture, both new and old,are made with veneer, a thin layer of wood glued to a base of lessexpensive wood or plywood. In old furniture, veneers and inlays of rarewoods were often used to form designs or special effects, highlyfigured burl woods and other exotic woods were especially prized. Inmodern furniture, veneers are used primarily where solid wood isunavailable or too expensive.

Many different woods are used forveneers and inlays. Some veneers are cut from the crotch or butt of atree, where the grain is more interesting, some are cut at an angle toproduce a particular pattern. Some highly prized grain patterns, suchas the bird's-eye figure in maple and the burl patterns, result fromirregular growth. Some veneer woods, such as the burl woods, are notusable for solid construction because the wood isn't strong enough.Ebony, in contrast, is veneered because it's much too heavy to be usedalone.

Veneers are fragile, and they can be damaged byrefinishing techniques. Veneers are common in modern furnitureconstruction, so take a good look at your furniture before you start towork on it. Any highly figured wood is probably a veneer.

Itisn't always obvious what's veneered and what's not. Sometimes theveneer is visible at the edge of the wood surface, a thin layer gluedover the base wood. If you can't see a joint at the edge, look at anunfinished area under the piece of furniture. If the unfinished woodlooks the same as the finished surface, the piece of furniture isprobably solid wood. If there's a considerable difference, it'sprobably veneered.

Wood combinations:Another consideration is that many types of modern furniture are madewith two or more kinds of wood, to keep the cost down. Rare woods areused where appearance is important, such as table-tops, the more commonwoods are used for less conspicuous structural pieces, such as tableand chair legs. This multiple-wood construction isn't always easy tosee until the old finish is removed -- a table you think is walnut, forexample, may turn out to have gum legs, stained to match.

Furnituremade with more than one wood eventually needs special refinishingtreatment. If you find yourself with a multiple-wood piece, you mayhave to stain and finish the common wood again to match the wood of themost conspicuous surface.

Once you are familiar with the color,grain, and construction style of your furniture, you can use thatinformation to determine the specific kind of wood or woods used. Checkout the next section for tips on how to easily identify commonfurniture woods.

Common Furniture Woods
Commonfurniture woods have their own distinctive marks, just like each personhas his or her own unique fingerprints. Below are some details orcharacteristics that can help you easily identify the numerous types offurniture woods available.

Ash (white ash): Ashis a tough hardwood known primarily for its excellent bendingabilities, it's used for bentwoods and for bent furniture partsrequiring maximum strength. Ash veneers are also common. Ash varies incolor from creamy white or gray with a light brown cast to a darkreddish brown. The price is moderate.

Basswood: Basswoodis a common hardwood, often used in combination with rare woods such aswalnut and mahogany. Its color varies from creamy white to creamy brownor reddish, with broad rays and sometimes slightly darker streaks. Thegrain is straight and even. Basswood is close-grained, with very smallpores. It is inexpensive.

Beech:Beech is another hardwood that bends easily, but it isn't as attractiveas ash. Beech is often used with more expensive woods, primarily ininconspicuous places -- chair and table legs, drawer bottoms, sides andbacks of cabinets. Beech takes a stain well, and is often stained tolook like mahogany, maple, or cherry. Beech is both hard and heavy,andis difficult to work with hand tools. It is inexpensive.

Birch (yellow birch): Birch,a common hardwood, is used in all aspects of furniture construction.The wood is light yellowish brown, very similar in color and in grainto maple. The grain is quite pleasing. Birch is close-grained. It ismoderately expensive.

Butternut: Thishardwood, often called white walnut, is similar in many ways to walnut.The wood is light brown, with occasional dark or reddish streaks.The grain is pronounced and leafy. Butternut is coarse-textured, withvisibly open pores, it is usually filled. Butternut stains well, andis often stained to look like dark walnut. The wood is light, and iseasy to work with hand tools. It is moderately expensive.

Cedar (Eastern red cedar): Cedar,a softwood, is used primarily in chests and closets, it has adistinctive scent, and is effective in repelling insects. The wood is alight red, with light streaks and knots, the grain is quite pleasing.Cedar is close-grained. It should not be bleached or stained. Cedarstorage chests should be left unfinished on the inside, and treatedwith a clear finish on the outside. Cedar is moderately expensive.

Cherry (black cherry):Cherry, one of the most valued of hardwoods, is used in fine furnitureand cabinets. Its color varies from light brown to dark reddish brown,and it has a very attractive and distinctive grain, often with adefinite mottle. Cherry is close-grained, and does not require afiller. A light stain is sometimes used to accentuate the color. Cherryis difficult to work with hand tools, and it is expensive.

Elm (rock elm, American elm):This hardwood has excellent bending qualities, it's used in all typesof furniture, and especially for bentwoods. Elm is light brown to darkbrown, often with some red streaks Elm has a distinct grain, rock elmhas contrasting light and dark-areas. Because Dutch elm disease hasdestroyed so many trees, elm has become a rare wood, and can be both hard to find and expensive.

Gum (sweetgum, red gum):This hardwood is often used in veneers or in combination with rarewoods, it's also used in some moderately priced furniture. Gum is aneven brown, with a reddish cast, it sometimes has darker streaks. Itsprice is moderate to low.

Hickory (shagbark hickory):This hardwood is noted for its strength, hardness, and toughness, it isused in rockers, Windsor chairs, lawn furniture, and some veneers. Thewood is brown to reddish brown, with a straight, indistinct grain, itis open-grained. Hickory is very hard and heavy, and is difficult towork with hand tools. Its price is moderate.

Lauan (red lauan, white lauan):This hardwood, a mahogany look-alike, is used in less expensive gradesof furniture, it is often sold as Philippine mahogany. The wood variesin color from tan to brown to dark red, with a ribbonlike grain patternsimilar to that of true mahogany. Red lauan is more expensive thanwhite.

Mahogany (New World mahogany, African mahogany):This hardwood is a traditional favorite for fine furniture, one of themost treasured furniture woods in the world. It's also used extensivelyin veneers. Mahogany varies in color from medium brown to deepred-brown and dark red, the grain is very distinctive and attractive.It is very expensive.

Maple (sugar maple):Maple is a strong, dense, attractive hardwood, used in furniture andfor butcher blocks. Its color is light brown, with a reddish cast, thegrain is usually straight, but also occurs in bird's-eye, curly, orwavy patterns. Maple is difficult to work with hand tools, and isusually expensive.

Oak (red oak, white oak):This abundant hardwood has always been valued for its strength and itsattractive grain, It is used extensively for solid furniture and, inmodern furniture, for veneers. White oak is a rich grayish brown color,red oak is similar, but with a pronounced reddish cast. Both types ofoak are distinctively grained, with prominent rays or streaks. The woodis open-grained. It is moderately expensive, red oak is usually lessexpensive than white.

Pecan:This southern hardwood is quite strong, and is used extensively indining and office furniture, pecan veneers are also common. The woodvaries from pale brown to reddish brown, with some dark streaks, thegrain is quite pronounced. The wood is difficult to work with handtools, the price is moderate.

Pine (white pine): Thissoftwood was used extensively for Colonial furniture, and is one of thebasic woods of modern furniture, it's used in almost all types offurniture, and is the primary wood used for unfinished furniture. Thewood varies from cream to yellow-brown, with clearly marked growthrings, it is close-grained. It is inexpensive.

Poplar (yellow poplar):Poplar is a moderately soft hardwood, used in inexpensive furniture andin combination with more expensive woods. The wood is brownish yellow,with a distinctive green tinge, the grain is subdued. Poplar isclose-grained wood. It stains very well. Poplar is relatively light,and is easy to work with hand tools. It is inexpensive.

Redwood:This distinctive softwood is used primarily for outdoor furniture, itis resistant to decay and insects, and is rarely finished. The wood isa deep reddish brown, with well-marked growth rings. It is moderatelyhard, and is easy to work with hand tools, its price varies regionally.

Rosewood (Brazilian, Indian, or Ceylonese rosewood): Thishardwood, like mahogany, is one of the finest and most valued furniturewoods, it's also used for veneers. Rosewood varies in color from darkbrown to dark purple, with rich, strongly marked black streaks.Rosewood is difficult to work with hand tools, and is very expensive.

Satinwood (East Indian satinwood): Satinwoodhas always been prized for fine hardwood veneers and also for use indecorative inlays and marquetry. Its color varies from bright goldenyellow to a darker yellowish brown, with a very distinctive andattractive mottled or ribbon-striped pattern. It is very expensive.

Sycamore:This hardwood is used extensively in inexpensive furniture and inveneers, it is very resistant to splitting, and is also a favorite woodfor butcher blocks. The wood varies from pinkish to reddish brown incolor, with prominent, closely spaced rays, the grain pattern isdistinct. It is moderately easy to work with hand tools, and moderatelypriced.

Teak:Teak is one of the choice furniture hardwoods, and has traditionallybeen used for both solid pieces and veneers. Teak varies from richgolden-yellow to dark brown, with dark and light streaks. It is veryexpensive.

Walnut (black walnut, European walnut):Walnut has traditionally been used for fine furniture, and is still indemand today, it is commonly used in veneers. Walnut is chocolatebrown, sometimes with dark or purplish streaks, its grain is verystriking and attractive. It is very expensive.

Other woods: Although most furniture is made from the woods listed above, many other woods are used in furniture construction.

Someof the other woods used for furniture are alder, apple, aspen,chestnut, cottonwood, cypress, fir, hackberry, hemlock, holly, koa,laurel, locust, magnolia, pear-wood, spruce, tupelo, and willow. Treatall wood according to its apparent traits.

Apiece of furniture holds many clues that can help you assess whatquality of wood was used in its creation. The key is just knowing howto assess the wood and what clues to look for.

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