Antique English Furniture - Woods, Other Woods

While oak, walnut, mahogany and satinwood are 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.


A wood from the West Indies with a distinctive burr, looking like closely curled hairs over the light brown surface. It was used in the form of veneer.


The harder varieties of this wood, known as Red Cedar, were used for making the linings of drawers in some better-quality eighteenth- and nineteenth-century furniture. It is not to be confused with the spongy open- grained cedar used for making cigar-boxes, which it resembles in sharing the same pleasant smell.


A black wood of very close grain and heavy in weight, which was popular for veneering at the end of the seventeenth century. Later, it was used in inlay and especially for the dark lines in stringing.


Somewhat similar in appearance to oak, this wood was in use during the seventeenth century and later. It is as hard as oak, but it tends to twist with age and is susceptible to woodworm. Harewood. The veneer of the sycamore, stained a grey colour, was called 'harewood' in the eighteenth century. It has pleasing rippled markings, and was popular both as a veneer or for use in inlaying.

Lignum vitae

A hard, heavy West Indian wood, of a dark brown colour with black markings. It was used occasionally as a veneer, but was principally made into bowls and cups, and similar pieces. Maple. The American 'bird's eye' maple has small markings all over its yellow-brown surface, and was popular during the nineteenth century. It was used particularly for veneering picture frames, but is found also on furniture.


An East Indian wood with a close grain and distinctive blackish lines on a brown ground. Although it was in use during the eighteenth century, it became widely popular during the nineteenth both as a veneer and in the solid when it was imported also from Brazil. It is a heavy timber, and chairs made from it are often found to have been broken from their own weight when carried.


The familiar tree of English churchyards makes a wood of a medium brown colour used sometimes in the solid and also for veneers. Furniture using either type is much sought after, and when found is usually expensive.

Papier mache

This material, an imitation of wood, was made in England from the second half of the eighteenth century. The more usual method of making it was to stick layers of paper together and leave them to dry, either flat or in moulds. The article was rubbed down until smooth and then painted several times and decorated; each layer of paint was baked gently in an oven to harden the coat and produce the final high gloss. Trays and tea-caddies were among the earliest articles made from papier mache, but during the nineteenth century small tables, chairs and even bedsteads, were also produced.

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