Antique English Furniture - Woods, Walnut

Walnut, an attractive light brown wood with distinctive dark patterns, came into use in the later years of the seventeenth century. Much of it was grown in England, but the imported French variety was usually preferred because it was better marked. The esteemed markings or figurings are to be found when a tree is cut across the base where the roots start to spread, and at the point (the crotch) where a branch springs from the main stem. The equally popular burr wood (marked with innumerable tiny dark curls) is found near burrs or lumps by clusters of knots.

Although a certain amount of furniture was made from walnut in the solid piece, it was used mainly in the form of a very thin sheet-veneer. This was glued down on to the main carcass of the piece; the carcass usually being constructed of pinewood (deal) or oak. The use of veneers enabled the craftsmen to select the best-marked portions and arrange them in patterns; a familiar form being known as 'quartering', where four successively cut rectangular pieces are laid on a surface so that their markings coincide evenly. Equally popular were 'oysters', circular pieces cut across a branch.

A severe winter in 1709 was responsible for the destruction of a great number of walnut trees in Europe, and was followed by the French prohibiting the export of the wood. To replace this source of supply, the American variety of the tree, which was already being sent to England in increasing quantities, was used instead. American walnut is not unlike European, and often cannot be distinguished from it. Some of it is quite free from markings, and this variety is often mistaken for mahogany when used in pieces of furniture made at the time mahogany was being introduced-about 1730-40.

The use of walnut declined quickly when the merits of mahogany were brought to notice, and it is rarely found in furniture made after 1740 until it came into fashion once more about a hundred years later. Then, it was used, as before, in the form of veneers on cabinets, tables and. other pieces, and in the solid for chairs. These latter have come into rapidly increasing favour during the past fifteen years, and while pre-1939 they could be bought for a matter of a few dollars a set, will now cost something nearer $ 100 for six.

Walnut furniture of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries is not easy to find. Veneered pieces were extremely popular in the late 1920's and fetched high prices. This fact proved an irresistible temptation to a large number of skilful cabinet-makers, who attempted to make the supply meet the demand and poured out large quantities of fakes of varying merit. The best of them are very difficult to detect; the poorest were so badly made (in a vain attempt to make them look as though they had suffered 200 or more years of handling) that they have mostly fallen to pieces. Apart from making fakes entirely from new timber, much ingenuity was exercised in making them from bits of old furniture that were then worthless. This deception calls for a lot of knowledge to detect it. Walnut furniture must be bought with caution, and, preferably, from a trusted source.

At one time Queen Anne walnut furniture was very popular in the United States, but it was soon found that central-heated rooms caused glue to dry up and veneer to fall off in an alarming manner. Consequently, veneered furniture is no longer looked on with affection in America.

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