American Wood Characteristics and Their Use in Furniture

American wood has several characteristics that render it particularly useful in making furniture. The early pioneers and settlers had rich sources of wood available to them from the large forests of North America at that time. They soon found, both through skills acquired in their former countries, and by trial and error, which woods were best for which purposes.

Some types of American wood offered a beautiful natural appearance, while other accepted stains, varnishes and other finishes very well, and looked the better for it. Today's American furniture industry was born from a combination of such knowledge, trial and error and the woodworking and carpentry skills the early settlers brought with them.

Here is an indication of the specific attributes of the main types of hardwood used in American furniture. They are presented in alphabetical order.

Ash: Ash has grayish brown heartwood with a straight grain and smooth finish. It is tough and hard, but easy to work. It is used for high quality furniture, cabinets and veneers, and is often used for tool handles. It is also easy to stain.

Cedar: Cedar is a red colored wood with a fine grain except where there are knots. It is a distinctive fragrance, and because of this is often used for exterior furniture, sheds and boatbuilding. It is easy to work, although the thin white area of sapwood is susceptible to insect attack.

Cherry: American cherry is hardwood with a dense, even grain with a satin smooth texture. The heartwood has a rich red to brownish color, and is prized for interior use. The sapwood is a cream color, but this usually darkens on steaming. It is an excellent American wood for cabinetmaking and musical instruments, and is also used for flooring due to its reddish color. The consistency of American cherry renders it suitable for turning and carving. The colors tend to darken with age.

Hickory: Hickory is a hard, close-grained American wood that is not easily worked. White hickory comes from the sapwood, while the heartwood is darker in shade. Due to its hardness it used more for laminates and facing plywood. However, it has excellent bending properties, and is commonly used in sapling or branch form for old style rockers. It is so hard, that pre-drilling is often necessary when nailing.

Maple (Hard): Hard maple is a creamy to reddish shade, with a more pronounced and longer grain than soft maple. Both are hardwoods in spite of the relative names. It is fairly difficult to work, but like soft maple, the hard version is excellent for steam bending. It is suitable for furniture, heavy duty flooring and veneers. It is not as commonly stained as soft maple.

Maple (Soft): Soft maple is creamy white in color with a fairly straight grain. It is better for staining than hard maple, and can be finished to give beautiful results. It works fairly well, and is suitable for most furniture and flooring. It is not particularly durable, and does not always glue particularly well. Both soft and hard maple are subject to insect attack, including the furniture beetle. Curly soft maple has a curly texture, and is more decorative in appearance.

Oak (Red): red oak is a commonly used hardwood and is very popular for furniture. It has a coarse-textured straight grain with smaller medullary rays than white oak. It is strong and hard with a pale tan to pinky red coloration. It is used for furniture and veneers, but is not suitable for exterior use. It can be made smoother by filling the grain.

Oak (White): White oak is actually light brown to pinkish in color, with a coarse but longer grain than red oak. The medullary rays are whitish and more prominent than those of red oak (see Quarter Sawn Oak below.) It is suitable for all kinds of furniture, flooring and veneers. White oak accepts stains fairly well and polished to a good satin-gloss finish.

Oak (Quarter Sawn): Quarter sawn oak makes best use of the prominent medullary rays of white oak. To saw this way, the cross section of the circular trunk is quartered using two diameters at right angles to each other. The wood is then sawn from the perimeter into the center of each quarter. It is more wasteful, and hence more expensive. However, it shows of the white medullary flecks and is used widely for furniture and narrow veneers. Red oak can also be cut quarter sawn for the same decorative reason.

Walnut: American black walnut is true walnut, unlike African walnut that is closely related to mahogany. It is rich dark brown color that varies to a purplish black, often displaying wavy and burled grain patterns. It is a hard, durable wood, used in high quality furniture and cabinetmaking. It is commonly used for veneers and also gun stocks, musical instruments, and any other applications where its unique grain patterns are valued. It is one of the more expensive of American woods.

These the more common hardwoods used in American furniture manufacture. There are others that have specific uses, such as beech which is best used for bending into shaped furniture parts such as chair backs.

There are also many types of softwood available, such several species of pine, larch, and spruce and so on. However, our forefathers found the above species to offer the best combination of workability, strength and ability to accept stains and varnishes to produce high quality, hard-wearing furniture.

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