A Regency Furniture Wood Primer

Recently, I read a Regency romance which included a scene in what was supposed to be an elegant and luxurious room in a London townhouse. Unfortunately, the entire effect was spoiled for me when the author described the supposedly very sophisticated and fashionable furniture in this room as being made of oak. Oak?! I nearly dropped the book. The author then went on to describe this oak furniture as having been finely carved and gilded. Completely impossible! In actual fact, during the Regency, oak was the least fashionable of the furniture woods, and due to the properties of that wood, it could not be finely carved, nor would its surface take gilding well. No one with any pretension to elegance, or even good taste, would have had a room filled with oak furniture during the years in which the Prince of Wales was Regent. During the Regency, as it had been for nearly a century, oak was considered suitable primarily for the making of house frames, floor boards, barrels and ships.

With any luck, the majority of the readers of that romance will not tumble to the glaring error the author made in her choice of wood for the furniture in that fictional room. I did only because I spent years studying the history of furniture and the woods of which that furniture was made. However, I suspect that most Regency authors have neither the time nor the inclination to spend years, months, or even a few days, studying the fine furniture woods which were used during the Regency, or in the decades before. Nor do they need to, since I realized that I could outline the basic information that any author would need to know in order to use the correct furniture woods in their stories. And so, a furniture wood primer for Regency authors …

The first useful bit of information about the woods used in furniture-making is to know the difference between hardwoods and softwoods. Ironically, there are softwoods that are harder that some hardwoods, and vice-versa. These terms actually identify the type of tree from which the wood originates. Hardwoods come mostly from broad-leafed, deciduous trees, that is, trees which loose their leaves each fall as the sap drains to the roots and the trees go dormant for the winter. Softwoods, on the other hand, nearly all come from evergreen trees, that is, trees which never loose their very narrow leaves and in which the sap runs year round. The structure of hardwood tends to be more complex than softwood, in part because of the annual dormant period, which results in greater compression of the timber and in pores of various sizes which can be seen under magnification. Hardwood tends to be more brittle, while softwood is often more flexible. In general, hardwoods will usually take a higher polish that will softwoods. It was common to make case furniture, such as chests of drawers and wardrobes, from softwood, over which a hardwood veneer was applied, in order to get the most from the more valuable woods used for veneers.

Oak is perhaps the most English of woods, and the oak is the national tree of England. It is a hardwood, and was a wood commonly used from the Middle Ages into the seventeenth century, for the making of many furniture items, because it was plentiful and strong. However, the grain of most oak timber is quite coarse, so it is not easy to carve and even harder to turn on a lathe in order to make items such as decorative balusters for staircase railings or ornamental chair and table legs. Most of the furniture made of oak in the Middle Ages would have been plain chests, the occasional four-post bed frame with very simple carvings and, most often, great tables of unadorned plank and trestle construction. Oak is a very strong and sturdy wood, and any furniture made from it could easily survive for centuries. So one could expect to find a massive oak table in the baronial hall of a mansion dating to medieval times, quite possibly in company with a suit of armor or two, with maybe an ancient escutcheon above the huge fireplace opening which bears that old family’s coat of arms. Those few who wished to re-create a medieval look in order to give the impression of an ancient family line might have also had a few such oaken pieces made for the more Gothic rooms in their homes. But such rooms, and such pieces of furniture, would have been considered thoroughly old-fashioned during the Regency, more curiosity that high fashion.

Walnut became the first high-fashion fine wood used by British furniture makers. Furniture made of walnut became popular in Britain after the return of Charles II, in 1660, though there were not a lot of walnut trees growing there. Initially, wood from the common walnut tree was imported from the Continent. By the end of the seventeenth century, black walnut was imported from the American colonies, particularly from Virginia. Once it was air or kiln-dried, walnut has a rich brown color, with a fine grain. Common walnut wood tended to be in the medium range of browns, while, as its name suggests, black walnut wood tended towards shades of darker brown. Both common walnut and American black walnut were hardwoods. They were dense and hard, with a tight grain which could be polished to a very smooth finish. Though it was hard, its fine, tight grain made walnut easy to carve into quite detailed designs. Walnut could also be turned on a lathe to create detailed, delicate and elegant three-dimensional shapes. In addition, the fine grain and hardness of walnut made it ideal for the production of attractive veneers as well. Many walnut trees are subject to burls, deformations that can produce attractive figured grains which were particularly valuable for veneers. The beautiful grains typically found in walnut were thought to be so lovely that walnut furniture was seldom painted. Walnut was the finest wood used in the making of furniture in Britain well ito the middle of the eighteenth century. Though it was no longer quite so fashionable by the end of the eighteenth century or the beginning of the nineteenth century, walnut was still used to make good but less costly furniture.

Mahogany became the next fashionable furniture-making wood in Britain, beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century and gradually displaced walnut. Mahogany was a hardwood native to the West Indies and parts of Central America, and had been known in Britain since the mid-seventeenth century. However, very little of it was actually shipped to Britain for nearly a century, primarily because there were very heavy duties imposed on timber imported from the colonies. In 1721, Parliament abolished those heavy import duties, in order to increase the importation of timber for use in ship-building. Of course, cabinet-makers, those who made fine furniture, were also able to take advantage of this abolition of import duties on timber. There were multiple sources of supply for mahogany from the eighteenth century into the nineteenth. Initially, mahogany from Santo Domingo was the most commonly imported. But it was very hard, dense and did not have much grain. About 1750, Cuban mahogany became more popular. It was easier to work, had a dark rich color, and fine figured grains, making it ideal for veneers. Near the end of the eighteenth century, Honduras mahogany was also imported. It was lighter in both weight and color, and its grain was not as fine as the grain usually found in Cuban mahogany.

Mahogany was initially used primarily for joinery work, that is, in the making of framed pieces like tables and chairs, because it was an extremely strong wood. But as joiners, turners and cabinet-makers continued to use mahogany, they realized that metal-like strength, combined with its very fine grain, would enable them to design and make delicate but sturdy furniture compatible with the fashionable Rococo style. This was, in part, due to the improvement in the types of tools available to furniture makers as the century progressed. Mahogany could be given a very smooth finish and, over time, the surface patina became even more beautiful as the object was handled and used. While walnut tended to a brown color, mahogany took on a more reddish color as it was worked, which was quite popular in the second half of the eighteenth century. As with walnut, the grain and figures seen in mahogany were considered so beautiful that mahogany furniture was seldom painted. Thomas Chippendale was one of the leading English cabinet-makers who regularly worked in mahogany. His designs were eagerly copied by other cabinet-makers and were often worked in mahogany to supply the furniture needs of the upper classes through the end of the eighteenth century.

In the last decades of the eighteenth century, a few other woods were used in the making of furniture in Britain. Walnut was still imported from Europe and America. Though it was no longer considered the most fashionable wood, it was still attractive and less expensive than mahogany. Therefore, furniture made from walnut was more affordable for those who were less affluent. Deal, a very hard type of softwood from pine trees, was imported from Norway and North America. It was generally used in the making of case furniture, such as tall-boys, desks, and armoires. Those pieces were then veneered with fine woods, usually mahogany or walnut, thereby producing a fashionable piece at a lower cost than if the entire case piece had been made of a fine wood. By the end of the eighteenth century, oak was no longer as readily available in Britain as it once had been. For that reason, oak was regularly imported from Scandinavia and was sometimes used by cabinet-makers to line the drawers in some of their case pieces. Lime, pear and box wood all have a very fine grain and are easy to carve. These woods were ideal for producing finely detailed carved decorations which were free-standing. Other carved shapes were gilded and applied to very costly pieces of furniture, sometimes in imitation of French Boulle, or Buhl work.

Through most of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, furniture makers in rural areas typically worked only with native British woods, including oak, elm, beech, ash, yew and birch. These craftsman generally did not have access to fine imported woods, such as walnut or mahogany, the bulk of which was shipped to furniture makers in London and seldom made it beyond the metropolis in timber form. Nor could most of them afford the costs of these fine woods. As an example, Windsor chairs, a popular chair form in rural areas, were typically made of more than one wood, usually elm for seats, yew for the frame and ash or beech for the hoop and spindles. Because they were assembled from multiple woods, Windsor chairs made in America were typically painted, or stained, a single color, to give them a uniform appearance. However, most Windsor chairs made in Britain were varnished or given a simple linseed oil finish. It should be noted that elm was the preferred wood in the making of coffins, as it was known to be essentially water-proof, if the coffin was property constructed.

In the later decades of the eighteenth century, the expansion of the reach of British trade made it possible for English cabinet-makers to acquire an increasingly wide range of the finest woods from around the world. Mahogany continued to be imported from the West Indies and Central America, walnut primarily from Virginia during the Napoleonic Wars. At about that same time, two other fine woods, satinwood and rosewood were gradually becoming more popular for furniture making. Satinwood was a hardwood imported from the West Indies and was so precious and costly that it was used primarily for veneers. It typically had a light brownish yellow color with a fine figure which could be brought out in clear detail under polish. Its light color and delicate appearance was ideal for the more delicate pieces which were being made as the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth. Due to its light color, satinwood was particularly popular with Robert Adam for the delicate neo-classical designs which he made fashionable in the last decades of the eighteenth century. [Author’s Note:   Not long ago, I read a Regency romance, set in the early Regency, in which the hero tells the heroine that he has commissioned the furniture for her new bedchamber from Robert Adam. Quite impossible, since Robert Adam died in 1792, when that hero and heroine would have been mere children. Though the fame of a number of these furniture designers and makers has lived on for centuries, they were just humans, too, and they did not live forever.]

Rosewood, which began to come into fashion at the turn of the nineteenth century, was imported from South America, primarily Brazil. Though rosewood has a reddish-brown color, it actually got its name from the aroma it gives off when it is first cut. The scent is nearly identical to the fragrance of roses. The scent of rosewood would gradually fade over time, so the furniture made from it usually had no fragrance. Like satinwood, rosewood was very costly. Unlike satinwood, rosewood was dark in color, with darker streaks running along the grain. It was heavy and dense, and could take a very high, glossy polish. Though it could be carved into very delicate shapes and still retain its strength, rosewood was more often used as a veneer in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. Rosewood and satinwood veneers were sometimes used together on a single piece of furniture, creating intricate patterns with the dark and light woods.

By the end of the eighteenth century, rosewood and satinwood had become popular woods for certain types of fine furniture. Mahogany, and to a lesser extent, walnut was also still used. Typically, the best furniture in libraries and book-rooms, dining rooms and bedchambers, was made of mahogany, or, occassionally, walnut. The best furniture for drawing rooms, sitting rooms and boudoirs was generally made of satinwood, rosewood, or a combination of the two. Curiously, as late at 1810, cabinet-makers, the craftsmen who made fine furniture, were most often described as "workers in mahogany and other fine woods."

Some of those other fine woods included ebony, amboyna, calamander or coromandel, thuya, kingwood, tulipwood, partridge wood, and zebra wood. These woods were very expensive and, in most cases, were shipped only to the port of London, since most of the best cabinet-makers were located in the capital. These more costly woods were typically used only for small sections of veneers, such as central medallions, stringing, banding or beading which were created to add additional decorative touches to a fine wood veneer surface. Woods of dark and light colors, such as ebony and tulipwood, were often used to create the contrasting pieces used to veneer a chess or backgammon board surface.

Cabinet-makers outside of London were not always able to get the finest imported furniture woods. Therefore, they would often substitute with local English timbers which would give a similar appearance. Birch and chestnut woods with finely figured grains could be used as a substitute for satinwood. Acacia could be used as a substitute for tulipwood, while pear or willow wood had a fine grain and could be stained black to emulate ebony. At the turn of the nineteenth century, sycamore, stained a greenish-grey and known as harewood, was used as a veneer on many pieces of country furniture.

A wood which began to be imported into Britain from North and Central America was Spanish cedar. Though it is not a fine furniture wood, it had other valuable properties. Spanish cedar is a semi-deciduous tree, which means that the sap or resin never fully leaves the timber. The wood was lightweight, but reasonably strong and easy to work. More importantly, the heartwood contained a resin which repelled insects, especially moths. Fortunately, the resin in the cedar wood was pleasantly aromatic. By the turn of the nineteenth century, Spanish cedar was used for drawer linings and to make boxes which were intended for the storage of clothing, household linens and other valuable textiles.

By the time the Prince of Wales became Regent, all of the woods noted above were available to the best British cabinet-makers, most of whom had premises in London. Mahogany was still the popularly entrenched favorite for the making of furniture for dining rooms, libraries and book rooms. People of good taste, but lesser means, might choose walnut for the furniture for those rooms instead of mahogany. Satinwood was no longer considered quite as fashionable, but rosewood, zebra wood and kingwood had all become even more fashionable by the Regency. Wood carving was expensive and went out of fashion during the period of the Napoleonic Wars. Instead, most furniture was designed on plain and simple lines, with unbroken surfaces which could be easily veneered. Most of the veneers were made of various fine woods with elaborately figured grains which added most of the visual interest to the finished piece. Some of the more elegant and high-fashion pieces had inlays of fine woods, such as amboyna, tulipwood and coromandel. These woods were so costly that they were seldom used for anything but small inlays. Zebrawood supplies began to fail about 1815, so zebrawood was seldom seen on furniture made after the middle of the Regency.

In addition to fine woods, tortoiseshell or brass were sometimes set into the largest visible surfaces of the most expensive furniture. Known as Boulle, or Buhl work, this kind of decoration had originated in France and was most often executed by French émigré craftsmen who had settled in London. By the Regency, furniture for drawing rooms, ladies’ bedchambers and sitting-rooms was most often made with the finest woods, such as rosewood, coromandel, kingwood, amboyna, tulipwood, and zebrawood. Some of the most sophisticated of those pieces also had inlays of brass or tortoiseshell, in addition to fine woods. Furniture for a gentleman’s bedchamber or study might be made of rosewood, with minimal inlay, since most furniture intended for masculine use typically had less elaborate inlay patterns. With the exception of the Prince Regent, who commissioned some of the most elaborate and richly decorated furniture in Britain, for both Carlton House and the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. For example, though coromandel wood was generally used as a veneer, in small sections, due to its great expense, the Regent ordered an entire desk made of coromandel.

The end of the Napoleonic Wars brought an important benefit to British furniture makers. The recipe for French polish finally crossed the Channel and soon became the most popular finish for fine furniture. French polish was made of shellac dissolved in spirit. Due to the labor-intensive methods required to produce shellac, French polish was very expensive. However, it was said to have been the best polish available to bring out the true beauty of the color and grain of fine wood. In addition, it could be buffed to a high glossy finish. Mahogany, walnut, rosewood, satinwood, and all of the other fine furniture woods, looked their best under a properly applied French polish.

It is important to understand that until the second half of the nineteenth century, furniture was commissioned from a cabinet-maker, by the piece or suite, when it was wanted. Furniture was made and finished by hand, so it was not available ready-made. Several larger cabinet-making shops did make up parts for some common pieces in advance, such as chair backs and legs, when work was slow. They could then finish them when they got a commission. A few of the larger cabinet-makers, who had showrooms in London and some of the larger cities, did make up a few of their most popular pieces to show potential customers, but, in general, most people would never consider buying a piece which had already been made. Those who wanted new furniture commissioned it from a cabinet-maker who worked in a style they liked. Many of those cabinet-makers published books of their furniture designs in order to attract customers. It must be noted that some of the larger London cabinet-makers did have large stocks of chairs, tables and other furniture which might be required for a special social event, which they rented out to some of their better customers. A few also had some fine furniture which could be rented to furnish a town house or lodging rooms for a few months or a season.

During the Regency, many very old homes may still have had some old furniture made of oak. But such pieces would not usually be placed in the best rooms of the house. There were cases when a very old part of the house, such as a baronial hall, might be left furnished with the original oak furniture. Houses built and furnished in the late seventeenth century to the middle of the eighteenth century might have furniture made of walnut, while houses built and/or furnished after the middle of the eighteenth century would most likely have furniture made of mahogany. In older homes, older furniture of walnut or mahogany might still be used to furnish the better rooms. They might have been thought rather old-fashioned, but tradition was highly respected in Britain for centuries, including during the Regency. Furniture which was made new during the Regency, if it was commissioned from a fashionable cabinet-maker, was typically made of mahogany if it was for a dining room or library, while furniture intended for drawing rooms or bedchambers would be made of rosewood or satinwood, with fine wood, brass or tortoiseshell inlays. However, furniture made by a country cabinet-maker was more likely to be made of native British woods, such as chestnut, oak, sycamore, beech, or yew, among others. These country pieces would be of a plainer design, with little, if any, inlay or other surface decoration and would typically be found in the homes of those of the less affluent middle classes.

Dear Regency Authors, now that you know a little about the furniture woods which were in use during our favorite period, as well as those used most often in the centuries before, it should be easier to create fictional furniture in your stories which is most appropriate to the setting. A fashionable new London townhouse is more likely to be furnished with furniture made of mahogany or rosewood than oak. On the other hand, a modest country cottage would be furnished with plainer furniture, made of local woods, such as chestnut, sycamore, elm, yew or birch. Such a cottage is not likely to be furnished with mahogany or rosewood furniture and it is certainly not going to have any inlaid furniture, unless, perhaps, one of the residents has a very special small box or chest which was given to them by someone who could afford fine work. It would be just as unexpected to find a plain Windsor chair in a fashionable London townhouse, except perhaps in the servant’s quarters. Now that you have a basic primer on furniture woods used in Britain through the Regency, will it help you to better furnish your fictional rooms in your future romances?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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3 Responses to A Regency Furniture Wood Primer

  1. Heh, I was just thinking ‘but a lot of vernacular furniture was made of Sycamore’ when I came upon the reference. I am glad you put the link as I understand that to many Americans, sycamore means the London Plane, not Acer pseudoplatanus. Another wood used in vernacular furniture which you may not know is another native maple, Acer campestre, the field maple, which like the sycamore has a fine straight grain. The trees are smaller, with smaller leaves, but the wood when isolate is very difficult to distinguish from sycamore. Sycamore takes a stain readily and I’ve seen it used as mock mahogany. You need to be careful with willow, as it readily shrinks and cracks. Turners working with mahogany probably did not live to ripe old age; the dust is seriously carcinogenic. I always wear a mask when working with it. Note that if you come across any yew wood which is turned, the inner dark wood is distinctly different to the outer white wood. A very attractive wood. Sycamore, well, any maple, is the best wood for wooden spoons, as the grain resists any germs being added, having no flavour and resisting splintering when wet.

    I have had a room in which Louis Quatorze chairs of great discomfort featured in order to dissuade anyone from wanting to stay long.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      My understanding was that maple was used for vernacular furniture in only a few regions in Britain, but I could not find enough detail to determine which regions. Maple was widely used for such furniture in North American, from at least the seventeenth century. It is a wonderful wood, strong, with a fine grain. I also like its lighter color. It is popular here for cutting boards and kitchen island tops, for the very qualities you noted.

      From my research, I learned that sycamore was sometimes known as harewood in certain regions, but again, I could not find enough detail to identify them. But, yes, I understand it takes stain very well and is a fairly strong wood, so it would make a a very good substitute for mahogany.

      The secret to preventing shrinkage and cracking is to properly dry any wood intended for furniture-making all the way through before working it. But not all craftsmen took the time to do that, or knew that they should.

      I suspect that very few turners lived to a ripe old age, since, as you say, they did not protect themselves from the sawdust that was thrown up by the lathe. Carvers probably had it better, since they were removing wood in larger pieces which could not get into their lungs. But should a carver and a turner share the same workshop, they may have both suffered the same eventual fate. Then again, until the end of the last century, very few workers had much in the way of safety protection.

      Have you ever come across a gentlemen’s lathe? Apparently, during the Victorian period, there were some gentlemen who enjoyed turning as a hobby. Many of them had lathes set into cabinets which looked like fine furniture so they could keep them in their study or similar room. A friend in Ireland had one that dated about 1860, which was quite lovely, and concealed a very superior lathe. It was powered by a foot treadle, much like an early sewing machine. My friend let me use it and it was great fun.

      The idea of very uncomfortable chairs to encourage visitors to leave in short order is excellent. 😉 What a wonderful way to deter, or significantly shorten, the visits of unpleasant people. I can imagine a household which might have two drawing rooms. One with comfortable chairs, for visitors they liked, and one with uncomfortable chairs, for those whom they did not.

      Though it would not have been understood in the Regency, color is used in a similar way today. Most fast-food or high-volume family restaurants who offer seating tend to use color combinations which include shades of red, orange or yellow. Such warm colors, used in the right combinations, make people slightly uncomfortable, so they will finish their meal quickly and get out, making space for the next customer.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • I suspect my end of the country, East Anglia, would be one where sycamore was extensively used as they are very common here. Moreso now since there are no elms, alas, which used to be very much an East Anglian tree and so common in Constable’s paintings. We had an old sycamore spindleback which came from my great great great grandfather’s pub [it was a low dive] which unfortunately succumbed to woodworm. I have seen, but not had the opportunity to use, a gentleman’s lathe. I would love to try as I do not have any problem with getting a regular rhythm going on a treadle sewing machine.

        As you surmise there was the ‘family’ salon for people who were welcome!

        I did not know the colour theory but it makes sense; based on my own feelings I have written before of being in rooms beset with crimson velvet curtains, gold details and red and gold flock wallpaper as being uncomfortable and intimidating, and the soothing feelings my Bow Street Runner character had in his future heroine’s drawing room of deep blue accents, palest yellow and silver grey. I’d better go find a book on colour theory …

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