Arts and Crafts Essays/Woods and other Materials

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THE woods in ordinary use by cabinetmakers may be divided broadly into two classes, viz. those which by their strength, toughness, and other qualities are suitable for construction, and those which by reason of the beauty of their texture or grain, their rarity, or their costliness, have come to be used chiefly for decorative purposes—veneering or inlaying. There are certainly several woods which combine the qualities necessary for either purpose, as will be noticed later on. At present the above classification is sufficiently accurate for the purposes of this paper. The woods chiefly used in the construction of cabinet work and furniture are oak, walnut, mahogany, rosewood, satin-wood, cedar, plane, sycamore.

The oak has been made the standard by which to measure all other woods for the qualities of strength, toughness, and durability. There are said to be nearly fifty species of oak known, but the common English oak possesses these qualities in a far greater degree than any other wood. It is, however, very cross-grained and difficult to manage where delicate details are required, and its qualities recommend it to the carpenter rather than to the furniture-maker, who prefers the softer and straight-grained oak from Turkey or wainscot from Holland, which, in addition to being more easily worked and taking a higher finish, is not so liable to warp or split.

There is also a species called white oak, which is imported into this country from America, and is largely used for interior fittings and cabinet-making. It is not equal to the British oak in strength or durability, and it is inferior to the wainscot in the beauty of its markings. The better the quality of this oak, the more it shrinks in drying.

Walnut is a favourite wood with the furniture-maker, as well as the carver, on account of its even texture and straight grain. The English variety is of a light grayish-brown colour, which colour improves much by age under polish. That from Italy has more gray in it, and though it looks extremely well when carved is less liked by carvers on account of its brittleness. It is but little liable to the attacks of worms. In the English kind, the older (and therefore, generally speaking, the better) wood may be recognised by its darker colour.

Of mahogany there are two kinds, viz. those which are grown in the islands of Cuba and Jamaica, and in Honduras. The Cuba or Spanish mahogany is much the harder and more durable, and is, in the opinion of the writer, the very best wood for all the purposes of the cabinet or furniture maker known to us. It is beautifully figured, takes a fine polish, is not difficult to work, when its extreme hardness is taken into account, and is less subject to twisting and warping than any other kind of wood. It has become so costly of late years, however, that it is mostly cut into veneers, and used for the decoration of furniture surfaces.

Honduras mahogany, or, as cabinetmakers call it, "Bay Wood," is that which is now in most frequent demand for the construction of the best kinds of furniture and cabinet work. It is fairly strong (though it cannot compare in that respect with Cuba or rosewood), works easily, does not shrink, resists changes of temperature without alteration, and holds glue well, all of which qualities specially recommend it for the purposes of construction where veneers are to be used. Many cabinetmakers prefer to use this wood for drawers, even in an oak job.

Rosewood is one of those woods used indifferently for construction or for the decoration of other woods. Though beautiful specimens of grain and figure are often seen, its colour does not compare with good specimens of Cuba veneer. Its purple tone (whatever stains are used) is not so agreeable as the rich, deep, mellow browns of the mahogany; nor does it harmonise so readily with its surroundings in an ordinary room. It has great strength and durability, and is not difficult to work. Probably the best way to use it constructively is in the making of small cabinets, chairs, etc.—that is, if one wishes for an appearance of lightness with real strength. The writer does not here offer any opinion as to whether a piece of furniture, or indeed anything else, should or should not look strong when it really is so.

Satin-wood, most of which comes from the West India islands, is well known for its fine lustre and grain, as also for its warm colour, which is usually deepened by yellow stain. It is much used for painted furniture, and the plain variety is liked by the carver.

Cedar is too well known to need any description here. It is commonly believed that no worm will touch it, and it is therefore greatly in demand for the interior fitting of cabinets, drawers, etc. It is a straight-grained wood and fairly easy to work, though liable to split. It is impossible in a short paper like the present to do more than glance at a few of the numerous other woods in common use. Ebony has always been greatly liked for small or elaborate caskets or cabinets, its extreme closeness of grain and hardness enabling the carver to bring up the smallest details with all the sharpness of metal work.

Sycamore, beech, and holly are frequently stained to imitate walnut, rosewood, or other materials; of these the first two are used constructively, but the latter, which takes the stain best, is nearly all cut into veneer, and, in addition to its use for covering large surfaces, forms an important element in the modern marquetry decorations.

Bass wood, on account of its softness and the facility with which it can be stained to any requisite shade, is extensively used to imitate other woods in modern furniture of the cheaper sort. It should, however, never be used for furniture at all, as it has (as a cabinetmaker would say) no "nature" in it, and in the result there is no wear in it.

Other woods, coming under the second category, as amboyna, coromandel, snake-wood, orange-wood, thuyer, are all woods of a beautiful figure, which may be varied indefinitely by cutting the veneers at different angles to the grain of the wood, and the tone may also be varied by the introduction of colour into the polish which is used on them. Coromandel wood is one of the most beautiful of these, but it is not so available as it would otherwise be on account of its resistance to glue. Orange-wood, when not stained, is very wasteful in use, as the natural colour is confined to the heart of the tree.

Silver, white metal, brass, etc., are cut into a veneer of tortoise-shell or mother-of-pearl, producing a decorative effect which, in the opinion of the writer, is more accurately described as "gorgeous" than "beautiful."

There are many processes and materials used to alter or modify the colour of woods and to "convert" one wood into another. Oak is made dark by being subjected to the fumes of liquid ammonia, which penetrate it to almost any depth. Ordinary oak is made into brown oak by being treated with a solution of chromate of potash (which is also used to convert various light woods into mahogany, etc.). Pearlash is used for the same purpose, though not commonly. For converting pear-tree, sycamore, etc., into ebony, two or more applications of logwood chips, with an after application of vinegar and steel filings, are used.

A good deal of bedroom and other furniture is enamelled, and here the ground is prepared with size and whiting, and this is worked over with flake white, transparent polish, and bismuth. But by far the most beautiful surface treatment in this kind are the lacquers, composed of spirit and various gums, or of shellac and spirit into which colour is introduced.

Stephen Webb.