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Woods And Other Materials

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

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

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

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


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