Definitive Guide to Woods in Antique Furniture

Throughout history, many different types of wood have been used in British antique furniture, 
some native to England and some with exotic provenance. We will cover eight identified 
kinds of woods used in British antique furniture: oak, walnut, mahogany, satinwood, 
rosewood, calamander, yew, and elm. 

White Oak ~ Quercus alba

White Oak is a slow-growing wood that takes between 150 – 200 years to reach maturity. There are over 500 species of oaks in the genus Quercus, with both species indigenous to Britain as well as species that are imported. Oak is a strong durable wood and can resist woodworm better than elm. Pale in colour, with distinctive medullary rays, Oak tends to darken with age and polish into a deep rich brown. Until the late 17th century, oak was the main timber of English furniture, used extensively used in the solid, for the carcass and drawer linings of cabinet furniture. Oak was popular to use in the Georgian era and made a revival in the late Victorian era and during the Arts and Crafts movement.

English Walnut ~ Juglans regia

Walnut is a close-grained hardwood that is native to south-eastern Europe, Central Asia, and western China. English walnut is also known as Circassian Walnut, European Walnut, French Walnut, or Common Walnut. The colour varies between golden brown and light grey-brown with dark figuring. Black walnut, native to North America, was grown in England from the late 17th century and has a rich dark brown heartwood. Burr and Oyster Walnut refer to the different cut forms of wood. Burr walnut reveals knotty whorls from where the grain has grown in a deformed manner and was first used in the 17th century for decorative veneering on oak. Oyster veneer is another decorative form using thin cut slices of wood branches or roots in cross- section. The properties of walnut allow for excellent carving in both solid and veneer forms, yet by the mid-18th century, it was supplanted by mahogany until it found popularity again in the mid-Victorian Era.

Mahogany ~ Swietenia macrophylla

Mahogany has a ubiquitous influence on antique British furniture, and in many ways has become synonymous with British interior design. However, Mahogany is not British at all. Earliest records reveal its use from 1720 in English furniture, known then as Cuban or Spanish mahogany. Native to South America and the West Indies, the wood is very dark and rich with heavy figuring. The broad girth of the tree allowed furniture makers to use a single cut for table tops and therefore was used in the solid as well as veneer. Unfortunately, it was all but wiped out by the mid-18th century due to its slow growth. As mahogany had become commercially unviable, Honduran mahogany took its place to become one of the most popular woods in the second half of the 18th century and beyond. It is also known as Honduran mahogany, genuine mahogany, big-leaf mahogany, Brazilian mahogany, American mahogany

West Indian Satinwood ~ Zanthoxylum flavum

Satinwood is a hardwood native to West India and Sri Lanka East Indian Satinwood ~ Chloroxylon swietenia. With a yellowish-gold close grain, satinwood can transform to a rich buttery satin-like finish when polished. It is exceptionally hard and has a natural luster to the surface. With the revival of marquetry work in furniture, lighter wood with exotic varieties was favoured, such as Satinwood. Popular from the late 18th century during the Sheraton period, as well as in the Edwardian era, Satinwood can often be found in veneer form, often with marquetry foliage and japanned embellishments.

Rosewood ~ Dalbergia latifolia and Dalbergia stevensonii 

Rosewood is a richly coloured reddish-brown hardwood, with distinctive black streaks. The wood is commonly found in the early to mid 19th century Regency and William IV periods in both solid and veneer forms. The name derives from the scent it releases when freshly cut and comes in two forms: Indian and Brazilian rosewood. The former was more commonly used in solid pieces of furniture and the latter as a veneer form during the 19th century. After 300 years of consumptive logging, the Brazilian rosewood is now protected under CITES and its new trade is restricted.

Calamander ~ Diospyros melanoxylon

Calamander or coromandel is a dense slow growing hard wood, rich hazel brown and yellow in colour with black stripes. It has often been likened to zebra wood. An exotic wood, Calamander is native to India and Sri Lanka and closely related to ebony. Even in its heyday, Calamander was rarely used to construct an entire piece of furniture due to its high expense. Rather it was more used for crossbanding or smaller pieces in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Calamander wood is now protected and restricted to new work in small quantities.

English Yew ~ Taxus baccata

The Yew tree is native to Europe and has been used for centuries in England. Traditionally used to make the longbow in the Middle Ages, it is characteristically planted in churchyards and was regarded as sacred by Druids. The Yew is a slow-growing tree and one of the hardest and most durable softwoods, prized for its golden orange heartwood colouring that matures into a yellow-brown streaked with purple, vein clusters, and knots of ingrown bark. The earliest antique Windsor chair backs and table tops were made with yew due to its ideal properties for turning and carving.

English Elm ~ Ulmus procera

Elm is a hard and durable wood, abundant in England until the Dutch elm disease of the early 20th century. Similar in appearance to oak, though significantly more figured. Elmwood has a particularly attractive grain of pale brown with a reddish tint and distinctive black figuring when patinated. Chair seats and cabinet furniture were often made from elm during the Georgian period for country furniture.