Woods in Antique Furniture: A Definitive Guide

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, walnutmahoganysatinwood
rosewood, calamander, yewelm, Beech, Sycamore, Ash, Ebony, Satin Birch, Harewood, Kingwood, Tulipwood and Boxwood

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 Antique Furniture 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.

Ebony ~ Diospyros ebenum

Ebony is arguably the most cherished type of wood. A popular precious tropical wood, prized
for its colour and its density, perfect for the finest carvings. Ebony has a long history of use,
from Ancient Egypt, to India, to Ethiopia, as discussed by Herodotus in which he describes
the Ethiopians abundance of Ebony. There are different occurrences of the wood, such as
Indian Ebony, native to Southern India and Sri Lanka and Gaboon Ebony, native to countries
in West Africa. Furniture and objects made from Ebony were instantly recognisable, in both
the East and West, as items of value. Due to its fine texture, strikingly dark colour, and
density, Ebony was perfect for decorative motifs such as inlaying, stringing, and carving.
Other species of wood such as walnut and oak are often ebonised in order to achieve the look
of Ebony.

Satin Birch

Satin Birch is a fine grained and light coloured hardwood, originating across the Northern
Hemisphere. Satin Birch was often used in Victorian antique furniture, as well as in 20th
century Northern American furniture. Satin Birch got its name due to its attractive satin-like
sheen created from the angle in which cabinet makers used to cut the wood, creating an
unusual grain known as tiger stripes. Satin Birch is not very resistant to weather and is
therefore susceptible to fungi. Nonetheless, its texture and grain make it very suitable for

Harewood | Sycamore ~ Acer pseudoplatanus

Harewood is wood that has been treated to alter its colour. This process involves a chemical change as opposed to superimposing colour. Often the outcome of this process is greyish silver or black colouring. Harewood was first used in the 17th century as sycamore wood treated with ferrous sulphate, as well as into the later 18th century and Regency period as a decorative veneer, marquetry, and parquetry.

Kingwood ~ Dalbergia cearensis

Kingwood is an exotic hardwood originating from Brazil. It’s deep dark purplish colouring with darker brown to black streaks and light sap makes for a beautiful contrast. Not only is it one of the most beautiful Woods in Antique Furniture of the Rosewood species, but it is also amongst the densest and strongest. Despite its density, it can be turned and polished to a high sheen. Kingwood is a versatile timber, yet due to the size of the tree it is commonly used for inlays and veneers on pieces of antique furniture as well as for parquetry decoration, particularly in France and England in the early 18th century.

Tulipwood ~ Liriodendron tulipifera

Tulipwood is a light pinkish and yellow wood with reddish stripes and is one of the most unusual of the Rosewood species. The wood is wielded from the tulip poplar found in North America, however there are other occurrences of Tulipwood found in China, Brazil, and Australia. Tulipwood was used in veneers and crossbanding from the late 18th century and Regency period, and was deemed very fashionable for its unusual colouring and high sheen when polished.

Boxwood ~ Buxus sempervirens

European Boxwood is a light brown to pale yellow hardwood with uniform texture and straight fine grain. As Boxwood has no real figure it is mainly used as inlay and stringing on other wood species. Boxwood tends be suited more for carving and turning than work in flat dimensions.

Decorative techniques such as feather banding, stringing, and sand shading to darken the veneer, works well with Boxwood. Due to its small size and quantity, Boxwood is often expensive and reserved for smaller objects and speciality items.

Ash ~ Fraxinus

Ash is a hardwood that originated in Western Europe and southwestern Asia. A lighter whitish-grey shade, with medium to coarse texture, the grain is almost always straight and
regular. Due to its locality, Ash was a popular Wood in Antique Furniture in the Georgian and Victorian eras and was often used for the seats of windsor chairs, drawer linings or parquet flooring. During the Baroque period, Ash was used for bandelwerk marquetry alongside darker woods for contrast.

Sycamore ~ Acer pseudoplatanus

An example of pictorial marquetry

Sycamore is a European timber species, a hard pale yellow wood with a fine even grain. Known for its longevity and hardiness, it holds biblical significance for symbolising regeneration. Sycamore was popular during the Regency era as veneer and as marquetry
furniture. While Sycamore can be finished well, blotches can occur when staining and so toner may be needed for even colour distribution. Harewood refers to Sycamore wood when
coloured chemically as opposed to superimposed staining.

Beech ~ Fagus

Beech is a very hard and straight-grained hardwood, predominately found in Central and Western Europe It is pale in colour and pinkish brown in its natural state. It can however be
polished to a darkened reddish brown through a steaming process or exposure to sunlight to resemble other types of more expensive woods. It was also painted or finished with water gilding. Despite its hardness, it can be easily worked with and is well-suited to bending into form. It is also well suited to wood stain and paint compared to other hardwood species. Due to its practicality, Beech was a commonly used Wood in Antique Furniture for chairs from the 17th century onwards but also for case furniture and furniture parts such as table legs, drawer bottoms, backs and sides of cabinets.