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Antiques & Collecting: English Furniture Woods

PUBLISHED: 16:08 06 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:20 20 February 2013

A Minton earthenware stickstand in the Art Nouveau style. Value £1,700-£2,000

A Minton earthenware stickstand in the Art Nouveau style. Value £1,700-£2,000

My favourite pieces of antique furniture are those which rely solely on the beauty of the wood for their attractive appearance. I enjoy looking at 'burrs' and 'oysters', 'bird's eyes' and 'feathers'.

One becomes aware of the wood's great natural beauty and that man's contribution has been to cut down the tree, saw it up and put it together! The cabinet makers of the 18th and early 19th centuries realised the potential of these woods and designed simple uncluttered pieces which relied solely on the beauty of the wood for decoration.

The earliest wood to be used in English furniture was oak (early Tudor to c.1660). Because of its strength it lacked figure, its grain was plain and straight so pieces were often carved or inlaid to give them more interest. If a large tree was felled for an important piece, it would have been pollarded at some time in its life, which resulted in a much finer grain.

Of the six principal woods used through the ages, walnut (1600-1730) produced the finest figure. A difficult wood to work with and not in plentiful supply, so veneering was found to be the only practical way to use its highly prized and rare figures. The chief patterns were the 'curl', a plume effect taken from a junction of a side branch, the 'oyster', cut from branches to show the rings and the 'burr', an intricate figure from abnormal growths at the base of the trunk. Successive veneers from the same piece of wood showed duplicate patterns which were often glued in sections of two or four, giving a very attractive appearance.

The oyster was used to great effect in marquetry designs. Other woods, such as yew, elm and laburnam also produced attractive patterns and were used by provincial craftsman in imitation of their city colleagues. Nowadays furniture made of these substitute woods often realises higher prices than the items they set out to imitate.

Mahogany (1730 onwards), although not as interesting as walnut, had a finer figure than oak. Patterns included 'fiddleback', from the outer edge of the trunk, or 'plum' which had dark oval spots in the wood. These were used effectively as veneering, but as the figures were large, they could only be seen to best advantage on bigger pieces of furniture.

During the later part of the 18th century, colourful, rare and exotic woods with beautiful figuring, such as rosewood, were imported by the London cabinet makers and became very popular;

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