American Native Woods

American Native Woods

Here is discussed the best choice of woods for the making of Craftsman furniture.

Choice of Woods

¶ Among the cabinet woods native to this country and easily obtained are white oak, brown ash, rock elm, birch, beech and maple. Chestnut, cypress, pine, redwood and gumwood, while all excellent for interior trim, are not hard enough to give satisfactory results when used for the making of furniture. Of first mentioned, white oak is unquestionably the best for cabinetmaking and, indeed, it is a wood as well suited to the Craftsman style of furniture as the Spanish mahogany was to the French, English and Colonial furniture of the eighteenth century.


¶ Spanish mahogany is very rare now and the modern mahogany, or baywood, is very little harder than whitewood and so cannot be considered particularly desirable as a cabinet wood. The old mahogany was a hard, close grained, fine-textured wood that lent itself naturally to the slender lines, graceful curves and delicate modeling of the eighteenth century styles. In addition to this the wood itself was so treated as to ripen to the utmost the quality of rich and mellow coloring, which was one of its distinctive characteristics. The boards were kept for months, and some of them for years, in the courtyards of the cabinet shops, where sun and rain could give them the mellowness of age. Then the finished pieces were treated with linseed oil and again put out into the sunshine to oxidize, this process being repeated until the wood gained just the required depth of color and perfection of finish. The slowness of this process and the care and skill required to produce the results that were aimed at makes fine mahogany furniture almost an impossibility today, except to the craftsman who may be able to afford selected pieces of this rare and almost extinct wood, and who has sufficient leisure and love of the work to treat it according to the methods of the old cabinetmakers. Even then it is not suitable for the plain massive furniture that we show here as models for home workers.

¶ The severely plain structural forms that we are considering now demand a wood of strong fiber and markings, rich in color, and possessing a sturdy friendly quality that seems to invite use and wear. The strong straight lines and plain surfaces of the furniture follow and emphasize the grain and growth of the wood, drawing attention to instead of destroying the natural character that belonged to the growing tree. As the use of oak would naturally demand a form that is strong and primitive, the harmony that exists between the form and construction of the furniture and the wood of which it is made is complete and satisfying.


¶ We will then assume that oak is the wood that would naturally be selected by the home cabinetmaker and for large surfaces such as table tops and large panels, quarter sawn oak is deemed preferable to plain sawn, as the first method, which makes the cut parallel with the medullary rays that form the peculiar wavy lines seen in quarter-sawn oak, not only brings out all the natural beauty of the markings, but makes the wood structurally stronger, finer in grain and less liable to check and warp than when it is straight sawn. Care should then be taken to see that the wood is thoroughly dried, otherwise the best work might easily be ruined by the checking, warping, or splitting of the lumber. Quarter sawn oak is the hardest of all woods to dry and requires the longest time, so that it would hardly be advisable for the amateur cabinetmaker to attempt to use other than selected kiln dried wood that is ready for the saw and plane.

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