Artisans, cabinet and furniture-makers choose different types of woods to be used in furniture for their various qualities. With a myriad of ways to cut and stain wood, it can be difficult to determine the type of wood used in antique furniture and trace it to a specific period. There are additional variations within each wood type, such as “knotty pine” or “bird’s-eye maple,” that can complicate the identification process.
This guide will give you some guidelines on how to identify types of wood furniture and how to recognize common themes in furniture throughout the last 400 years, divided into soft and hardwood. Softwoods are not necessarily any less durable than hard, but they are supple and softer to work with. Softwood trees usually are cone-bearing with needles, while hardwoods have leaves.
These are some of the most common types of antique woods used in the past few centuries.
Pine — A less valuable wood, pine is lightweight and resists shrinking or swelling. It usually has a straight grain and is white or pale yellow, darkening over time. This type of wood was often used in antique furniture that has been painted or veneered, due to the affordable price.
Cedar — Another softwood with a more distinctive grain, cedar can be anywhere from pale yellow to red-brown. Cedar species vary: Eastern red cedar is more fragrant than most, while Western Red is normally used for outdoor construction.
Mahogany — Native to Central, South America and the West Indies, mahogany was a popular type of wood used in furniture in England starting in the mid-18th It has a distinctive grain pattern and ranges from light brown to red, sometimes with a ribbon effect. You will often see it used in tables, as it can be wide enough for a single board to be milled as a tabletop.
Oak — Though it starts off pale, oak gets richer and darker with age. Oak furniture is usually solid and simple in design. It was popular in the Georgian and Victorian furniture styles.
Walnut — A close-grained hardwood, walnut colors vary between light golden brown and grey/dark brown. It features a rich figured grain with various forms. Black walnut tends to be favored in contemporary construction, while there is Claro and English walnut as well. Walnut veneer is more common in antiques than solid walnut pieces. Walnut burl veneers are also common on edges and trim in larger pieces.
Rosewood — This wood gets its name from the scent it gives off when you cut it, much like the flower. It can look similar to mahogany, but has fine black or white rings and is heavier than the former.
Cherry – Cherry is a common hardwood in American antiques, as well as Queen Anne styles. It is strong and durable. The wood is almost pink when first cut, but darkens with age. The finish used changes how the cherry ages.
Elm — This type of antique furniture-friendly wood is similar to pine, elm was frequently covered in veneer with a more valuable, more figured wood. Although it is durable and quite attractive on its own, many artisans used it as the base construction.
If you are unsure about a piece of antique furniture or the type of wood it is made from, bring it in to us! We can help you restore or refinish your antique furniture with the right kind of care specific to that wood and piece.