American Woods for Fine Furniture

North America is a major source for imported timber

India is one of the largest importers of wood in the world which is not very surprising given that our forests are badly depleted and good timber is scarce.

A lot of the wood we use today comes from North America. Most of it is relatively cheap and plentiful. My question though is: Are all these imported woods suitable for making fine furniture?

I decided to find out which wood species were traditionally used to make fine furniture during one of my visits to the United States. Here I tried to find out which were the woods most coveted by American cabinet makers of the past. My questions were addressed by conservationists and curators at the world-famous Winterthur Museum in Delaware, United States.

The Museum is the legacy of the late billionaire Henry Francis du Pont. The sprawling 3,000-acre estate on which it is situated and the magnificent chateau which houses the collections was once home to the du Ponts.  Henry Francis du Pont began converting it into a museum during his lifetime. He lovingly purchased some of the finest examples of American decorative arts objects from all across the country.

Today, the Museum holds the world's largest collection of American decorative art objects, including furniture. There could not be a better place to learn about traditional American furniture than this museum.

I was also fortunate to meet one of the museum's curators, Professor Gregory Landrey, who has had years of experience in studying, restoring and researching period American furniture. He explained to me the types of wood used in fine American furniture in the past.

By far the most coveted wood in the past was Mahogany - particularly the variety from Honduras. Today, Mahogany is very scarce and some of the best varieties extinct. In the past though, a lot of the very best furniture, like the many pieces in the Museum, were typically made of Mahogany.

Mahogany is a tropical wood and, as Prof Landrey explains, a diffuse porous wood, meaning that the pores or vessels in the wood are uniformly distributed throughout the wood. Many temperate woods, on the other hand, are "ring porous wood" where the vessels are of different diameter and the growth rings pronounced.
Photo: This magnificent Mahogany high chest or "chest on chest" at the Winterthur Museum is an example of the very best furniture made from the coveted wood (1760-80). . Winterthur

The original Mahogany sources in central America has long dried up. Today, we can only get Mahogany from some other parts of the world and Mahogany substitutes like Sapele.

Photo: Mahogany drop leaf "breakfast" table. These tables became popular in the US during the 1770s. Winterthur

Cherry is one of the woods favoured by American craftsmen. The professor explained that Cherry is a diffuse porous wood and comes from the same tree that produces the cherry fruit. There is an evenness to the wood and in the past very wide panels were available. Cherry also carves to a very fine detail and over time the wood darkens and begins to resemble Mahogany.

Dark Walnut was another native American wood that was highly prized for its strength and character. Professor Landry explains its properties through the example of ta drawer and a pie crust table. Walnut is a strong and very distinctive wood - one that is in between diffuse porous and ring porous - called Semi-ring Porous or Semi-diffuse Porous. There is a richness in the colour and character that has made it such a popular wood for use in fine furniture making.

Photo: Walnut High Chest from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1760-75. The intricate rococo carvings were typical of that period. Winterthur

Photo: Details of the top of the walnut chest with its elaborate moulded and carved pediment. Winterthur

 Curly maple with its distinctive stripes was and remains another American favourite. Unlike the other woods, Maple is light in colour but ages to a wonderful golden honey colour over the years. This is also a diffuse porous wood.

Photo: Chest of drawer made of curly maple (1790-1810). Winterthur

While these four woods were the top choice of American cabinetmakers of the past, they are not the only great woods suitable for making fine furniture.

There are other excellent woods we can use in fine furniture making, such as White Oak, a lot of which we import, Yellow Cedar from Canada, and so on.

But the bulk of timber that comes from north America is construction grade lumber, not really meant for furniture at all. Therefore, it is best to be discerning when buying wood for making objects that are intended to last a lifetime and beyond.

History is a great teacher. In the case of wood too, we can minimise our mistakes if we let the past guide us. There is a wealth of knowledge lurking in the works of long-gone craftsmen - we only need to seek. The answers will tumble out!

Indranil Banerjie
June 2020

Have a look at the video on the same subject:


  1. Anonymous06 July, 2020

    Sir, the mail link in your right sidebar doesn't work.

    1. Thanks for bringing this to my notice. I tried to fix the problem but could not. This could be a problem with Blogger. I have instead provided an email address where readers could contact me. Thanks again.

  2. Lovely bit of information on the North American timber. Beautiful period furniture pictures.


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