By Fred Taylor
Looking at different types of woods used as veneers in furniture made in the first half of the 20th century can be a confusing process. After the basic four or five like oak, cherry, maple, walnut, and mahogany, how many others can you identify? When confronted with the list of possible woods, the task can be absolutely daunting. In the 1920s, it wasn’t so confusing. Widely used veneers were limited to things like gum, mahogany, maple, rosewood, tulip wood, and walnut.
But things got more complicated after the Depression began. In the model year 1929, new entries included avodire, Macassar ebony, Carpathian elm, satinwood, and zebrawood. During the 1930s, it got worse. In those lean years, along came acacia, amboyna, bubinga, claro, kelobra, koa, oriental wood, padauk, primavera, and paldao among others. Can you positively identify any of those? Me neither, with one or two exceptions.
But then, the exact identity of a piece of exotic veneer doesn’t really seem all that important if you know the basics about a piece of furniture such as the derivative style, the base wood, and the time period when it was made, and if you can do a good survey of the condition.
And the exact identity of a piece of veneer can be complicated, not only by the exotic nature of the wood itself,, but by clever ways of cutting the wood to produce a specific pattern in the veneer. The most obvious example of this is the quarter sawing of oak to produce tiger eye veneer or solid lumber. Any wood can be quarter sawn, but the effect is most dramatic in oak. But some examples of creative cutting are too unstable to produce solid lumber and exist only as thin sheets of veneer. A prime example of this is crotch cut veneer, most often seen in mahogany but also sometimes seen in walnut and birch on occasion. Crotch cutting makes slices of veneer taken from the wood at the intersection of two major branches of the tree, showing the divergence of grain patterns in different directions. This confusing array of grain patterns in multiple directions produces the “flames” or “feathers” seen in veneers cut in this manner.
Another example of creative cutting was one of the favorites of Depression era manufacturers. That was the process of “stump cutting” or “butt cutting” walnut trees. After the timber was harvested, the remaining stump was recovered and veneer was cut from that portion of the stump where the roots begin to diverge from the main stump. This process resulted in the eye-catching, seemingly three-dimensional grain pattern found in some many Depression era headboards, foot boards and drawer fronts.
One more exotic veneer could still be recovered from some walnut stumps. Some stumps were diseased or distressed, producing a series of bumps in the wood. This portion of the stump was carefully sliced to produce walnut burl veneer, one of the rarer forms of American veneer. The pattern was created by the distress of the tree caused by natural forces but there was also another pattern of distress not caused by nature. A wood that is very similar in appearance walnut burl is Carpathian elm burl and it is often used as a less expensive substitute (in automobile dashboards, for example). It comes from the Carpathian mountains of France; it is thought that in some cases Dutch elm disease causes the pattern to develop.
In Europe, some timber merchants employed a technique called “pollarding” to produce a burl looking veneer. Younger trees were trimmed of upper branches continually forcing the tree to produce new branches lower on the trunk. After years of this technique the trunk was literally covered in new branches of all ages. Then the tree was harvested and the wood cut into veneer that reflected the many new branches just starting to grow, reproducing the effect of a burl cut.
One of the most exotic cuts of veneer does not rely on a cutting technique but a method of actually finding it. That veneer is bird’s eye maple. The wood is dotted with small circles that resemble eyes and the veneer has a shimmering quality. There is no known cause for the effect and it cannot be detected from the exterior of the tree. In fact, it is not even limited to maple. It has been found in walnut, mahogany, beech, birch, and ash trees but is most commonly found in sugar maple (Acer saccharum) trees around the Great Lakes.
However, it doesn’t take exotic woods in most cases to produce startling effects in wood furniture. Since veneer is usually cut in successive layers of very thin wood called “flitches,” it is relatively easy to make designs on furniture surfaces using a technique called “bookmatching.” This process places two consecutive flitches side by side with one reversed so that they are a mirror image of each other, showing exactly the same grain pattern. An extension of bookmatching is “diamond matching’ using four flitches in a mirror image arrangement. Good use of common veneers has often produced uncommon furniture.
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