Wood Types for Different Furniture Styles
When designing furniture, wood species selection is as important to the design as the blueprints. Beginner makers often start their woodworking journeys by imitating the designs of others. While this is a great way to get started in the craft, many people fall into the trap of selecting a wood species that’s different than the wood used in the originals they seek to emulate.
Sometimes, this can work work out favorably. But more often than not, the project ends up as a disaster. Quarter-sawn white oak, for example, with its dominating ray fleck pattern, would be a poor contrast to the crisp, clean lines desired in modern and contemporary furniture that woods like walnut and cherry so easily achieve.
Many of the craftsmen who popularized the styles we discuss below worked with woods that were available to them locally. In those days, large warehouses filled with exotic woods or websites to find boards to perfectly fit a project didn’t exist. Instead, people worked with what they had.
A wide variety of factors influenced the forms and aesthetics associated with each style, but the predominant constraint was usually local availability. Designing a piece of furniture is stressful enough without having to think about wood species or the type of cut, so we’re going to look at some of the most popular furniture styles and discuss the wood species that best fit those designs–and the ones that don’t.
Arts & Crafts
Furniture in the Arts and Crafts movement is commonly associated with white oak — specifically, quartersawn white oak. Quartersawn wood has tight, straight grain that runs vertically along the board’s face. Quartersawn wood is incredibly stable and responds better to changes in humidity than flatsawn wood. From a design perspective, the straight grain of quartersawn wood keeps a piece quiet and doesn’t interfere with a furniture’s natural forms.
Why quarter sawn white oak? Why not quartersawn cherry or walnut?
An Arts and Crafts piece built out of quarter sawn or rift sawn lumber, of a species other than white oak, would be better than anything flat sawn. However, quartersawn white oak has another quality that makes it desirable in Arts and Crafts furniture that many other species lack.
When logs are quartersawn, medullary rays in the wood are exposed. Medullary rays run perpendicular to growth rings and transport sap.
In woodworking, medullary rays are commonly referred to as “ray fleck.” White oak has particularly noticeable ray fleck compared to other wood species. When the ray fleck is exposed in white oak, it creates an effect that resembles tiger stripes. Quartersawn white oak’s tiger striping compliments the calming straight lines created by its grain, and gives Arts and Crafts furniture its character that other woods can’t accomplish as well.
Design wasn’t the first thing on the Shakers’ minds as they built a piece of furniture. Much like all else in their lives, furniture was about practicality and function.The clean and simple lines associated with the Shaker style were a byproduct of this attitude. Shaker communities were concentrated in the Northeast U.S., and though maple is most closely associated with Shaker styles, they routinely used cherry, pine, and other local hardwoods.
For traditional Shaker styles, design form takes priority over wood selection. But to build in the true Shaker fashion, you can’t go wrong by using any of the local woods available to them. Avoid using exot wood species, or mixing woods that would create heavy contrast. The Shakers weren’t afraid to experiment with color — many of their original pieces were painted bright colors using milk paint.
Mid-Century Modern (Danish Modern)
Dark, rich, warm colors are often associated with Mid-Century Modern furniture. Sadly, two of the most common woods used to build traditional Mid-Century Modern pieces are very expensive. The boxy, quadrilinear design of many furniture pieces that fit this style makes veneering teak or rosewood to cabinet-grade plywood a cheaper alternative.
Walnut and oak are both popular choices for Mid-Century Modern furniture. The deep browns of walnut make it particularly sought after. If you want a warmer look but aren’t interested in paying for teak or rosewood, try mahogany. For lighter colors, go for beech or elm. Beech is inexpensive and durable, which makes it a good choice for table legs and chair legs.
Contemporary furniture draws inspiration from the geometric lines, subtle curves, and clean aesthetics of the Shaker and Modern styles. But where the clean and simple designs of Shaker furniture were a byproduct of their ideology, the designs of Contemporary furniture are very intentional. Contemporary furniture often incorporates other media into the design, like metal or glass. Apart from the visual effect achieved by these additions, they also allow the artist to experiment with texture.
Wood species that are used in Contemporary furniture aren’t as rigid as those used in other styles, in part because Contemporary form is still evolving. It’s common to see woods at both ends of the color spectrum used in contemporary pieces, from dark woods like walnut to light woods like ash. Cherry is also very common.
When beginning design in the contemporary style, most domestic America wood species will work (with the exception of oak, perhaps). After you’ve built your first few pieces, you should have an idea of which woods, domestic or exotric, work with the style you desire.
We use the term Rustic for lack of a better word. It could easily fall into a subcategory of Contemporary or Postmodern furniture. Rustic furniture is that in which the wood used is not very processed: it isn’t always milled, dimensioned, or perfectly surfaced. Consider wood slabs, reclaimed wood displaying an aged patina, lumber that has mill marks present.
Furniture built with wood that fits into any of these categories shares a common theme. Each seeks to draw attention to the wood itself, which subverts more traditional furniture styles by showing rawer wood.. This is the only style on this list where the species of wood used isn’t as important as the state of the wood.