Which wood works best?
If you’re commissioning a piece of furniture, specifying is certainly an exciting process and gives the client the chance to push the boundaries of the norm and work with the designer to create something truly unique. It is therefore vital to ensure that the journey is well planned with clear directions.
For this reason, it is important to ensure that before starting out; you have a clear brief so the choice of wood is appropriate to your client as well as their project. A designer that does not question the specification and assumptions is doing their client a disservice. You should make sure that you ask your client about the function, size and position in the room as well as trying to gain insights into the style and subconscious aspirations and intentions; all of this will help you guide the client to a suitable design and an appropriate timber. It is the designer’s job to extract as much information as possible from the client to inform the design process.
Identifying your materials: how to specify which woods and why
It’s true to say that almost any type of wood can be used for furniture, but it’s important to choose carefully. Timber is predominantly selected by interior designers and private clients on the basis of colour and pattern before they consider its physical characteristics, which can cause problems.
Oak for example goes black when combined with steel fittings and water; and Poplar turns to mush if allowed to remain wet. There is a good reason why Oak, Walnut and Mahogany are the default timbers for furniture production and that is because they are easily available in a wide range of sizes, are easy to work and provide a good finish; if you are looking for a classic piece then you probably don’t need to look much further.
However, if you want something a bit different there is an amazing range of lesser known timbers that will offer your client a different perspective. English Cherry is a beautiful wood with subtle colouring and being a fruitwood is tight grained giving a beautiful finish you could also consider Sycamore, Chestnut and Swiss pear. Exotic woods such as Satinwood are beautiful and striking (and expensive) but you must consider whether you want to develop a unique “discussion piece” or a piece that fits with the general décor of the room.
Dispelling the myths
There is still a perception that solid timber is better than sheet material. This is untrue as certain designs and environments favour one over the other. Contemporary designs that require flat surfaces and doors are not suitable to be made from solid timber due to shrinkage issues. Therefore, a veneered board with solid lippings is a far better option. Similarly, if a client requires a room with matching panelling, veneer is again the best way to achieve this but combined with solid timber framework. Where patterns or consistency are required veneer is really the only option.
Types of cut
Choosing the species is only the start of your selection process because how the tree is converted into planks will also have a dramatic effect on how your piece looks. The three main forms of conversion are detailed below and will give you widely different grain patterns.
- Flat Sawn is the most common cut. It is often used for panels and table tops. Although it is most likely to warp and cup, it is generally considered the most visually striking.
- Rift Sawn is usually used for legs in furniture as conveniently, all four faces show identical grain structure. Also used for stiles and rails of doors. A board is classified as rift sawn when the annual rings are around 45 degrees to the face of the board.
- Quarter Sawn is the most dimensionally stable cut and is often used in panel doors and case sides.
NEJ Stevenson’s Top Tips for selecting timbers
- DO use elm for traditional solid seats
- DO use lime for intricate carving
- DO use oak for exterior building structures and joinery
- DO use teak and iroko for exterior furniture and wet areas
- DO use sapele for painted windows and doors
- DO avoid using oak and poplar in wet areas. Oak reacts badly with iron in damp environments and poplar will turn to pulp
- DO consider dimensions as not all trees are the same size or grow straight and clean