The Restoration of a Mulberry Chest of Drawers
A dealer brought in a rare circa 1730 George I cross-banded mulberry chest of drawers, attributed to the celebrated partnership of Coxed and Woster¹. This type of furniture may seem garish by today’s standards, but when it was conceived, it was on a par with the equally showy, but highly fashionable brass and tortoiseshell veneered furniture, produced by French ébéniste, André Charles Boulle (1642-1732).
Trade label from the firm of Coxed and Woster.
The first crucial step in carrying out the restoration on any important piece of furniture is to positively identify the species of timbers employed in its construction. The pine used for the carcase and the walnut used in the mouldings on this chest were straightforward, as was the kingwood used in the banding, but categorizing the primary veneer became somewhat of a naming controversy. I wasn’t happy with the establishment’s classification of mulberry. I have worked extensively with mulberry (having bought an entire stand of very old mulberry trees that were being ripped out of an orchard. Amongst the mulberry logs and buttresses I cut, I witnessed all sorts of grain formations and colouring, but none of them resembled the veneers of this chest of drawers.
Hunter commended the tree:
[…] the incomparable benefit of it, and that for its timber, durablenefs, and use for the joiner and carpenter, and to make hoops, bows, wheels, and even ribs for small vefsels, instead of Oak, &c.²
Hunter did not extol at length, the virtues of Mulberry as a cabinet wood as he tends to do in regard to other suitable timbers, nor did he make any mention of bruscum.
Further, I had re-stocked a local game-shooter’s shotgun using a plank of curly field maple (Acer campestre) and it was virtually identical in appearance to the figuring of the veneer on this chest. ‘Curl’, ‘fiddleback’, ‘ribbon’ and ‘tiger’ maple were also well known to early American settlers and favoured for chests and other case work too, but it was finished plainly, displaying fascinating chatoyance, but not stained in this highly contrasting English style. Historians and antiques dealers therefore may not have made the connection between the two separate treatments of the same species.
I suggested to the owner of the chest that the veneer was most likely field maple (Acer campestre), sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) or possibly even horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) and not mulberry, but my supposition was dismissed on the grounds that mulberry furniture was well documented since the late seventeenth-century.
I needed to settle the debate, as much as anything else, to employ the correct veneer for the restoration. I contacted Jo Darragh at the Conservation Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London who kindly agreed to compare a sample of the veneer with those in the museum’s data base. I received a reply from Jo dated February 4th 1986, with the timber’s true identity – “It is a quite ordinary fiddleback maple, an Acer sp.”
I am the ‘student’ acclaimed in this video as having identified fiddleback maple as the actual species of wood used in mulberry furniture, though Jo, clearly, must take the credit.
I located some curly maple from which to cut the veneers for restoring the chest of drawers. I read somewhere that the mulberry effect was achieved by the application of aqua fortis alone. Aqua fortis and aqua regia were common chemical ‘stains’, but alone, would only tint the wood as any dye would – a pigmented stain is also necessary to create the tortoiseshell effect. As with all contorted timber growth, when cut into boards or veneer, its chatoyancy is the result of light reflecting off the areas where the grain lies roughly parallel with the cut surface, revealing the colour of the wood (or its dye-stained colour) and where the fibres rise tangentially to the cut surface and it absorbs light, thus appearing darker. This effect has traditionally been shown to good effect on the backs of fiddles (hence the name fiddleback) by the application of a plain oil finish which deeply penetrates the wood, enhancing the spectacle.
Arguably a fiddle’s best feature.
A ‘plain’ finished fiddleback mahogany chest of drawers, c.1800.
Rubbing a pigmented stain into the absorbent (tangential) areas of grain transforms the appearance dramatically. The smooth areas of horizontal grain absorb virtually no pigment, but it lodges easily in the rough, open fibres of the upright grain. In practice, a dark pigmented stain is rubbed over the wood’s surface and the surplus wiped off after a few minutes, revealing the stark differences between smooth and rough areas. The wood is then finished as per normal, sealing in the stain.
The chest of drawers was in a fairly sorry state; both top side cross-grain mouldings had come adrift, several bits of walnut D-moulding were missing, the feet were damaged, numerous little pieces of veneer were lifting or missing and some Victorian fashionista, in their wisdom, bored holes in the drawer fronts and stuck ugly great wooden knobs in them.
Nothing that a good polish won’t sort out.
The top side mouldings were discovered in one of the drawers, so the old glue was removed and the mouldings reattached. The top drawer divider had worked loose and eventually punched a hole in the top requiring a patch of oak to be let in.
Bandaids cover the numerous wounds.
New cross-grain Walnut D-moulding blended in.
The feet were rebuilt and new corner blocks added where missing. New veneer was cut and matched to the existing.
New wood on front left foot.
The drawers were re-glued and received new runners as required. The knob holes were filled and veneer patches applied where necessary. I mixed up a pigmented stain to best match the colour of the dark areas in the original veneers. The dye-stain was brushed over the raw veneer, sealed, then the pigmented stain was applied and finally the new work was polished. Other areas of damage were coloured out including the ring scars left by the wooden knobs.
Old knob scars are unfortunate.
The whole chest was touched-up…
… and polished.
Replacement drop handles of the correct type were sourced and patinated. Holes were drilled in the drawer fronts for the steel wire hairpins and the handles attached.
‘Mulberry’ remains the accepted term by the antiques trade to describe these strikingly veneered pieces of furniture.
1. Coxed, G., and Woster, Thomas, Cabinet-makers, at The White Swan, against the South Gate in S. Paul’s Church Yard. c.1700-1736
During the last few years some very distinctive bureau-bookcases by this firm have appeared in the sale-rooms. They were of an unusual character, being made of mulberry and burr elm inlaid with lines of pewter.
The London Furniture Makers from the Restoration to the Victorian era 1660-1840, by Sir Ambrose Heal, 1988 edition, pp. 40 & 43.
2. Silva: or, A discourse of forest-trees, and the propagation of timber in His Majesty’s dominions, as it was delivered in The Royal society, on the 15th of October 1662, by John Evelyn, third edition, volume 2, York, 1801, p. 44.
By dint of your evidently considerable skill and experience, you seem to have independently stumbled upon a small, evidently lost body of knowledge concerning “mulberry”-veneered furniture that historians of English furniture have only caught up to in recent years (or perhaps, given that your correspondence with the V. & A. goes back to 1986, it was your curiosity that in part prompted the recent research into this subject).
Either way, it is now clearly understood (at least by those who are aware of the recent research) that “mulberry” veneer is in fact created using figured ash, elm, or maple and that the process for giving it its striking appearance is described in John Stalker and George Parker’s seminal A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing published in 1688. This involved first heightening the colour of the veneer with ‘aqua fortis’ (nitric acid), then rubbing ‘lampblack’ (soot) into it, which is caught more in the softer parts of the grain. The contrasting effect is then completed by scraping a fine layer off the top, to enhance the darkened areas.
Those interested to know more might read Adam Bowett, ‘Myths of English Furniture History: Mulberry Wood Furniture by Coxed and Woster’ in Antique Collecting, October 1998, pp. 32-35; and M. Riccardi-Cubitt, ‘Round the Mulberry Bush’ in Antique Collector, March 1996, pp. 80-85).
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Thank you for your additional information. I have several of Adam Bowett’s books, but was unaware of his, and M. Riccardi-Cubitt’s articles in Antique Collecting. I shall make a point of tracking them down.
Very enjoyable and interesting read.
Jack, congratulations on yet another informative and entertaining read. I became interested in this subject recently after buying a large burr snuff box in a French market, I subsequently discovered it was “Mulberry” or Field Maple. A couple of points which I did not see in your article are – Field Maple is particularly hard and has a tendency to throw burrs as it constantly “shoots” from old wood; these points made it particularly suitable for staining and thus veneers, boxes and gun stocks; given that and the fact that it is relatively common no doubt led to its widespread use.
Ash and elm were also used for mulberrying as they too, tend to produce similar bruscum and molluscum.
Fabulous work, and very interesting research regarding ‘mulberry’. Glad to have discovered your blog.