Mulberry – Soiled, not Stained.

A George I mulberry bureau in the manner of Coxed and Woster. (Christie’s)

Is this beautiful early Georgian piece of furniture really made of mulberry?

In Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, the subject of my post, an eighteenth-century chest of drawers, was discovered to be veneered with Common Maple (Acer campestre) bruscum[1] and coloured to create the dramatic effect known as ‘mulberry’.

Two species of mulberry, Morus alba (native to China) and Morus nigra (origin uncertain), were established in England well before ‘mulberry’ furniture became fashionable. Like other members of the Moraceae family, mulberry’s bright yellow colour would have been bedazzling amid the normal palette of brown, cream and grey woods common at the time, yet little furniture made from solid or veneered mulberry survives. It has been said that mulberry trees do not attain sufficient proportions to provide suitable timber for cabinetmaking; my parents have a (now nut-coloured) solid mulberry drop leaf table in their house in Somerset and I sold a stunning mulberry cockpen elbow chair through my shop during the mid-nineties. I have also cut mulberry boards as wide as 28 inches.

A slab of mulberry, cut about fourteen years ago, 22 inches wide, with a small area (top left) planed to show the vibrant yellow of the wood.

Mulberry is a sound furniture timber, resembling very fine-grained elm. It is strong, works easily and takes polish well, but one possible explanation why mulberry was little used, is its vibrant colour can be unpredictable; some samples remain yellow (although somewhat muted compared to when it’s freshly cut) and others quickly warm to a glorious nut brown. It is therefore understandable why a cabinetmaker desiring a striking yellow colour for his work would be reluctant to employ true mulberry if its colour were to promptly turn mid-brown.

There exist a great many stunning pieces of furniture from the last quarter of the seventeenth-century and the first half of the eighteenth-century that are veneered with burr, curly and fiddleback veneers and, in most instances that is precisely all they are.

In Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, I touched on the method of creating the elaborate effect on wood known as ‘mulberry’ by the colouring of different species of curly, or other contorted forms of wood in a way that reveals astonishing tortoiseshell-like patterns. Over the years I have restored several pieces of ‘mulberry’ furniture, veneered with either burr or curly ash, birch, oak and maple and they all, where they would take it up, were heightened with a dark opaque stain.

On the subject of stain; to those unfamiliar with the colouring of wood, there are two distinct substances that jointly go by the name of ‘stain’. The first is probably the most widely understood definition of the word and would best be described as a dye; that is, a coloured, translucent, aqueous or oleic solution that, when applied to wood, tints the surface of the wood without obscuring its grain or figure.

There existed at the time, several yellow vegetable extracts which were employed by dyers to colour wool and linen for clothing and furnishings, and which were also compatible with wood. Weld (Reseda luteola), in conjunction with a mordant, produces a very strong yellow and was cultivated in England. A second yellow dye, fustic[2] (Old Fustic), derived from the heartwood of another member of the Moraceae family, Maclura tinctoria, was imported from Central America and the Antilles. (Perhaps it was the colour of freshly cut mulberry wood, or the dye obtained from fustic, and subsequently applied to pale English bruscum and knotty woods – and duplicated with aqua fortis – that lent its name to the deep yellow colouring of wood we know as ‘mulberry’.)

When highly concentrated, some dye-stains such as asphaltum and vandyke (refined from walnut husks and should not be confused with the pigment Van Dyke Brown) can behave much like pigmented-stains and are very useful for mulberrying.

The second colorant comprises insoluble pigment (usually finely ground soil, clay, or carbon) suspended in either water or oil, which obscures the wood in varying degrees contingent upon the concentration of the concoction. Of the natural earth pigments, the darker ones better suited to staining ‘mulberry’ are the siennas and the umbers from Siena and Umbria in Italy, and Van Dyke Brown which is obtained from peat-rich soils. Carbon in the form of soot (lampblack) was collected from metal plates held above purpose-made oil lamps with multiple wicks.

There is also a third method of ‘staining’ wood that involves applying mordacious chemicals to the surface of the wood. The chemicals react with those present in the wood, altering the wood’s colour in dye-like appearance.

David Parsons commented about Stalker & Parker’s[3] procedure of chemically-staining veneer with aqua fortis (nitric acid – which imparts a strong yellow) and filling the grain with soot. In fairness to David, he was quoting from an auction house catalogue which in turn had quoted Adam Bowett[4].

Despite the inclusion of a chapter entitled “To imitate and counterfeit Tortoise-Shell and Marble”, Stalker & Parker do not tender a recipe for mulberrying per se. However, they do offer a couple of processes which, when used successively, can achieve the ‘mulberry’ effect.

In Chapter XXVII, “Of Dying or Staining Wood, Ivory, &c.”, Stalker & Parker recommend several recipes for staining wood, including the following:

To stain a fine Yellow.

Take Burr or knotty Ash, or any other wood that is white, curled, and knotty; smooth and rush[5] it very well, and having warmed it, with a brush dipt in Aqua fortis wash over the wood, and hold it to the fire, as you do Japan-work until it leaves smoaking; when dry rush it again, for the Aqua fortis will make it very rough. If to these you add a polish, and varnish it with Seed-lacc, and then again polish it, you’l find no outlandish wood surpass it; for the curled and knotty parts admit of so much variety, being in some places hard, in others soft and open-grained, to which Aqua fortis gives a deeper colour, than to the harder and more resisting parts. In short, you’l perceive a pleasing variety interwoven, beyond what you could imagine or expect. If you put filings or bits of metals, as brass, copper, and iron, into the Aqua fortis, each metal will produce a different tincture: the best French Pistols are stockt generally with this sort of wood, and stained after this manner.

In Chapter III, “General Rules to be diligently observed in all manner of Varnishing”, Stalker & Parker instruct on the use of black grain filler (having previously polished the work and cut it back with tripoli):

… and with oyl mixt with Lamblack anoint the whole face of your work; let no corner or moulding escape…

Continuing in Chapter IV, “Of varnishing WOODS without Colour”:

Then wipe of your Tripolee with a spunge full of water, the water with a dry rag; grease it with Lamblack and Oyl all over; wipe off that with a cloth, and clear it up with another…

Staining, grain-filling and polishing (or varnishing) hasn’t changed for over 340 years. The fundamentals of wood sealing, filling and varnishing (oiling) were undoubtedly known to cabinetmakers since their trade first emerged. Stalker & Parker merely rhymed off the standard processes of wood preparation in readiness for their specialised finishes of “Japanning, Guilding, Burnishing, and Lackering”.

‘Soiled’, not Stained

John Coxed in his pre-partnership years, produced much burr and curly veneered furniture, however, without the wild grain being filled (either with lampblack or thick vandyke), such veneered furniture would be best described as ‘highly figured’.

Burr veneered cabinet, John Coxed, c1700. (Avon Antiques)

The above cabinet was sold by Christie’s (Lot 149, Sale 5969), at their South Kensington rooms in London on the 21st of May, 2009.  The effect of the burr and curly veneers is utterly mesmerising, but at any other time, it would simply be described as a “very fine burr wood cabinet”.

Christie’s catalogue entry for the John Coxed cabinet read thusly:

“This cabinet is attributed to G. Coxed and T. Woster, cabinet-makers trading at ‘The White Swan’ in St. Paul’s Churchyard from circa 1690 until 1736. Coxed and Woster are often associated with so-called ‘mulberry’ furniture – furniture veneered in maple or alder stained to resemble tortoiseshell, so producing a rich golden tone. The use of pewter inlay often appeared in their earlier work.

The process of creating this veneer is derived from two methods outlined in Stalker and Parker’s Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing of 1688. The chosen veneer (often ash, elm or most commonly, maple), is stained yellow with Aqua fortis (nitric acid) and then rubbed with ‘lampblack’ (soot). The acid penetrates deeply into areas of soft grain which the lampblack colours richly, giving rise to a three-dimensional effect. The final stage is to pare back the surface until the desired contrast of light and dark is achieved. For a full discussion of the technique and many of the myths surrounding the fashion of stained ash, elm or maple veneering at this date, see A. Bowett, ‘Myths of English Furniture History: Mulberry Wood Furniture by Coxed and Woster’, Antique Collecting, October 1998, pp. 32-35.

Although Coxed and Woster were in production until 1736, the majority of their ‘mulberry wood’ furniture was produced between c. 1690 and c. 1720, the rich appearance of the ‘mulberry’ being in keeping with the tastes of the time for lavish-looking materials (M. Riccardi-Cubitt, ‘Round the Mulberry Bush’, Antique Collector, March 1996, pp. 80-85[6]).”

The close-up of the cabinet door below, exhibits no evidence of pigment in the grain, just the wood’s natural chatoyance (the dark lines are typical small fissures from which the glue has exuded and grime and wax have seeped in).

Close-up of the John Coxed cabinet door. (Avon Antiques)

In stark contrast, the clothes press, below – also sold by Christie’s (Lot 64, Sale 7400) at their King Street rooms on the 7th of June, 2007 – exhibits distinct opaque, dark patterning in classic ‘mulberry’ fashion.

A wonderfully rich ‘mulberry’ clothes press in the classic manner of Coxed and Woster. (Christie’s)

Like Stalker & Parker – and the French stock makers before me, I too have used nitric acid to stain furniture and wooden turnings etc. and it performs admirably as a dye-like stain (as any modern aniline dye – though with the added bonus of imparting a slight appearance of age). Alone however, aqua fortis is not capable of producing the incredible impact of the press illustrated above, further, its use is unessential to mulberrying; the crucial ingredient being a black or very dark, opaque filler rubbed into the grain.

Though many cabinetmakers in the early part of the eighteenth-century were undoubtedly accomplished in the practice of grain-filling and thus, the art of ‘mulberrying’, ‘mulberry’ is synonymous with the firm of Coxed and Woster, active at a time when few cabinetmakers signed their furniture. Consequently, ‘mulberry’ is now very much a clichéd currency with auction houses and antiques dealers alike. A West Country dealer once enquired if I would ‘mulberry-up’ an otherwise lacklustre figured bureau during the course of its restoration. I declined!

Mulberrying in practice

The art of mulberrying differs little from the common practice of grain-filling, familiar to every cabinetmaker and polisher: The raw or stained wood is normally sealed first and then entirely brushed over with grainfiller (a stiff mixture of drying oil, silica and earth pigments – including, on occasion, lampblack). For the majority of work, the grainfiller is prepared somewhat darker than the wood itself (except when polishing fair woods like maple and satinwood). The filler colours the grain which compliments and accentuates the wood’s figure[7]. The grainfiller is rubbed into the grain and the residue removed with a clump of hessian, or if left to dry on the wood’s surface, by scraping off with a cabinet scraper. The piece is then polished or varnished[8] in the usual manner.

Mulberrying is simply the practice of rubbing dark pigment or grainfiller into the open grain and upturned fibres of natural or yellow-dyed curly or burr wood.

An early eighteenth-century Queen Anne flintlock pocket pistol with ‘mulberry’ rootwood stock. (Rod Akeroyd & Son)

Jack Plane

[1] Bruscum L. knot or excrescence on a Maple tree.

[2] “MORUS (tinctoria) foliis oblique cordatis acuminatis hirsuitis. Mulberry with oblique, heart-shaped, acute-pointed, hairy leaves. Morus fructu viridi, ligno sulphureo tinctorio. Sloan.
Hist. Jam. 2. p. 3. Mulberry with a green fruit, whose wood dyes a sulphur colour. Fustick wood.
This tree is better known by the title of Fustick, which is given to the wood, than by its fruit, which is of no estimation. It grows naturally in most of the islands in the West-Indies, but more plentifully in the Bay of Campeachy, where it abounds greatly. This wood is one of the commodities exported from Jamaica, where it grows in greater plenty than in any other of the British islands.”
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.

[3] John Stalker & George Parker, A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing, Oxford, 1668.

[4] Adam Bowett, Myths of English Furniture History: Mulberry Wood Furniture by Coxed and Woster, Antique Collecting, October 1998, pp. 32-35.

[5] Stalker & Parker recommend every artist should furnish themselves with, amongst other paraphernalia, “Rushes, which are called Dutch-Rushes, with which you must smooth your work before you varnish it; and as you lay your ground of Colour or Black, if any knob or roughness appear on your work, you must take a Rush and rush it off; so must you do as oft as you find any roughness or grittiness upon your work, either in laying your Grounds, or varnishing it up.”
The “rushes” referred to are a species of Horsetail (Equisetum hyemale – known as Scouringrush Horsetail). The ridges of the stems are roughened with a single series of transversely oblong siliceous tubercles. When dried, the stems make an excellent fine abrasive for smoothing wood and polishing metal etc.

[6] Christie’s also quote Monique Riccardi-Cubitt in their Sale 6395, Lot 160, at their King Street rooms on the 30th of November, 2000, viz.
“Early Georgian or Queen Anne pieces richly veneered in stained maple or stained burr-elm are usually catalogued as ‘in the manner of’ or attributed to the cabinet-makers George Coxed and Thomas Woster…
John Coxed and Coxed and Woster are the only known cabinet-makers to have used this type of stained veneer, although the technique must surely have been used by rival cabinet-makers. Given the fashion in late 17th early 18th Century Europe for brass-inlaid stained-tortoiseshell veneered furniture… (M. Riccardi-Cubitt, ‘Round the Mulberry Bush’, The Antique Collector, March April 1996, p. 84).”

[7] In this context, grain refers to the individual open pores. Figure is the overall arrangement of the grain.

[8] Gum or resin varnish; not the modern varieties containing synthetic resins and other solids.


About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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