The London Furniture Timber Trade

Even prior to the Industrial Revolution, Britain’s timber stocks had been heavily depleted through centuries of shipbuilding, house-building and agricultural land clearance. Notwithstanding the scarcity of domestic supplies, the even-textured, slow-grown, wainscot (oak) and deal (pine) imported from the vast Baltic region were superior timbers to their home-grown counterparts and were in high demand by all domestic trades throughout the eighteenth-century.

Of the half dozen or so native timbers employed in the furniture trade, beech was the most important; used mainly for carved and decorated pieces. Its rather drab and characterless appearance excluded it from use in fine polished furniture, but its strength and ability to take finely carved detail and accept upholstery tacks without splitting made it highly favourable for gilded and painted chairs etc.

In 1796, William Marshall wrote “The cabinetmakers’ chief woods are Mahogany and Beech; next to these follow Dutch Oak (Wainscot), Deal, Elm; and lastly, Walnutree, Cherrytree, Plumtree, Box, Holly, Yew and a variety of woods for inlaying and cabinets. […] in London, Beech is almost the only English wood made use of at present, by the cabinet and chairmakers”.[1]

It speaks volumes of the usefulness and importance of beech because geographically, London was a largely inaccessible market for most home-grown timber: It was cheaper to sail Dutch-sawn oak up the Thames than to transport indigenous oak overland to London’s furniture district. Fortuitously, beech was a relatively straightforward boat trip down the Thames from the Chilterns.

Black walnut from Virginia increased vastly in popularity by the middle of the eighteenth-century, helped in 1721 by the abolition of import duty on American timber – which act severely disadvantaged European walnut imports. Inventories show that homegrown walnut remained popular despite the restrictions that affected the transport of most indigenous timber to the capital. Any European walnut imported after the 1721 act would have been the highly figured Grenoble wood (whether actually from Grenoble or not) and employed solely for veneers.

England’s European and American conflicts interrupted the availability of crucial and fashionable foreign timbers (including  mahogany and walnut) at various periods during the eighteenth-century, but as the century waned, the timber trade stabilised.

The Dutch, using wind-powered gang saws, had been converting the majority of their export timber into a range of standard sizes since the seventeenth-century. However, some baulks and even logs (and certainly intact logs from other countries) were imported directly into London where sawyers – either in the employ of large cabinetmaking firms[2], or working independently – selectively converted the timber for use by the furniture trade as published in price guides of the day:

At London, the Sawyers cut Timber at the following Prices.

Oak, from 3s. to 3s. 6d. per 100 Feet, Superficial Meaſure; or 7s. per Load, of 50 ſolid Feet.
Ash, from 5s. to 6s. per 100 Feet, Superficial Meaſure; or from 8s. to 12s. per Load, of 50 ſolid Feet.
Fir, from 3s. to 4s. per 100 Feet, Superficial Meaſure ; or 6s. per Load, of 50 ſolid Feet.
What are called DEALS, are ſawed Abroad ; but for ſlitiing 10 Feet Deals, there is usually paid in London, 2s. 6d. per Dozen, or 2d. ½ per Cut; and for 12 Feet Deal, 3s. per Dozen, or 3d. per Cut.
Mahogony, from 5s. to 8s. per 100 Feet, Superficial Meaſure.
Walnut-tree from 5s. to 7s. per 100 Feet, Superficial Meaſure.
Elm, from 2s.6d. to 5s. per 100 Feet, Superficial Meaſure.
N. B. Mahogony, Wall nut-tree, and Elm, are never cut by the Load.
N. B. Beech is commonly uſed for Bedsteads, Chairs, Table Frames, &c. and is generally cut in the Country[side].
N. B. The Difference in the Prices of sawing the ſame foregoing Woods, ariſes from the valuableneſs and fineneſs of the Timber and Sawing. [3]

[1] William Marshall, On Planting and Rural Ornament a Practical Treatise, Volume I, London, 1796, p. 51.

[2] Giles Grendey (1693-1780) – who supplied furniture to Stourhead – was one of a number of London cabinetmakers who was also a timber merchant.

[3] E. Hoppus, Practical Measuring Made Easy, Tenth Edition, London, 1777, p. 75.

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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