In Which My Trousers Catch Alight

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my frequent banging-on about authenticity and reluctance or, more often, refusal to reproduce any piece of furniture until I can locate (at least an image of) an extant, unaltered example to copy. That, and some comparable wood.

It has been previously suggested I employ woods such as maple and poplar (standard North American fare) in my reproductions and I have staunchly rebuked same proposals on the grounds that only oak/walnut/mahogany/pine are period correct for British furniture.

Virginia, having overheard me reviewing the previous two paragraphs aloud, is now tapping an index finger on the paradoxical ash bureau and not-so-quietly chanting “Liar, liar, pants on fire!”

Whilst it’s true that furniture from the mid seventeenth-century to the late eighteenth-century is commonly grouped into The Age of Oak, The Age of Walnut and The Age of Mahogany, anomalous pieces of furniture do crop up with surprising regularity.

The following is a very small sample of solely case furniture (simply because its broad surfaces show off the wood to the best advantage) that really only differs from the norm by the species of the wood employed in its construction.

The Age of Oak

Seventeenth-century furniture developed from contemporary oak post-and-beam building technology, hence its glue-less, peg-jointed and robust construction. However, the many indigenous species of trees (plus introduced species of fruit and nut trees etc.) that were commonly used for domestic utensils were periodically employed in the making of furniture.

Charles_II_yew_COD_c1680_01aFig. 1. Archetypal Charles II oak chest of drawers… though made of yew, circa 1680. (Christie’s)

Charles_II_pear_COD_c1685_01aFig. 2. Another Charles II ‘oak’ chest – this time, made of pear, circa 1685. (Wirthmore)

Charles_II_pear_COD_c1685_01dFig. 3. Pear close-up. (Wirthmore)

Chas_II_yew_COD_c1685_01aFig. 4. Transitional Charles II chest of drawers; again, made of yew, circa 1685 – later brackets. (Robert Young)

Chas_II_yew_COD_c1685_01bFig. 5. Yew close-up. (Robert Young)

The Age of Walnut

As England’s cabinetmakers’ skills accumulated, so their quest for alternative furniture timbers broadened. Oak’s coarse grain did not compare with the beauty of walnut veneers and cross-grained mouldings.

William_&_Mary_ash_&_yew_COD_c1690_01aFig. 6. William and Mary ash and yew chest of drawers, circa 1690 – feet replaced; later brasses. (Christie’s)

William_&_Mary_cocus_COD_c1690_01aFig. 7. William and Mary cocus chest of drawers, circa 1690.

William_&_Mary_elm_fruitwood_&_walnut_COD_c1690_01aFig. 8. William and Mary elm, fruitwood and walnut chest of drawers, circa 1690 – later brasses and feet. (Robert Young)

William_&_Mary_fruitwood_&_sycamore_COD_c1690_01aFig. 9. William and Mary fruitwood and sycamore chest of drawers, circa 1690. (Robert Young)

William_&_Mary_fruitwood_&_sycamore_COD_c1690_01dFig. 10. Sycamore close-up. (Robert Young)

William_&_Mary_laburnum_oyster_COD_c1690_02aFig. 11. William and Mary laburnum oyster chest of drawers, circa 1690 – later brasses. (Sotheby’s)

William_&_Mary_laburnum_oyster_COD_c1690_03aFig. 12. William and Mary laburnum oyster chest of drawers, circa 1690. (Christie’s)

William_&_Mary_olive_oyster_COD_c1690_02aFig. 13. William and Mary olive oyster chest of drawers, circa 1690. (Richard Gardner)

William_&_Mary_olive_oyster_COD_c1690_04aFig. 14. William and Mary olive oyster chest of drawers, circa 1690. (Sotheby’s)

William_&_Mary_olive_oyster_COD_c1690_06aFig. 15. William and Mary olive oyster chest of drawers, circa 1690. (Jayne Thompson)

William_&_Mary_walnut_&_yew_COD_c1690_01aFig. 16. William and Mary walnut and yew chest of drawers, circa 1690 – later brackets. (Bonhams)

Queen_Anne_princes_wood_COD_c1700_01aFig. 17. Queen Anne princes wood (S. American Dalbergia spp.) chest of drawers, circa 1705. (Bonhams)

Queen_Anne_ash_COD_c1710_01aFig. 18. Queen Anne ash chest of drawers, circa 1710. (William Word)

Queen_Anne_ash_COD_c1710_01bFig. 19. Ash close-up. (William Word)

Queen_Anne_burr_oak_COD_c1710_01aFig. 20. Queen Anne burr oak chest of drawers, circa 1710 – later brackets.

Geo_II_elm_&_burr_elm_COS_c1730_01aFig. 21. George II burr elm chest-on-stand, circa 1730. (Christie’s)

Geo_II_fruitwood_COD_c1730_01aFig. 22. George II plum chest of drawers, circa 1730. (Michael Pashby)

Geo_II_Anglo-Indian_teak_COD_c1730_01aFig. 23. George II Anglo-Indian teak chest of drawers, circa 1730. (James Graham-Stewart)

Geo_II_Anglo-Indian_teak_COD_c1730_01dFig. 24. Teak close-up. (James Graham-Stewart)

Geo_II_apple_COS_c1740_01aFig. 25. George II apple chest-on-stand, circa 1740.

Geo_II_apple_COS_c1740_01bFig. 26. Apple close-up.

The Age of Mahogany

English cabinetmakers reached their zenith by the mid eighteenth-century. The principal wood used during this period was mahogany from Central America, though exotic timbers from the four corners of the globe were often incorporated either in part, or in whole.

Geo_II_burr_elm_COD_c1740_01aFig. 27. George II burr elm chest of drawers, circa 1740. (Michael Pashby)

Geo_II_burr_oak_COD_c1740_01aFig. 28. George II burr oak (and painted) chest of drawers, circa 1740. (Yew Tree House)

Geo_II_burr_oak_COD_c1740_01dFig. 29. Painted carcase close-up. (Yew Tree House)

Geo_II_burr_yew_COC_c1750-60_01aFig. 30. George II burr yew chest-on-chest, circa 1750. (Christie’s)

Geo_II_fruitwood_bachellors_COD_c1750_01aFig. 31. George II fruitwood bachelor’s chest, circa 1750. (Christie’s)

Geo_II_huanghuali_COD_c1740_01aFig. 32. George II huanghuali (Chinese Dalbergia odorifera) chest of drawers, circa 1740. (Robert Bradley)

Geo_III_alder_COD_c1760_01aFig. 33. George III alder (Scots mahogany) chest of drawers, circa 1760.

Geo_III_tiger_maple_&_ash_COD_c1760_01aFig. 34. George III ‘tiger maple’ chest of drawers, circa 1760. (Christie’s)

Geo_III_sabicu_COD_c1760_01aFig. 35. George III horseflesh mahogany (Lysiloma sabicu) chest of drawers, circa 1760. (G. Sergeant)

Geo_III_apple_COD_c1765_01aFig. 36. George III apple chest of drawers, circa 1765. (Miles Griffiths)

Geo_III_apple_COD_c1765_01fFig. 37. Apple close-up. (Miles Griffiths)

Geo_III_padauk_serpentine_COD_c1765_01aFig. 38. George III padauk chest of drawers, circa 1765. (Christie’s)

Geo_III_rosewood_COC_c1765_01aFig. 39. George III rosewood chest-on-chest, circa 1765. (Bonhams)

Geo_III_padouk_COC_c1770_01aFig. 40. George III padauk chest-on-chest, circa 1770. (Susanne Hollis)

Geo_III_elm_COD_c1775_01aFig. 41. George III elm chest of drawers, circa 1775. (Christie’s)

Geo_III_fruitwood_COD_c1800_01aFig. 42. George III fruitwood chest of drawers, circa 1800. (Woolley & Wallis)

I have always adored this divergent furniture and wondered at its existence. Many of these pieces broke with tradition, but for very different reasons. The exotic woods employed in some pieces must surely have been specified by wealthy, enlightened customers… and was the ‘tiger maple’ chest (fig. 34) ordered by someone returning from the North American colonies?

Those pieces made from less fashionable local woods – such as ash and elm – may have been done so for reasons of cost. The burr oak and painted chest (figs. 28 & 29) is fascinating: The glorious burr veneer on the drawer fronts is perfectly understandable, but when it came to the carcase sides, was it the veneer or the money that ran out?

Jack Plane


About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
This entry was posted in Antiques, Furniture Timbers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to In Which My Trousers Catch Alight

  1. Joe M says:

    An excelent post! I keep scrolling to the George II Burl Elm chest on stand and the Queen Anne Ash chest of drawers……Do I sense a little Anarchy in your next project??


    • Jack Plane says:

      I dislike the word ‘anarchy’, but I have always been a little off-centre with my furniture.

      Timber supplies permitting, I’d be happy to tackle any of the above.



  2. LD says:

    Interesting to note that the burr oak (and painted) chest of drawers is displayed at the Yew House.


  3. Brian Smith says:

    Thank you again for another informative post. I like the ‘odd’ examples and styles too. Please keep it up.
    Brian Smith


  4. hughjengine says:

    While your trews conflag, congratulations on International Jack Plane Day!



  5. Jim Pallas says:

    The 1690 fruitwood and sycamore chest has anarchy all over it. Drawer faces, height to width, moulding and coloring. If your going to make the leap you could dip your toe or go up to your neck with that piece. It does not seem to fit the era at all. You may even find it challenging to get your mind wrapped around the build at all. May be fun however.


    • Jack Plane says:

      Jim, stylistically, the chest in figure 9 is typical of the period; only the woods used differ. I have made these chests before, but in the more traditional oak.

      The English were fond of colour and contrast back in the late seventeenth-century as evidenced by other striking woods such as cocus and the use of walnut, laburnum and olive oysters. Tortoiseshell (real and faux) and japanning (in black, blue, cream, green and red) are also fairly striking.

      I would consider this chest highly fashionable as opposed to anarchistic and I would make one in a heartbeat if I could locate sufficient sycamore here in Australia.



  6. D.B. Laney says:

    Ah, God Bless you Jack, sure. Seems that you and Peter have had similar experiences in finding those pieces that “just weren’t supposed to be”. You’ve both helped to “ease my mind” about getting rid of some of this curly maple stock in my possession. Twas either, build something or burn it. And summer’s coming, after all. Good on ye.


  7. jacon4 says:

    and was the tiger maple chest (fig. 34) ordered by someone returning from the North American colonies?
    I am betting it was! Odd seeing a tiger maple chest built outside the USA, it’s the first time i have ever seen it.


    • Jack Plane says:

      The chest was described by Christie’s as “tiger maple”, but being an English chest it is altogether more likely to be made from one of Britain’s native maples such as sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) or field maple (Acer campestre) in the type of figuring we Brits call fiddleback. If the chest were made from imported ‘tiger maple’ (Acer saccharum) – a native of North America, it would be truly unique.



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