Mouldings on oak-framed buildings – and thence joiner-made oak furniture – followed the timber’s grain and were comparatively simple to produce. Then circa 1685, a new breed of specialised furniture maker appeared. Cabinetmakers developed more sophisticated techniques for making and decorating furniture, in particular, the use of veneers and cross-grained mouldings in the newly popularised European walnut (Juglans regia).
It has been suggested that cross-grained mouldings were employed to better ‘come-and-go’ with seasonal cross-grain expansion and contraction of carcases, however, this conjecture has no foundation as cross-grained carcase mouldings are backed with strips of long-grain timber.
Rather than cross-grain mouldings being made up of thick individual blocks of wood, short walnut ‘veneers’ of between 1/8″ and 1/2″ thick (in which the moulding was formed) were glued onto continuous, long grain pine or oak cores to assist in controlled shrinkage and potential catastrophic failure of the mouldings.
Controlled shrinkage was the cognisant intention of the cabinetmakers and its deformation is part and parcel of the appearance of cross-grain mouldings: Light reflecting off the individual, often slightly cupped ‘veneers’ coruscates like candle light on a crystal chandelier (fig. 1).
Larger mouldings such as cornices were often composite constructions, comprising a number of smaller, individual mouldings and veneers (figs. 2 & 3).
Furniture made from European walnut remained popular until around 1740 and was rarely produced after 1750 (until reintroduced during Victoria’s reign). Though mahogany was known in Britain as early as the end of the seventeenth-century, it wasn’t imported in commercial quantities until the 1730s. Mahogany (and North American black walnut [Juglans nigra], employed in the same manner as mahogany) saw distinct changes in furniture design (in part due to mahogany’s unique working properties) and long-grain mouldings became fashionable once again.
Of course anomalies have a pitiless habit of cropping up; making fools and liars of furniture dealers and historians alike. The chest in figure 4 is archetypal of early George III mahogany furniture in every respect – including the profile of the top moulding – except the moulding is cross-grained!