Submitted by Furniture Professor
Wood Species Commonly Used in Furniture and Accessories
In a recent article, I dealt with renewable sources of material commonly used in furniture. In this piece, I would like to further elucidate on that subject. I mentioned that, as a general rule, I do not buy furniture made from woods that I have never heard of. Please allow me to expand on this topic.
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Many woods that I have never heard of are not usually used in manufacturing furniture or accessories. An example of this would be Koa, which grows in the Hawaiian Islands. Koa is used to make smaller items and items of limited distribution. These would include musical instruments, gunstocks, canoes and fine furniture. This would hold true for Australian Blackwood, a related tree as well.
Woods that have limited usefulness for furniture manufacturing, dimension lumber for construction or cabinetry are not usually harvested in quantities that would endanger them. The woods from tropical rain forests are quickly becoming endangered. These trees have qualities that make them very desirable for furniture and cabinetry. Their specific gravity, crush resistance, grain patterns and resistance to bending make them very desirable in upper end products.
Another major threat to tropical rain forests is the clearing of land for farming or development. Slash and burn techniques of clearing the land are efficient from the standpoint of getting rid of the trees but they indiscriminately destroy everything of value. Plants and trees that have potential as medicine are destroyed along with wood that could be used for building and furniture. Slash and burn land clearing pollutes the air and the water. It destroys the ecosystem so that the rains will no longer come on a regular basis and the old growth trees will never grow again. Much of the air scrubbing and oxygen manufacturing done by nature, occurs in the tropical rain forests. See furniture's impact on forests.
So, realistically, what can we do? We can buy products made from plantation grown trees as certified by CITES, The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna. We can learn what species of trees are endangered, by doing a little research on line or at the library. I use “The Complete Manual of Woodworking” by Jackson, Day and Jennings, as a reference source. This book lists most or all trees used commercially in the world. In their list they use the symbol of a fallen tree to signify endangered species. If one sticks with the best known trees it is hard to go wrong. Some of the old standby woods include:
- American Red Oak
- European White Oak
- American Ash
- European Ash
- Soft Maple
- Hard Maple
Most of the pine and fir trees are very fast growing and are not endangered. Many of these soft woods are plantation grown for specific uses such as the manufacture of paper and plywood.
The following is a partial list of endangered hardwood trees:
- Red Lauan
- Brazilian Mahogany
- Brazilian Rosewood
- Indian Rosewood
A wood that I was unable to find on either list is Rubber wood. Rubber wood is the tree that produces the sap used in making latex. It is a hardwood and it is plantation grown. The useful life of the Rubber wood tree is about twenty-five years. The plantations used to burn the trees in the fields when they quit producing sap thereby polluting the air and wasting the lumber. They now harvest the trees and send them to mills. The mills sell most of the lumber to manufacturers that produce furniture. Rubber wood got a bad name when it first appeared in American furniture. This was mostly due to the quick processing of the wood. Most rubber wood used in furniture today has been properly selected for clarity and quality. It is then kiln dried and milled. The finishing process for rubber wood furniture is now up to furniture grade quality. In the past it was common skimp on the sealer coats. The furniture is now filled, toned, stained and finished using proper care and technique. The result is that rubber wood furniture is now a budget friendly, reasonably high quality product. If we all avoid furniture made from endangered varieties of trees, we can definitely have an impact.
Another way to be responsible in purchasing furniture is to buy repurposed furniture. There are companies in Asia now that seek out and buy doors, barn wood, old churches and other wood headed for a landfill. These companies then refurbish the old pieces or repurpose them. The company may turn a door from an Indian home into a table or make occasional tables from windows.
There are many ways to do our part and buy furniture responsibly. All you have to do is a little creative thinking and some easy research.