Furniture Education: How Wood Ages, Part I

One of the things we want­ed to address with this jour­nal was to edu­cate our cus­tomers, so they can make the best deci­sions as well as hav­ing a lit­tle more under­stand­ing of a mate­r­i­al we have all around us on a dai­ly basis! Today’s top­ic is a two-part series on a top­ic that comes up con­stant­ly: what hap­pens to wood as it ages? When you cre­ate a piece of heir­loom-qual­i­ty fur­ni­ture, it is a good idea to think about how a piece will look 20, 50 or even 100 years from now. There are many fac­tors that con­tribute to how wood ages, but today we’re going to look at the fun­da­men­tal ten­dan­cies, by wood species.

How different woods age

cabinet of curiosities | Art Deco Jewelry Armoire | Heller and Heller Custom Furniture

Fur­ni­ture looks dif­fer­ent as it gets old­er. Aside from the pati­na, which wood­work­ers joke is dirt mixed with wax, there are some chem­i­cal things going on that change the look of fur­ni­ture as it ages. As a Smith­son­ian Fur­ni­ture Con­ser­va­tor once told me, “all wood wants to be caramel col­ored”.  This is a reac­tion to light and air.

You can think about it in this way: Steel rusts and alu­minum oxi­dizes when exposed to air and water. Stain­less (!) steel is called that because the addi­tion of exot­ic met­als to iron pro­tects the met­al so that it ages more slow­ly by being less reac­tive.

Wood is made from a vast array or organ­ic mol­e­cules. These mol­e­cules in wood react to heat, light, humid­i­ty, air, and all the things that touch the wood’s sur­face over the decades. A major pur­pose of fin­ish is to pro­vide a bar­ri­er to these things – it’s the “stain­less” equiv­a­lent for wood. The type of fin­ish and its sta­bil­i­ty in the face of those assaults change how quick­ly the wood reacts to its envi­ron­ment, and we’ll talk about fin­ish­es with respect to aging in our fol­lowup post.

As you might expect from mate­ri­als that have dif­fer­ent chem­i­cal prop­er­ties, dif­fer­ent wood species react dif­fer­ent­ly to typ­i­cal con­di­tions. To extreme oppo­site exam­ples would be ebony and cher­ry — Cher­ry is in a hur­ry to age, ebony much less so.  No fin­ish can stop cher­ry from react­ing to light. Fresh cher­ry is the col­or of raw salmon – not a pret­ty pic­ture. In six months it is a medi­um red, and in two years it is a glo­ri­ous rich dark but vari­able red­dy brown. Ebony looks the same at five years as at five days.

Cherry Jewelry Box | Heller and Heller Furniture

Maple turns gold­en, as does ash and oak; wal­nut actu­al­ly light­ens with time. Most bright­ly col­ored woods soft­en: pur­ple­heart turns a mel­low brown after some decades. All of the old fur­ni­ture in the Lou­vre was once bright pur­ple and bright yel­low. A tad gar­ish by our stan­dards, but to 18th cen­tu­ry roy­al­ty, it was the ulti­mate sta­tus sym­bol.

Some­times peo­ple ask me to stain the piece I am mak­ing for them, to match their oth­er fur­ni­ture or just to be the col­or they want. I pre­fer not to, since the wood will change col­or with time, as will the oth­er woods that they may be match­ing to. Since the fin­ish­es are dif­fer­ent, as are the under­ly­ing woods, they will shift dif­fer­ent­ly than my piece.  The folks that sell kitchen cab­i­nets in 47 dif­fer­ent col­ors know that the cab­i­nets will change col­or with time, but that is not their prob­lem – it takes too long. Also, the whole room changes, so it’s hard­er to notice.

One thing that is very impor­tant with fur­ni­ture is to not leave an object on the piece for an extend­ed peri­od, espe­cial­ly at first. This is even more impor­tant if the piece sits in direct sun­light, and exceed­ing­ly impor­tant on cher­ry fur­ni­ture. The shad­ow mark from the object will be extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to remove – that doily pat­tern could be a per­ma­nent addi­tion to the table­top.

The oth­er piece to this puz­zle is the fin­ish selec­tion, and we’ll be back to dis­cuss it next week.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Share on Facebook|Tweet this Post|Pin Images to Pinterest|Back to Top