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furniture header


Identifying component parts of furniture is key in learning to judge each component for uniformity and quality of both shape and joinery.

Finding quality furniture,
we no longer judge the component parts;
we enjoy the beauty of the whole.

components of chairs for blog

Identifying each component helps us focus on the design or style of furniture and make it easier to recognize and compare similarities and differences of finished designs—–plain and ornamented.

Each of these components is common to every chair:
contemporary and traditional


component top rail for blog

A rail across the top of a side chair and joined to the splat or spindles.
Top rails may be simple or incorporate embellishment as carving.

Vertical panels in the center back of a chair–joined to top rail and chair seat.
Plain or ornate, splats showcase creative abilities.

Spindles of all sizes and shapes are mounted vertically as railings and chair backs. Windsor chairs incorporate multiple spindles from the top rail to the seat, capitalizing on the design principle of repetition. Spindles may be hand-carved or made on a spindle carving machine.

legs and feet for blog

Chair and table legs and feet may be simple or distinctive.
The Egyptians hand-carved bird and dragon claws,
often grasping a ball at the base of chair legs.


component apron for blog

A flat horizontal frame made of solid pieces of wood
that connect and support vertical components of chair seats or tables.
Apron corners must be securely joined to legs for stability (see corner blocks) .


component stretcher for blog

Simple horizontal rails of wood connect legs of tables or chairs to each other.
Stretchers maintain vertical stability and offer a place to hang one’s feet!


stiles 3 for blog
Stiles are vertical solid wood rear legs that extend the full height of the chair.
They are joined to the top rail, splat and apron.

Joining structural components for strength and durability is a measure of craftsmanship and the quality of furniture.

Learning her antique table was not valuable, the owner’s pain
was palpable as experts on the Antique Roadshow explained
the drawer front wobbled because it was not dovetailed; and a
leg was loose because it was joined by a single dowel instead
of mortise & tenon.

component mortise and tenon for blog
A tenon (straight-sided, square-cornered projection) at the end of a piece of wood fits precisely into the mortise (straight-sided, square-cornered cavity) hollowed from the piece of wood to be joined.

Component joined mortise and tenon for blogBoth the mortise and the tenon are interlocked with glue so their tight-fitting straight edges and corners resist movement. This joinery provides strength and longevity.

DOUBLE DOWELING: two dowels and two holes
Two round projections or dowels on one piece of wood are glued into corresponding holes drilled in the other.  This, also, is secure joinery.

Single dowel joinery (one dowel and one hole) may result in loose joinery. 

CORNER BLOCKS:component corner blog for blogCorner blocks are necessary reinforcement.
Shaped blocks of wood are glued and screwed into the corners of the rails of a table or chair where legs are joined to the apron beneath the flat surface.

component dovetail for blog
Alternating positive and negative ‘tooth-like’ shapes cut into the ends of two boards are interlocked and glued at right angles.

component joined dovetail for blog
Interlock the fingers of both hands tightly.
Your ‘grip’ mimics dovetail joinery.

Dovetail is excellent joinery especially for corners of drawers.
The wood cannot separate as a drawer is pulled back to front.

A channel is cut into the side of one piece of wood to accommodate the edge of a second piece of wood glued into the channel.

Ends of two pieces of wood are each cut at perfect 45º angles. Joined, they become a perfect 90º angle.   Mitered corners are a sign of quality for both door frames and picture frames.

Two end pieces of wood butted-together and held with glue and screws. This is not durable wood joinery.

Consecutive pieces of wood are joined by interlocking cut-outs, just as pieces of a puzzle interlock.  Hardwood floor boards are usually installed using tongue and groove joinery.




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Flat surfaces of wood furniture as top, side panels
and drawer 
fronts are considered solid wood, even
if the surface is made of narrow planks of wood
bonded together to prevent splitting and warping.

Because wood can shrink and warp, legs, arms and other structural
are cut and shaped from solid pieces of lumber.  Each
component of a table, chair, or other—must be of the same wood
species as it’s flat surfaces.


Wood veneer is a sheet of thinly sliced wood, laminated to a substrate.
When the substrate is wood, labels for the wood veneered furniture read:
solid wood veneered furniture.
If the substrate is not wood, the furniture can not be labeled solid wood.

Appreciation for the beauty and application of wood grain veneer dates
back to ancient Egypt, but veneered furniture was not common until the
17th Century.veneered furniture for blog 1

Solid wood furniture of the last three centuries, made with applications of beautiful wood veneer, is highly valued by antique dealers; and splendid new wood furniture continues to feature wood veneers.

Veneer for blog 1

Whether to peel or saw veneer depends upon the desired grain.

Peeled veneers:veneer for blog
Peeled veneers are made by spinning a wet, trimmed log on a rotary lathe against a sharp blade to produce a continuous roll.

Sawn veneers:Sawn veneers for blog
Sawn veneers are cut across or lengthwise to reveal different patterns of natural grain.

Kittinger applying veneer to substrate for blog
Whether peeled or sawn, veneers are meticulously applied to a wood substrate.

sliced veeneer for blog
Consecutive slices of sawn veneers laminated to a substrate can create consecutive panels of almost identical grain.

Wood veneer may be as thin as 1/32”. The natural beauty of the wood grain is further exploited by positioning sections of veneer with the grain sliced, matched and facing in different directions as: book matching,  end matching, slip matching and herringbone.

Unless you know the species of the veneered wood
and the composition of the substrate,

you cannot determine its’ quality.

Today, plywood is used from furniture to buildings.

 Layers or pliés of wood —stacked (as pancakes)— and laminated together,
become  1/8” to 1” inch thick plywood.

The grain direction of each plié is alternated in right angles to the one beneath, resulting in a strong workable material with uniform strength of width and length and capable of being molded by heat and pressure—a technique used to make grand pianos since the 1830’s.

Veneers or pliés of wood may also be laminated to a core of wood as birch, ash and Douglas fir. The most attractive grain of wood veneer is used for the top layer. 

Veneering/ Laminating Processes:

Veneers of wood OR sheets of plastic —can be laminated (glued and pressed) over a core or substrate of solid wood, plywood, OR man-made fiberboards.  Diverse combinations run the gamut of both price and quality.


Fiberboards are inexpensive man-made substrates
marketed as particleboard, hardboard and chipboard.
They are invisible beneath a visible surface veneer
which may be natural wood veneer–or a man-made

Durability and cost of fiberboard varies greatly because
the particle size and density of which they are composed
ranges from natural wood particles, chips, shavings and
wood waste from a mill or plywood factory to synthetic
products compressed with heat and pressure and
bonded with synthetic resins.

Even though the furniture industry uses man-made fiberboard products as ‘legitimate’ substrates for furniture and cabinetry: many are less-than-good.  Substrates are beneath the surface veneers—so it’s impossible to view their particle size and density—or to know the kind of glue and pressure with which they are compressed.

There are no labeling laws for furniture substrates.

I suspect the furniture industry doesn’t want labels to reveal  less-than-good substrates. Surface laminates as wood veneer, plastic and engineered paper ‘hide’ man-made substrates which cannot be drilled or joined by traditional joinery methods.

Shopping for a computer desk (in dozens of furniture stores), answers to my questions about veneers, substrates and joinery were unsatisfactory.  One store owner showed me a picture of a well-designed desk and told me it was cherry veneer over a solid wood substrate. Before considering it, I had to see the quality of the manufacturer’s work.

I located furniture made by the same manufacturer in another store but a ‘depression’ in the top flat surface of their table was a ‘red flag’ that the substrate was not wood. My call to the manufacturer confirmed the use of particleboard substrates for ALL their furniture After my negative experiences with man-made substrates, I passed.

Finally, I found a desk where the style, scale, finish and hardware suited my needs. Told it was solid wood with mortise & tenon joinery, I nevertheless checked the manufacturer’s web site which listed all raw materials and production methods for their products. So far, so good—but I still phoned the manufacturer to dispel any doubt.

My desk cost little more than the one made with a particleboard substrate.
I spend hours at it every day, including writing this post.

MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) is a dry-formed panel substrate made by gluing wood fibers together with a synthetic resin using heat and pressure. MDF is very dense and has no knots, so it can be drilled and traditional methods of joinery can be used.

Although some better cabinet makers use MDF as a substrate for fine wood veneers, know that MDF is a man-made fiberboard substrate and the furniture cannnot be sold as solid wood.   Ask for written proof that a substrate is WOOD.


Plywood and all varieties of fiberboards have traditionally been made with wood binding adhesives, synthetic resins and finishes we now call VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) which vary greatly in safety by releasing fumes causing eye, skin, nose and throat irritation in addition to creating hazardous waste.  Their vapors can depress and damage the brain and nervous system, and some are carcinogenic—especially if they contain formaldehyde.

The U.S. federal government classifies formaldehyde as a ‘possible’ human carcinogen although California has classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen– and declared fiberboards made with formaldehyde, illegal.

The Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act, signed into U.S. law by President Obama, July 7, 2010, establishes limits for emissions from composite wood products: hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard and particleboard.  




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primeval, enchanted habitat of birds, animals and man since Genesis

…… and the stuff of poets and playwrights.
            “I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree.”  Joyce Kilmer                                                

                    Early man found uses for wood as if it came with instructions!

Forests, covering our lands, were cleared during many millenniums
for planting crops, grazing and building communities.
Man later discovered tree by-products as:

tannin, dyes, rubber, and medicines.

Clearing forests created jobs in logging, sawmills and paper mills and we fast-forward to the Industrial Revolution that brought new sources of power and technology to logging, sawmills and paper mills —as well as factories making products of wood and factories making products of by-products of wood.

In addition to homes, furniture and paper— wood products are globally as
diverse as railroad ties, baseball bats —and products we consume: citrus fruits, nuts, olives, coconuts, maple syrup, etc.

Tree species and size, transportation routes and world markets impact forest industries, well established in the United States, Canada, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Brazil. Pacific Rim nations, Latin America and Africa.

Not only do forests shelter wildlife, man relies upon wood from forests to remain a renewable resource.  In Europe, as early as the 14th Century, it was recognized that trees had to be managed to assure sustainability of forests.  In 1885 the U. S. federal government established the Division of Forestry to conserve and establish forest reserves.

Ethical and sustainable forestry practices exist but environmental problems created by unscrupulous loggers continue as a major world problem. International scientists are concerned with the depletion of forests by hurricanes, fire and especially by irresponsible harvesting. Loss of tree roots quickly leads to soil erosion, flooding and mudslides.

The ecological significance of forests is enormous because they help control global temperature by absorbing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere. Environmentalists say stricter regulation is urgent because deforestation is responsible for about one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The Forest Stewardship Council, FSC, a global not-for-profit environmental network, was founded in 1993 in Bonn, Germany, to promote responsible management of the world’s forests. Its main tools for achieving this are standard setting, certification and labeling of forest products.

FSC labels 
verify the companies that felled the timber abided by sustainable principles


Hard and soft does not refer to the hardness or softness of wood.
Hard and soft refers to the type of tree the wood comes from.
Furniture is usually made from hardwood.

Softwood is from trees with needles or foliage that remain green all year as:
Pine, Fir, Spruce, and Cedar.

Hardwood is from leaf bearing trees as:
Ash, Birch, Oak, Cherry, Maple, Teak, Gum, Mahogany, Pecan, Rosewood, Poplar and Walnut.

Freshly cut timber is 30 to 50% water and must be carefully dried (seasoned) to prevent warping before being cut into lumber.

Wood is usually stacked and air dried from 3 to 6 months before it is cut into lumber of standard or specified length.  It is then slowly kiln dried for two to eight weeks to prevent warping and cracking. Timing varies according to the thickness of the wood.

Furniture manufacturers prefer wood with 6 to 8% moisture.
If too dry, wood absorbs glue and doesn’t develop a bond;
if too wet, wood may warp and twist.

Wood for furniture must also be dry enough to acclimate to the humidity of a home because wood shrinks and expands with changes in humidity. Stuck drawers are probably the result of humidity.  Humidifiers and dehumidifiers not only protect your skin, they protect your furniture.


After loggers cut trees and trim all branches, the remaining trunk is a log. Logs are moved to sawmills where they’re sorted and graded for quality.

Bark is removed and in a series of cuttings, each log is squared into a rectangular shape and cut with specific dimensions of length, width and thickness, now called lumber.

Bark, sawdust, wood chips, shavings and other residue
are usable wood by-products.

Dimension stock is wood cut by a lumber mill in sizes specified for end use by each furniture manufacturer. Quality furniture factories begin by ripping all kiln-dried dimension stock by machine to assure every edge is at perfect right angles.

The National Hardwood Lumber Association established a specific
and complex standard grading system for all hardwood lumber:

Wood grades for quality furniture are:
FAS:   Firsts And Seconds: The highest grade with clear face cuttings.
1C:      The next lower grade used for quality furniture.


Trees grow in spring and summer and their growth depends upon the rainfall and soil. This is why the rate of growth differs every year and forms different sized concentric rings within each tree. The season of growth determines the color of the rings from light to dark.

The pattern created by the rate of growth of a tree is called wood-grain. Different cutting techniques produce different patterns to reveal the beauty and color of the grain.

Straight or full-grain:
When a log is cut or sliced top to bottom (parallel to the axis),
the grain is called straight—or full-grain.

Cross or end-grain:
When a log is cut or sliced across its width,
the grain is called 
cross-grain—or end-grain.

WOOD CUTTING BOARDS: Full-grain or End-grain?
a marriage of wood & function.

The function of the knife is to cut.
The function of the board is to provide a surface to cut ‘against’.

Wood cutting boards are full-grain or end-grain.
Each looks and performs differently.

Do knife blades scar wood?
Do wood surfaces ruin blades?
It depends!

Cutting across full-grain wood not only scars wood fibers;
it damages the cutting edge of the blade.

End-grain wood protects blades because they slice across
fibrous endings
of wood grain– which are not scarred.

If you cut or slice an ‘onion’, you see its layered growth;
similar to the layered growth and development of a tree.

How a ‘log’ is cut, peeled, sliced or sawn,
determines the direction of the wood-grain,
and we see the difference between full-grain and end-grain

Cut an onion vertically.

The direction of the layers duplicates the grain direction of full-grain
or straight-grain wood

full onion for blog
When cut, narrow boards of full-grain wood are joined horizontally.
Cutting across full-grain wood can scar wood fibers and
damage the edge of the knife-blade.

Cut an onion horizontally.

The direction of the layers duplicates the grain direction of end-grain wood.

cross onion for blog
Small pieces of end-grain (also cross-grain) are usually joined as a mosaic.
Cutting across fibers of end-grain wood does not scar the cutting board
nor damage the blade of the knife.

End-grain surfaces are preferred over full-grain surfaces by butchers—known for fastidious care of both their knives and cutting boards and explains the designation, ‘butcher-block’.   End-grain butcher block is also excellent for kitchen counters.

How many times a day do you slice bread, meat or cheese on a humble,
non-mechanical board of wood?  

The next time you reach for a cutting board—stop,
and appreciate the beauty and function of :
  wood  •  wood grain  •  joinery techniques  •  wood finishing.




furniture headerFurniture originated with early man—
and continues to be artisan and mass-produced.


      • wood for fire,
      • wood for weapons,
      • wood for tools,
      • wood for shelter, and ultimately,
      • wood—to accommodate our human form.

Please sit down….Pull up a chair….Have a seat.”

These are relatively new additions to our language.
The earliest chairs were the symbolic seat of a ruler and carved from stone.

We still sit on stone!

Stone garden bench for blog

Historians compiled furniture history from manuscripts and wall and vase paintings because very few pieces of ancient furniture remained intact. Because of the dry climate, some Egyptian chairs made of wood survived and their construction methods were adopted by the Greeks and Romans. This included use of a lathe to make uniform duplicates of legs and spindles.

∗Lathes are machines that hold and rotate wood rapidly along
its axis 
against sharp cutting tools. Egyptians used bowstrings
for power and throughout the ages, other power sources were
treadles, winches, water, 
steam and electricity.

Skins of leather were stretched across chair frames for flexibility. Eventually padding and cushions filled with feathers, horsehair, wool, down and other materials were added for comfort.

Throughout centuries, furniture styles mirrored architecture,
changing social patterns and customs and named for:
Monarchs • Artisan/Designers  • movements in Art & Architecture.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum reassembled a formal room
as it was furnished in 1762.  
Chippendale mahogany furniture,
silk brocades, crystal, silver and Persian carpets revealed the
richness of artisan craftsmanship!

When the Industrial Revolution gave rise to mass-production
spawned the world’s first middle class,
artisan furniture was copied in broad price ranges
as it continued to use nature’s sustainable raw materials.

Textile technology added mass-production of quality textiles.

was realized through technology and cheap labor. 


Michel Thonet perfected engineering techniques to bend solid wood in the 1840’s and by 1849, bentwood furniture was a mass-production success—as craftsmen were replaced by an assembly line. Prior to this, curved wood was achieved by cutting curved shapes from a large piece of wood —or piecing wood (which decreased its strength).

After Commodore Perry’s expedition to Japan in the 1850’s, furniture designs were influenced by the Far East.  Western furniture makers simulated bamboo by carving wood–using a lathe.

The 20th Century brought more innovation. Mies Van der Rohe designed a cantilevered chair made of polished steel with leather cushions for the 1929 World’s Fair in Barcelona. Today, both flat and tubular steel furniture are mass-produced in a broad range of price and quality.

The ability to bend and mold plywood — led to furniture by the husband and wife team, Charles and Ray Eames, who molded plywood splints and stretchers for the U.S. Navy.

In 1944, Eames prototype for a molded plywood chair was the
first mass-produced chair with three-dimensional curves.

In 2008, the US government issued 16 postage stamps in recognition of
Eames’ furniture,
“achieved by creative use of new materials and technology”.


Eames’ leather-upholstered molded plywood chair and ottoman
has become an international icon.

The Twentieth Century also introduced furniture made of fiberglass, plastics and natural wood waste products (as sawdust and wood chips) in substrates for veneer.

Substrates are invisible so their quality is hidden.  Manufacturers
commonly laminate plastic over inferior substrates.  The
content of substrates as wood waste products, their density, use of
toxicbinders, etc.  ARE NOT ON LABELS.

Raw material content of all furniture could easily be printed on labels
but are 
NOT required by law.

My experience with particleboard products compels me to forewarn:

Currently, ‘assemble-it-yourself‘ furniture is being promoted;
but even if you 
assemble it yourself :
how do you know if it’s good?

The Twenty-first Century?
Furniture innovation will undoubtedly be generated by digital technology and
new applications of raw materials. 

We’ll react immediately to new styles
 but judging their quality will require  ‘digging’.