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How to Identify Wood in Antique Furniture

Antique Furniture & Wood

Antique wooden furniture, especially in pristine condition, is increasingly rare due to the challenges posed by warm and wet climates where both heat and moisture accelerate decay. Despite advances in modern climate adjustment technology and rot-resistant treatments, caring for antique wood often feels like a race against time. This rarity elevates antique wooden furniture to a status that can rival the most magnificent paintings in terms of desirability and value.

So why antique wooden furniture? For many, wooden furniture exudes a natural allure, embodying stories of time, place and the earth's natural processes. This appeal is particularly profound for those who feel a deep connection to bygone eras. The sensation of rootedness that comes from wood, directly derived from trees—often centuries old—is palpable and deeply resonant.

Tales of Soil & Time: Fine Wood

William & Mary Marquetry Mirror. 17th Century.M.S. Rau.
William & Mary Marquetry Mirror. 17th Century. M.S. Rau.
Take, for example, the mahogany tree, which thrives in salty air and most soil types and requires a minimum of 25 years to mature before harvesting. The resilience of mahogany, particularly in regions prone to natural disasters like tsunamis and hurricanes, makes every harvestable tree a natural wonder.

Similarly, the northern white cedar, used for outdoor furniture and fences, and red oak, which matures between 60 and 80 years, are celebrated for their durability and beauty, but each takes multiple generations to mature. Distinctive to their particular climates, each type of wood is considered a geographical wonder in its own right.

Each piece of antique wooden furniture represents a symphony of patience and collaboration between nature and humanity. The natural world nurtures the irreplaceable wood, the craftsman intimately understands and reveals the wood’s inherent beauty, the original commissioner is inspired by the style or functionality of the piece, and the collector assumes the ongoing responsibility of care.

This intricate interplay, involving the natural characteristics of the wood, historical craftsmanship, and ongoing care, makes the collection and preservation of antique wood furniture an exceptionally rewarding endeavor. To properly maintain these pieces and ensure their longevity into the next century, it is crucial for collectors to extensively educate themselves on the specific care requirements of each type of wood.

Identifying Hardwood vs. Softwood

Woods are generally divided into two broad categories: hardwoods and softwoods. Softwoods, derived from coniferous trees that have needles or scales, are typically more supple and easy to work with but are less durable and long-lasting without proper care. When exposed to moisture and warm weather, they can show signs of decay within 2-5 years.

Common types of softwoods include pine, cedar, spruce and Douglas fir. Softwoods are common in hardwood flooring, construction and outdoor projects, and even dining tables when their distinctive grain is properly elevated by a skilled craftsman.

Hardwoods, on the other hand, come from deciduous trees with broad leaves. Common types of hardwoods include mahogany, oak, walnut, maple and teak. Hardwoods, both in light-colored and yellowish-brown variations, are commonly used in fine furniture and musical instruments. Below is a list of some of the most commonly used antique woods and tips on how to identify them.



Art Deco Desk and Chairs Set by Jules Leleu and Maxime Old. Circa 1930-40. M.S. Rau.

Art Deco Desk and Chairs Set by Jules Leleu and Maxime Old. Circa 1930-40. M.S. Rau.

Europeans first encountered this beautiful reddish-brown hardwood in 1514. The tree species responsible for mahogany is Swietenia mahagoni, native to southern Florida and various Caribbean islands, including the Bahamas, Cuba and Jamaica. Initially used for shipbuilding, its durability and attractive aesthetics soon made it a favored material among furniture makers. During the 17th and 18th centuries, mahogany wood gained immense popularity among the aristocracy in Europe, and almost no palace or grand estate was complete without as many mahogany furnishings as they could handle.

How to spot:

  • Grain Pattern: Mahogany has a close grain, giving it a smooth appearance. Look for fine, even grain lines.
  • Color Variation: Mahogany can range from dark brown to reddish hues.
  • Hardness: Mahogany is a hardwood, and it has a Janka hardness rating of 800 lbf (pounds-force). The Janka hardness scale measures a wood’s resistance to scratches, indentations, and water.


French Provincial Walnut Armoire. Circa 1750. M.S. Rau.
Walnut trees belong to the genus Juglans and have been cultivated for thousands of years. Ancient civilizations in Persia, Greece and Rome valued them for their nutritious nuts and beautiful wood. This admiration and utilization continued through the medieval period when walnut wood was highly prized for its strength, rich color and workability and was used for furniture, paneling and intricate carvings. The wood later crossed the ocean when European settlers brought walnut frees to North America, and American black walnut (Juglans nigra) became popular for furniture and gunstocks.

How to spot:
  • Grain Pattern: Fine, straight grain that’s a bit coarse in texture. Occasionally, you’ll find knots or irregularities, including subtle waves or curls.
  • Color Variation: The heartwood, which is the inner part of the tree, boasts a rich, chocolatey brown hue. Additionally, it may display subtle variations, including shades of purples, greens, and golds, adding to its visual complexity. In contrast, the sapwood, found in the outer part of the tree, ranges from a pale creamy color to almost white. These color differences are a common characteristic of fresh walnut timber, contributing to its popularity in woodworking and furniture design.
  • Hardness: Walnut wood registers 1,010 lbf on the Janka scale, making it harder than both teak and mahogany.



English Satinwood Parlor Tables. Circa 1895. M.S. Rau.

The term "satinwood" is believed to derive from satin fabric, which has a smooth, lustrous face and flowing, loose folds. Originating from East India or Ceylon, satinwood is notable for its highly restricted exportation, making large pieces extremely rare. The trees themselves mature to heights of only 40 to 50 feet and have relatively small trunk diameters of just 1 to 1 1/2 feet. Gaining popularity in the early 19th century, satinwood was extensively used for veneers, inlaid decorations, and because of its pale color, it was particularly suitable for painting. Its distinctive qualities led to a resurgence in its use during the Edwardian era, further cementing its status in the realm of fine woodworking.

How to spot:

  • Grain Pattern: Grains can be straight, but are more typically interlocked.
  • Color variations: Satinwood appears in light yellow to gold colorations.
  • Hardness: 2,620 on Janka scale, showing remarkable hardness.

Other Types of Antique Woods You Should Know:

Oak: A staple in furniture making, oak grows slowly, reaching maturity in 150–200 years, and is available in over 300 varieties. Its wood, initially pale but darkening to a rich brown over time, is hard and often forms the carcass and drawer linings of furniture. Oak enjoyed popularity in the Georgian era and saw a revival in Victorian times.

U.S. House of Representatives Renaissance Revival Armchair. Circa 1857. M.S. Rau (Sold).

Rosewood: Rosewood furniture became popular with the wealthy during England's Regency period because of its natural beauty and exotic allure. A tropical wood from India and Brazil, it is called "rosewood" not only for its dark, rich color but also for its odor of roses when newly cut. Indian rosewood was often used in solid furniture during the 18th century, whereas Brazilian rosewood was preferred for veneers in the 19th century. 

Regency Rosewood Centre Table. Circa 1850. M.S. Rau (Sold).

Calamander: Also known as coromandel, this hazel brown wood with black stripes is extremely heavy and hard. A member of the ebony family, it was widely used for veneers and banding in Regency period furniture. Native to India and Southeast Asia, calamander has been logged nearly to extinction.

Regency Rosewood Card Tables with Calamander Border. Circa 1810. M.S. Rau.

Kingwood: A dense, strong wood with a rich, dark purple streaked grain. Native to Brazil and occasionally Mexico, kingwood was traditionally used for veneers, inlays, and parquetry, particularly in French furniture.

French Meuble de Milieu by Grimard. Circa 1880. M.S. Rau.

Amboyna: One of the most sought-after burls, amboyna is frequently used as a veneer on high-quality antique furniture and boxes. Originating from Ambon Island in Indonesia, it is only used by the hands of a master craftsman.

Orrery Clock by Raingo à Paris. Circa 1820. M.S. Rau.

Sycamore: Also known as Harewood, sycamore is a durable, pale hardwood with a fine grain, often used in Regency veneers and country furniture like kitchen tables.

John Bennett Georgian Barometer. Circa 1750. M.S. Rau.

Yew: Known for its durability, yew was popular in the 18th century, especially for its unique grain figuring in furniture such as Windsor chairs and table tops. Yew typically comes from mountainous areas and is one of the hardest softwoods.

Thomas Chippendale Burr Yew Pembroke Table. Circa 1760. M.S. Rau (Sold).
Thomas Chippendale Burr Yew Pembroke Table. Circa 1760. M.S. Rau (Sold).
From wood furnishings to clocks, our collection of antiques is sure to delight any serious collector or appreciator of fine patinas. Browse our collections and enter a world of possibility!


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