In my last column, I started in on an answer to the question, “What kind of wood is that furniture made from?” and nattered on about oak. This week, we’ll look at a couple more North American hardwoods: maple and cherry.
As I mentioned, we’ve done a dandy job of cutting down most of the hardwoods on our continent and so this guide is mostly going to be helpful when you’re looking at older furniture made in North America. One wood that is still being used fairly regularly is maple.
Maple has a nice even and close grain which can help give it a very smooth finish when making furniture. One failing that I’ve found in my own shoddy woodworking is that it can be a bit brittle and so I’ve never seen it as a veneer but always furniture made from solid maple. It does tend to take stain in a blotchy pattern which is probably why it is most often seen in natural (i.e. uncolored) finish.
Naturally, it is going to be the biggest trees that get used for timber so both the sugar maple in North America and the sycamore maple in Europe are the most common species of Acer used.
Because it is such a hard wood, it is also the wood of choice for bowling pins, bowling alleys, pool cues shafts and butcher blocks. One feature of maple is that it can occasionally have wonderful ripples and decoration in the grain, usually not seen until the log is cut. These are sometimes known as flaming or quilting. Locally, Ralph Boomer builds some wonderful furniture out of maple that shows off its wild and capricious grain. Another nice feature is that because the grain is so close and the wood so dense, it carries tone well and so it is used in numerous musical instruments including drums and guitars.
These days, about the only commercial furniture I see using maple is from Canadian companies and Shermag from Quebec made some nice maple pieces. Unfortunately, it lost $22.7M in the last quarter of ’06, laid off half of its Canadian work force and is increasing production in China, so we’re not as likely to see as much maple from Shermag.
Another once popular hardwood for furniture is cherry. Like oak, it has a history of going back to the Greek and Roman artisans. Because it was so plentiful in the New World , American colonial furniture makers used a great deal of cherry, especially when they were copying the more elegant European designs. In its natural freshly-cut state, cherry wood is tan and it only darkens and takes on its reddish hue with time and exposure to sunlight.