Decorating Small Spaces

Decorating a very small space can be a challenge, especially if it contains architectural details which break up the wall space, such as windows, doors and fireplaces, or if the space is a high-traffic area. The techniques for furnishing small spaces are slightly different, but the basic design principles are the same. The idea in any size room is to create a space that is as comfortable as it is functional.

Scale is the first principle to keep in mind when purchasing furniture for a small space. The deep, overstuffed sofa with rolled arms and floor-brushing skirts that seemed like a comforting place to curl up in the vastness of a showroom may look like a sleeping rhinoceros when you get it home to your tiny living room. 

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Oak was one of the first hardwoods used for furniture making and was the wood of choice for Gothic furniture and wainscoting in the Middle Ages. It remained popular throughout the seventeenth century until walnut began to supersede its use in the early 18th century. The debating chamber of the House of Commons in London is made from oak.

Oak’s popularity was (and is) probably because it grows so abundantly both in Europe (and in the United States). Although there’s over 600 species of the genus Quercus, it is the red (Q. rubra a.k.a. borealis) and white oak (Q. alba) most commonly used for furniture. White oak has longer rays and is more durable and was traditionally more commonly used in ship building, including the classic man-of-war ships of England. This is because the white oak has membranous growth called tyloses that plugs the pores of the heartwood, making it impenetrable to liquid, unlike red oak. Red oak was also used in railroad ties, wagon wheels and flooring.

There are also less common furniture oaks, particularly in English furniture, such as the Riger, Pippy, Burr and Bog oaks. By the way, the French oaks (Quercus Robur, Quercus petraea) are considered preferable for making wine barrels (they’re charred before use) because they give a less violent bouquet to the flavor than American oaks, although American oaks have better texture and resistance to aging.

Oak has the advantage of being very strong although it takes a long time to cure and has a tendency to warp (some species more than others). Despite the coarse grain, it takes stain evenly, unlike the blotchiness of maple or birch. Because the pores are open, oak has a rough feel to it and often it is given a sealer coat to fill in the pores before the finish is applied.

One of the more interesting ways that oak is used is when it is cut quartersawn. This is a way to show the well defined medullary rays which run from the center of the tree outward. First, the log is cut into quarters, then cut on the diagonal across each quarter. Gustav Stickley, the father of the Arts and Crafts movement, said “The quartersawing method of cutting…renders quartersawn oak structurally stronger, also finer in grain, and, as shown before, less liable to warp and check than when sawn in any other way.” He was so fond of quartersawn oak that if he had to make a post, he would take 4 pieces of quartersawn wood and put them together so you could see the medullary rays on all 4 sides of the post.

Quartersawing, in my opinion the far more attractive way to cut boards, is rarely used because it is less efficient way to use the tree.

Although not as wildly popular in furniture as it was a few years ago, oak is still popular in Amish, Mission, Prairie and Arts and Crafts style furniture.

To care for oak furniture, as for any good quality wood, maintaining an even humidity is important (because the wood expands and contracts with the moisture in the air) so it should never be placed directly in front of a wood burning stove or radiator. An ideal, by the way is 25 to 35 percent (although I don’t know anyone who actually measures this). You can clean up your spills with a mild soap and water but be sure to dry them completely. Give it a good paste wax once a year and dust it often because the grit in the dust can mar the finish.

Maintaining Oak Furniture

Oak is a natural, sturdy wood that is often used in furniture pieces. The durability and attractiveness of wood from an oak tree has made it popular among furniture manufacturers and consumers. If you have oak furniture, you can increase its lifespan and maintain its natural beauty by taking some simple measures and precautions.

Natural furniture oil, such as teak, is the most effective cleaner for your oak pieces. Many different oils are available, but your best bet is an oil that cleans and replenishes the wood at the same time. Check the product label to confirm the liquid is meant for oak before use.

You may use inexpensive furniture polishes to clean your wood, but check the polish label to make sure it`s suitable for oak. Furniture polishes may dry your wood out, so look for polishes that both clean and protect.

Don`t use harsh cleaners, such as bleach or ammonia on oak, as the chemicals will damage the wood. Abrasive cleaners can eat at the wood`s surface, causing cracks, streaks and unsightly spots. If you have weak spots or cracks in the oak`s surface, spills and dirt will be very difficult to clean.

Attack any watermarks on the oak as soon as possible. If you absorb moisture as soon as you have a spill, you probably won`t have any noticeable marks left behind. Use a soft, absorbent cloth to soak up moisture. Don`t rub, as you might drive the liquid deeper into the wood.

For spills on your oak furniture you don`t notice until later, you can try using natural removal methods. For instance, rub a small amount of butter into the watermarks and leave overnight. Wipe the butter off the next morning with a soft cloth. The butter should diminish or eliminate watermarks.

Oak usually requires periodic waxing. Waxing helps strengthen the wood`s surface, protecting against cracks, peeling and discoloration. Apply wax following the same direction as the wood`s natural grain and with a soft cloth. Remove the wax by using buffing motions that follow the grain. You can reduce air pockets or streaks by removing the wax using this method.

You may have to wax every three months or each month, depending on the climate. Central heating, for example, will cause the oak to dry out, leaving your furniture more prone to cracks. If you notice wax build-up on your oak furniture, wipe the wood down with mineral spirits. Once it dries, use a wood soap to remove the remaining traces.

You can get a furniture touch-up kit to cover wear and tear or damage from minor accidents. Kits come in different finishes, so make sure you buy a kit that is close to the color of your wood. If you use a touch-up kit but the results are too light, try a second application after the first one dries.

Untreated Wood
If you have untreated oak furniture, you`ll need to wipe the furniture down periodically with furniture oil. You may notice staining over time, caused by the tannin in the wood. Using furniture oil regularly can help reduce staining, especially on outdoor furniture.

Dent Repair
If you have a dent in your oak furniture, you can remove it using water and heat. You must be extremely careful using the water and heat method to avoid causing more damage.

Place a few water drops in the dent. Let the water soak into the dent completely. With the wood still moist, lay a cloth over the dent. Iron the cloth over the dent area with the iron warm but not completely heated. The expansion of the wood, because of the heat, should repair your dent permanently.

If you burn the wood using heat to remove the dent, try rubbing a small bit of toothpaste into the burn. Leave overnight and wipe off the next day. Do not use toothpaste with whitening additives.

Not all wood is created equal. Before you try any maintenance, cleaning or repair methods on your oak furniture, make sure the method or products are suitable for oak wood. While some products and methods will work on different types of pieces, such as pine furniture and oak furniture, others are only for a specific wood type.


Since I sell furniture (small shameless plug), one of the questions asked of me most often is, “What kind of wood is that?”  In the next couple of columns, we’ll talk about the different hardwoods used for furniture making and how you can spot them.  Why hardwoods? Although there is furniture made from such softwoods as pine, hemlock and fir, the nature of the wood itself tends to make it less durable and so it was less likely to be chosen to make fine furniture.

That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with pine furniture.  I’ve seen some great dining tables made from 2 inch thick pine boards.  It is just that to get the same durability as hardwoods, softwoods are usually thick and heavy.

The hard part about distinguishing between types of wood is that it can be covered with several kinds of stains and finishes and can be made to look like what it is not.  Given the shortage of North American hardwoods, this is not necessarily a bad thing because it allows us to buy a more modern piece (likely a tropical hardwood) and still have it match grandma’s mahogany dresser.

So, the first step is to distinguish whether it is a hardwood or a softwood.  In an unobtrusive spot, I try to dent it with a fingernail.  If I can put a small dent in the wood, I consider it a softwood.  This can be less than obvious, because in a chest of drawers it is likely that the wood inside the drawers are made from something different than the top, and the apron on a dining table can be a different wood than the top.

Let’s start with the easiest to spot and the one you’re mostly likely familiar with…oak.  Oak has a long and glorious history going back to the Greeks and was the wood of choice since the Middle Ages for English furniture. Bishops preached from oak pulpits while kings ruled from oak thrones.  Oak was the wood of choice for both Spanish furniture and Spanish missions in the New World.  It was this popularity, both in England and in the new world missions that made it the wood of choice for arts and crafts (aka mission) furniture.

Although the United States is home to about 50 of the 200 species of oak, the best known is the white oak, a tree that can reach 70 to 100 feet, and the red oak which, because of its amber color and durability, is usually the oak of choice for flooring.

oakOak is heavy, easily machined and the open-pore structure makes it less likely to fuzz than hickory or ash.

In the picture you can see this characteristic open-pore structure.  This can give oak a somewhat rough feel and sometimes furniture makers will fill in the pores with fine sawdust or silica to help give it a more glass-like feel.

Of course, the type of grain will vary with how the wood is cut and the quarter sawn oak in the picture below is considered particularly choice and, in part because of its rarity, more beautiful.

quartersawnQuarter sawing oak is a much less efficient use of the log, which is why it is rarely seen any more but when Gustav Stickley made his classic furniture, he was so fond of the look that he constructed posts out of 4 boards, so the quarter sawn look could be seen on all four sides.

I’m about out of time for this week, but next time we’ll continue to explore the great North American hardwoods of maple, walnut and cherry.  Got something you want to know about?  Send me an email at