With this, as the one which is in popular ideas most intimately associated with furniture, a start may be made. To describe its general appearance is of course unnecessary, as it is so well known. Apart from its beauty, it has several features which render it peculiarly suitable for furniture. It is a wood which stands well, that is, it is not apt to twist and split after it has been seasoned and worked up. It is also clean- a word which, it may be explained, is not to be taken in its ordinary signification when applied to timber, but rather as meaning that the wood is free from knots and other defective markings. Mahogany, it may be observed, is remarkably free from knots, and is, therefore, apart from the hardness of some varieties, workable with comparative ease, and is susceptible of a high degree of finish. In some instances the boards are of considerable width, so wide that almost the widest pieces, such as sideboard tops, wardrobe ends, and so on, which the cabinet-maker uses, may be got without joining one or more boards together to obtain the necessary width. This, of course, is often an advantage. There is probably no wood in which so many varieties are found and having such a wide range in value. From plain wood, with no figure to speak of and little more costly than the best pine to choicely marked Spanish, there is a great difference, for the latter is one of the most costly of timbers. When very finely marked, it is too valuable to be used in the solid; i.e., it is cut into veneers, and some of these are worth high prices.
The cheapest and commonest mahogany is the Honduras, or, as it is often simply called, Baywood. This has little figure, at least the typical Baywood, for varieties are met with which have a fair marking, is very clean, and from its comparative softness is easily workable. It is admirably adapted for any purpose where figure is not essential or where plainness is not objectionable. As a groundwork for veneering on it is unsurpassed, especially when the veneer is a choicer mahogany. It is also admirable for ebonising, as it takes the stain and finishes well. Compared with the finer varieties of mahogany, the grain is coarse and open.
The best mahogany is that known as Spanish, a term which may be somewhat misleading to the novice as implying that the wood comes from Spain. It is, however, a West Indian production. Strictly speaking, Spanish mahogany is that from San Domingo, but for all practical purposes the exact place of growth or port of shipment is of small consequence, and the definition is by no means closely adhered to. Instead of concerning himself with the nativity of the wood or the place whence it was shipped, it is better for the cabinetmaker to make his selection when purchasing according to the figure and general quality of the wood. Although Honduras and Spanish have been referred to as the plainest and best kinds of mahogany, it does not follow that all of the former is figureless or that the latter is always well marked. On the contrary, Honduras is often found with a considerable amount of figure, though seldom of the finest, while the plainer kinds of Spanish may not be a bit better than it. The novice is therefore cautioned not to put too much importance on the fact of a piece of mahogany being called Spanish, but to use his own judgment whether any particular lot, whatever it may be called, will suit his purpose. The quality of mahogany, or rather its value, is determined chiefly by the amount of figure, though in unusually wide pieces the width must be taken into account too. It may be remarked that no wood improves so much with age as mahogany, which is not seen at its best when new, as the colour becomes much richer in time.
Cedar of the coarse kind, much used for making cigar-boxes, must not be mistaken for mahogany, the plainer kinds of which it very much resembles. It is, however, very useful for drawer bottoms and such like interior work.
Cedar of the fragrant variety, or, as it is generally called, pencil cedar, is an altogether different wood, being fine and close grained. It is very little used in furniture, and then only for fittings in fancy articles like davenports and other small writing-desks. It is soft and pleasant to work, but splits very easily.
Oakt like mahogany, is too well known to require any minute description. There are many varieties, and the choicest of these is the brown or English, as it is often called, to distinguish it from the lighter or Riga and Dantzic wood. Brown oak is very hard, and not an easy wood for novices to use. It is often very choicely marked, and the finest, or Pollard oak, is much used for veneers; in fact, the true pollard can only be made up in this form. The lighter oaks are frequently stained in imitation of brown, to which in colour a very near approach can easily be made. As in the case of mahogany, it is little use for the cabinet-maker to interest himself about the origin of the foreign oak. I have seen some excellent 'Dantzic' which came from South Germany, and it was none the worse on that account. There is a good deal of American oak used now. It is rather different from the European. Much of it is perfectly plain, and some of it of a peculiar pinkish tinge. This latter should not be used in any article intended to be darkened by fumigation with ammonia. When American oak is of good colour and figure, it is quite as suitable for furniture as any other kind is. The perfectly plain oak is often called and sold as coffin wood, and being cheap, is sometimes useful for inconspicuous parts of furniture. The figure of light oak, it may be remarked, consists entirely in the hard, shiny looking marks, which form such an important feature in it that they cannot be mistaken. Though hard, oak is by no means a difficult wood to work. It should be very dry and well seasoned before it is made up.