Makers of rustic furniture in the late 1800s through the early 1900s typically used wood native to their local region as the raw material for their creations. Since the distribution of North American trees changes with climatic conditions from east to west and north to south, so, too, does traditional rustic furniture change in materials, and thus in form and style, along geographic gradients.
This article describes five species of trees commonly used during the original eras of rustic furniture making, and shows examples of furniture pieces that were made from each type of tree in the regions where it grows. Part II will continue this theme by describing five different species of trees and the furniture made from them.
White Birch (Betula papyrifera)
White birch is an early successional species, meaning that it is among the first trees to colonize open spaces where forests have burned or woodlots have been cut over, where there is plenty of direct sunlight to support their rapid growth. It is a distinctive species that stands out in a crowd, so is familiar to most anyone who walks in the woods or drives along country roads in the northern tier of North America.
The stark, papery bark of white birch is an iconic emblem of rustic furniture; it is indeed hard to think of a piece of furniture made with bark-on white birch that would not be considered rustic. In the circa 1905 secretary pictured below, the craftsman Ernest Stowe used just the bark of white birch laid over a case of milled pine boards to clad the exterior of this exquisite case piece. Stowe gathered materials for his furniture in the Saranac Lake region of New York’s Adirondacks where he lived and worked. The legs and trim of the secretary, as well as the entire chair, are done in bark-on yellow birch poles and rods. Stowe was thus a progenitor of what we now regard as Adirondack-style furniture using these two species of wood.
Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)
In contrast to white birch, yellow birch is found in mature hardwood forests. Since it, too, gets established where there is abundant sunlight, it tends to grow in gaps created by fallen, wind-thrown trees. It grows most commonly in mid- to upper-mountain slopes, but occurs patchier at lower elevations. Yellow birch can live for hundreds of years, so in the right locations it is not unusual to see very large, old trees and its younger saplings with golden bark scattered among other hardwoods such as sugar maple and beech.
The circa 1920 table picture below was made by Lee Fountain, a craftsman who worked in the western Adirondacks near the town of Wells. He is most recognized for his use of yellow birch root masses, which forms the base of this table. Whereas Stowe used the golden patina of yellow birch twigs and branches to great decorative effect, Fountain’s furniture emphasized the sculptural drama of roots that had been gnarled and shaped over rocks and other tree roots, or simply spread like props to support the trunk and upper branches of a 60′-70′ tall tree.
Hickory (Carya tomentosa)
There are about a dozen species of hickory trees native to North America, including shagbark, shellbark, mockernut, pignut, bitternut and pecan. Although the bark varies among the different hickories, the mockernut hickory, which is the most abundant of the hickory species, has dark ridges alternating with lighter veins of bark (shown above). It grows in humid environments that receive 20-35 inches of rain from April-September, and is more of a southern and midwestern species than are birches.
Hickory is prized for furniture making because of is strength, hardness and flexibility. Although it is possible to find antique rustic furniture made from hickory by independent craftsmen who created their own designs, the vast majority of hickory furniture in the rustic antiques market was made by a half-dozen or so commercial furniture companies in Indiana beginning at the turn of the 20th century. Hickory formed the major structural elements of seating, tables and case pieces in manufactured hickory furniture, with milled woods such as oak and pine used on table, desk and dresser tops, arm rests and seats. In the uncommon circa 1930s wardrobe made by Rustic Hickory Furniture Company of LaPorte, Indiana pictured below, hickory poles comprise the frame and trim, while oak veneer and pine comprise the panels.