Journal

Trees and the Rustic Furniture They Become, Part II

12.11.2014

This article discusses six species of trees that were less commonly used during the original eras of rustic furniture design than the five species described in our previous journal article, Trees and the Rustic Furniture They Become, Part I.  Photos and range maps of each tree species are presented, along with examples of antique rustic furniture made from each type of tree within the regions where it grows.

American Elm (Ulmus Americana)

elm trunk and leaves

American Elm trees, prized for their vase-like shape and broad canopy, were once common in forests and cultivated landscapes throughout eastern North America. While most mature elm trees (over 150 years old) have died in the past 50 years due to Dutch elm disease, saplings and young trees of this species can be found growing in forests throughout its range from the plains states eastward in the U.S., and into southern Canada and the Maritime Provinces.

elm tree range map

Elm is a strong, dense wood that has been used over the centuries for products that needed to endure heavy use, such as wagon wheels and ship decks. Native Americans traditionally used elm wood for mortars. The Iroquoian tribes also used elm bark much like eastern tribes used birch bark to make utilitarian objects such as canoes and baskets. The photo below shows a set of rustic furniture with elm bark surfaces that was made by Ojibwa Indians in the Georgian Bay region of Canada. The thick, furrowed bark is distinctive, and makes a strong seat or table top.

elm bark furniture

Black Willow (Salix nigra)

Black willow tree trunk

Black Willow grows into the largest tree of the ninety species of willows occurring in North America, and it is the only commercially important willow. It is a short-lived, fast-growing tree found in wet and often sandy regions of river margins where it thrives at or slightly below water level.  Although it has an extensive range in the southeastern portions of the U.S., it reaches its maximum size only in the lower Mississippi River Valley and Gulf Coastal Plain. Black willow trees yield a light, straight-grained wood.

black willow range map

This glider was made by Indiana Willow Products Company of Martinsville, Indiana, which was started in 1937 by former employees of Old Hickory Furniture Company. In the early years of its existence, the company made furniture frames out of willow in an attempt to distinguish itself from Old Hickory and Rustic Hickory Furniture companies, even though their furniture designs were nearly identical to their predecessors’, as seen in the familiar form of this glider.

Indiana Willow glider

A second example is this stockade-style desk made of willow. This was most likely also made by Indiana Willow, as the design is based on a desk that appeared in an earlier Rustic Hickory Furniture Company catalog. While bark-on willow, like hickory, has an appealingly textured surface, hefting either this glider or desk reveals that willow wood is much less dense, making this furniture easier to move around.

willow desk

Since willow was a difficult wood to acquire commercially, Indiana Willow Products Company soon began making furniture from hickory like their competitors. Early Indiana Willow pieces made of willow are rarely seen on the market – these two pieces in our inventory are among the few that we’ve owned.

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