Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Primary Lumbers of Louisiana Furnishings - Q&A

A Pied de Biche Mahogany Table with Cypress
secondary lumber - built by the author.
I recently posted asking what I could do to make this blog more interesting to my readers. This was apparently seen as an opportunity to unload with a bunch of questions, (tongue in cheek) from one particular reader and I simply couldn't see posting that long of a reply in the comments section. Thomas, To answer your questions ~

What was the primary wood used in making creole furniture. I imagine cypress would make the list, was pecan or persimmon also used? What about traditional hardwoods, cherry, oak, maple, etc? Do you see a lot of furniture made with hardwood?...

To best answer this question we have to consider a couple of regional factors and answer a couple of others questions first.
1) What hardwoods were available whether domestically or by domestic importation?
There is a ridiculously diverse mix of lumbers growing in Louisiana. Cypress, Yellow Pine, White Cedar, Oaks, Live Oak, Walnut*, Hickory, Pecan, Cherry*, Tulips, Sycamore, Maple, Sassafras, Locust… The list goes on and on. The reason for the * on Walnut & Cherry is because while it does grow here it is of poor quality due to weather and soil conditions. The lumber to choose from is in no way lacking so let’s look at other determining factors.

2) What harvesting technology was available in a specific region / time period?
Cypress Crib

Primary lumber harvesting on the Gulf Coast and specifically Louisiana was limited to riving or pit sawing until nearly the mid 19th century. Water wheel driven saw mills were not possible as there is not sufficient elevation change to water with any velocity. There was one rather interesting exception to this, that I am aware of, which I will write about some time in the future.

So given this limitation of mechanization we either need lumber easily rived or sawn with human power OR just so coveted that strenuous sawing is worth it in the end. This knocks the list down a bit. 

We immediately lose Live Oak with its incredibly hard and twisted grain, though it was used extensively for ship building. Hickory and Pecan are out for similar reasons to however Hickory would have seen use in tool handles and cultivation implements whereas it’s cousin the Pecan is a terrible choice as it is an absolute honey put for every wood consuming insect on the planet.  Toss out Sycamore on early pieces, later it would become a common secondary lumber after the introduction of steam powered mills and it's stability was recognized. The local Maple is terribly soft and not very useful as lumber for construction or furnishings. Red oak is prone to rot so it is seldom seen in building or furnishings.

We are left with Cypress, Pine, White Cedar, White Oak, Cherry, Tulip Poplar and Sassafras.

 3) What of those above woods have characteristics conducive to furniture building?

Cypress & Yellow Pine
Two Petite Armories and a Corner Cupboard
utilizing Cypress and a primary lumber.
I lump these together for the simple reason that they are very similar. In regions where Cypress was available, very little pine was utilized. Cypress is strong, light and incredibly rot and bug resistant. In the sandy portions of the Louisiana Territories Pine was substituted for Cypress for both structures as well as furnishings. There Are many pieces in collections and in the wild that share nearly identical designs and form from South Louisiana up to more northern French territories of old Louisiana – again IL & MO for example. Cypress was commonly used as a primary lumber on country furnishings.  

Most 18-19th century South Louisiana furniture has Cypress somewhere on it be it as primary or a secondary lumber choice. The most elaborate of Mahogany armoires from this region featured Cypress backs and panels with veneers applied.

Another beneficial trait of Cypress is its ease of tooling. Power tool woodworkers lack an appreciation for
The Walnut and The Cherry Armories
here feature Cypress secondary lumber.
Notice Sassafras chairs in foreground. 
these qualities now days but Cypress possesses a quality that I can only describe as Pine-like but with a crispness not found with pine. It has straight grain wich is readily rived and cleaved yet good nail holding strength and the end grain responds well to a sharp chisel.

White Cedar
This one is a bit odd to me. This may be another lumber that was found in upper northern regions of the territories. I have not found any furnishings or structures made of it in South Louisiana. Early references do mention it however. Used in the Cooperage industry perhaps?

 Interior of a Walnut Armoire  showing the
prevalent use of Cypress in auspicious places
one could hardly consider "secondary."
White Oak
Seen in buildings in Northern areas, found in farm tools, ox yokes, door hinges (yes, I have a door in my shop at the moment waiting to be copied that has Pine boards with Oak battens and hinges)… but not found much in furniture here. Interesting when you consider its prevalent use in French Furnishings.

Cherry & Walnut
These were not abundant in lower Louisiana certainly not sufficient to supply the furniture trade. They both are susceptible to disease and rot in our climate and tend to die at a relatively juvenile age. It was abundant further north in Upper MS, AR, IL, and MO and was sent down river to supply the demand. Both sawn on site and sent down as logs it was coveted for Louisiana Furniture. The lack of local supply meant that it commanded a higher price and explains why Louisiana Ebiniste took the use of secondary lumber to such an extent - using stained Cypress in areas that were quite noticeable.

A common secondary wood. I see it less than Cypress but it is most certainly there. 

Sycamore was likely overlooked early on. It is impossible to split and not particularly worth sawing as once sawn it warps and twist terribly during drying. I have not seen any early pieces but I have come across late 19th Century High Post Beds to feature Sycamore lumber. It was not uncommon to use Sycamore for the corner post, once cured it is surprisingly stable. I see it as a secondary lumber on 20th century and later drawer sides and back panels. 

Though abundant in Louisiana I've only seen this one used for chairs - and quite early ones at that. 

Imported Hardwoods
The only imported lumber found in 18th Century South Louisiana, that I am aware of, was Mahogany imported from the West Indies. It was highly coveted and was brought in as lumber, logs and veneer. Craftsmen skilled in sawing veneer were employed as it allowed cabinet builders to produce their own veneers and veneer values were substantially higher than of lumber.

French Acadian Table in Pine,
typically Cypress further south.
Typical French Acadian
Table in Cypress
Exported Lumber
Louisiana exported a tremendous volume of lumber. The first real commercial sawing in Louisiana was actually to supply the cooperage industry with Cypress wood primarily for sugar crates. As crazy as it is, empty sugar crates were loaded onto vessels bound for the West Indies for use in packing sugar for export to the Americas and Europe as the sugar industry was at this time undeveloped and the process of crystallization would not make its way to Louisiana for quite some time.

This door is one single slab
of Cypress with battens.

Hopefully that answers the first part of your questions, Thomas. As for the rest of your questions, below, I will address that in yet another post after assembling some pictures for clarity.  

Additionally, could you post more pics of the furniture construction? Specific questions, regarding what joinery was used to make the carcass (full blind dovetails, half blind, etc?) Was nails or flat head screws used?


Jean N Becnel

© Jean Becnel, 2014. 
The material found herein is the sole intellectual property of it's author(s). 
Reproduction of this information is strictly forbidden without the written permission of it's author(s)


  1. Jean, this is extremely helpful and educational. I didn't mean for you to generate an entire new blog post, just brainstorming ideas and questions I had (being a newbie in LA). I was surprised to read that pecan was not a desirable species of wood to use but your rationale makes sense. It's interesting that you mentioned Sassafras as abundant but not seen in furniture. To my knowledge, sassafras looks similar to oak and not difficult work. Once again thanks for taking time to break down the different species and what was considered desirable.

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