Both oak and walnut were used in the making of early English furniture. However differences in the woods lent themselves to a difference in styles; earlier oak furniture being much more robust in design although often heavily decorated, whereas the slightly later walnut was used to create the much lighter intricate designs of some of the finest cabinetry ever made. The artisans themselves who used the woods were also distinguished between the joiner or ordinary craftsman and the master craftsman.
The durable oak that was the mainstay of furniture making up to and during the early part of the 17th century, was very much the joiners’ art. It was made fairly crudely and construction used mortise and tenon where the narrowed end of one piece of wood fitted into a socket created in the other and the two were secured by dowels or wooden pegs. Much of this type of construction can still be seen today on antique tables, chairs, stools, cupboards and beds made during that period. So although fairly crude in construction, the joiners’ art coupled with the use of hardy oak created furniture that has lasted many hundreds of years.
Walnut on the other hand was the preserve of the master cabinet maker and as the 17th century progressed, these craftsmen were producing furniture for the courts of kings. The return of Charles II from exile in France meant that he brought back with him a taste for the flamboyant that he had picked up from the court of Louis XIV. That, coupled with the introduction of the baroque style from Huguenot craftsmen, themselves exiled from France to England, and the use of walnut for marquetry, veneers, and finely carved barley-sugar twisted legs, ensured that walnut continued as the wood of choice. Heavy usage however resulted in it becoming scarce during the early part of the 18th century, and mahogany was imported to replace it.
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