Victor Chinnery, Oak Furniture:The British Tradition, A History of Early Furniture in the British Isles and New England London: Antique Collectors' Club, 2002, selections from pages 142-144.
The differing characteristics of timbers, as well as the vagaries of individual trees, allow a variety of conversion techniques.
The most common of these was to saw the log into appropriate scantlings with the great two handled pit-saw; but certain timbers (and oak in particular) will split readily down the line of the grain, and these allow the technique known as riving.
Oak will split easily along the radius of the log, and the first action of the river is to hammer an iron wedge into this line, using a shaped wooden mallet known as a 'beetle'. A wooden handle is then inserted into the socket of the wedge, and the log is split open using the handle as a lever.
A straight and even-grained log of wainscot oak can be converted into a series of extremely thin and wide boards, and these are ideal for panel stuff. Such boards show the beauty of the silvery 'figure' of oak to its best advantage, and were consequently highly-valued for this quality. Since they are formed from radial fissures, the individual riven boards are tapered in thickness from the outer to the inner edges, and this is often apparent in the finished work....
Another characteristic of riven timber is its distinctive surface, in which the cleft grain may stand out in small ridges, and the surface will undulate gently in following the line of the grain. This is evident only on the rear and under surfaces of early work, since show-surfaces are normally finished smooth.
The marks of the pit-saw are likewise very distinctive and familiar to anyone who takes the trouble to inspect the rear surfaces of period furniture. They show a great variety in the depth and angle of the saw cut, unlike the regular and monotonous pattern left by a vertical machine-saw, in which the same cut is repeated every inch or so; or the regular curved line of the circular saw.
Pit-sawing is a filthy, strenuous and difficult job. Even so, it continued as the most common method in English lumber yards until the second half of the last century. In Europe and America, water- and steam-powered sawmills were developed rather earlier. Industrial mechanical sawmills had been set up in Europe before 1500, but in England the pit-sawyers resisted the setting-up of mechanical mills until after 1800.
In 1761, the Royal Society of Arts had presented a prize of £300 to one James Stanfield for the design of a mill which he had erected in Yorkshire. This was powered by a water wheel, driving three frame-saws. Within a few years powered sawmills became a little more common, but like their brethren in the textile trades, the sawyers opposed the introduction of machinery for many years, fearing unemployment and loss of status.
The more responsible and experienced member of the pair of pit-sawyers was the 'top-sawyer', who positioned himself on top of the log. The 'bottom-sawyer' stood in the pit beneath the log, and his job was simply to provide the brawn and impetus for the down-stroke. The top-sawyer was responsible for guiding the saw, and thus ensuring the accuracy and regularity of the work.
Most timber was converted into standard scantlings, such as 1/2-inch, 1-inch or 11/2inch boards; 2-inch or 4-inch square-section; 1 by 3, 2 by 4, etc., etc. Many sizes were standardised under local guild regulations, and this can be confirmed by measuring extant work (allowing a certain tolerance for inaccuracies, planing and shrinkage).
The simplest and least wasteful approach to the sawing of planks is that known as slash- or straight-sawing (Diagram 2:22b), though this has certain inherent disadvantages. By this method the log is cut into vertical planks, working straight through from one side to the other. This wastes very little timber, but the outer planks have an unfortunate tendency to warp on drying (Diagram 2:22d). Only the centre plank avoids this defect completely, since the annual rings are at right angles to its surface. In order to retain this faculty, all the planks should be cut in this same direction. This can be done by 'quarter-sawing' the log. Using this technique, the log is first cut down the centre (one or two wide boards can be cut at the same time), and then into quarters.
Each quarter is dissected in such a manner that the planks follow the radius of the log (Diagram 2:22c). This is obviously a wasteful process, but quarter-sawn timber has a number of worthwhile properties, in common with riven boards. In practical terms, they have the mechanical advantages of resistance to warping, and the surfaces are more resistant to weathering than straight-sawn timber.
But the most obvious bonus is an aesthetic feature. Many timbers have a system of medullary rays which radiate out from the centre of the log (Diagram 2:25). Quarter-sawn and riven timber allows these rays to be fully exposed at the surface, in a very attractive manner. This is especially true of oak, in which the large, meandering rays appear as a silvery flickering 'figure' across the surface, a random feature which was much appreciated in the new timber, and is still highly valued in a patinated state. But other woods also have their figure, though on a smaller scale than oak. In most timbers the rays appear as fine shimmering flecks in the surface. They are a particular feature of the fruitwoods, especially cherry, but may also be seen to advantage in birch, beech and elm. Quarter-cut elm is extremely rare, but when it is found it presents a most attractive surface.
During the preparations for building a great house, the timber was chosen whilst still standing, and great occasion was sometimes made of "choosing the Trees" or "veweinge of Timber" by the chief carpenter.43 Architectural timbers were often used in the green state, since they were easier to work, and subsequent shrinkage had little effect on the structure; but timber for furniture, floors, panelling, etc. had to be properly seasoned after the sawyer had done his job. Ideally, the logs or cut planks are first immersed for a time in running water, in order to wash out the acid sap. The planks are finally stacked in an open-sided shed, supported with battens between them, so that they may dry naturally.
This process, still in common use today, was referred to in a letter of 1547, by Sir John Thynne (the builder of Longleat), when he ordered that the planks for his house should be
"laid up drye with stikks betweene it so that it may season the better".
He was much concerned that his timbers should be well-prepared, and only three days previously he had instructed his steward to be sure that
"there be plancks sawen for my dores so that they may be seasoned in tyme".
Like most patrons of his time, Thynne held his craftsmen responsible for the quality of the material they used, and he wrote of his joiners that if he should "finde any faut with the workmanship or the seasoning of their stuf they shall make it agayn".45 The artificial drying of timber in a kiln or oven was also experimented with at an early date (for example at Kenilworth in 1570, but this sophisticated procedure was not fully developed until modern times.
The deciduous woodlands of medieval and Tudor England were the most important of her natural resources. Wood for fuel and building materials had been of increasing importance even in Saxon times, but the medieval economy became heavily dependent on timber both as a source of domestic and industrial energy, and as the raw material for buildings, furniture, carts, bridges, ships and implements. The vast majority of town and country houses and cottages were built of some form of timber frame, even in areas rich in fine building stone, such as Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire and Derbyshire. The only structures habitually built of stone were those which survive today: churches, fortifications, castles, great country houses, rich manors, the better town houses and major bridges. Most towns, even as late as 1700, still consisted predominantly of thatched box-frame buildings. Many of these towns were burnt in disastrous fires during the course of the seventeenth century, which prompted their reconstruction in stone or brick and tile. Individual timber structures still survive in huge numbers behind the fashionable brick or stone facades which updated them in Georgian taste only superficially.
Throughout the Middle Ages and later, the most popular and plentiful of timbers was the native English oak. A wide variety of hardwoods was available in England, but oak was the most highly regarded despite its inherent disadvantages. There are instances of other woods being used in building (notably chestnut, walnut, elm, ash, maple and pine, as well as inferior timbers such as beech, willow, elder and sallow), but oak was consistently preferred for its strength and durability, and in view of its great abundance.
Most of the great forests were overwhelmingly of oak, and for hundreds of years these reserves were raided and diminished by the huge demand for timber supplies. Little thought was given to the need for conserving or replacing the stow-growing trees. Almost the only motive which inspired any thoughts of woodland conservation was a concern for the welfare of the chase, and the needs of game animals. Care was taken to preserve and control woodland cover in the many Royal and private hunting parks.
By 1500 a start had been made in forest husbandry by the development of a system known as 'coppice with standards'. By this method, the number of oak 'standards' was controlled (limited by law to twelve per acre in 1544). This allowed each tree to spread and grow in a healthy space, and the area beneath was planted with hazel 'coppice', from which hazel rods could be harvested for a number of purposes, especially basket and hurdle making.
But such thoughtful and effective therapy was too sporadic and belated to prevent the 'timber famine' which began to affect certain parts of the country during the course of the sixteenth century. Much has been made of the effects of such shortages, by both contemporary and modern writers, but the chief difficulties seem to have been fairly localised. A dearth of timber is first noted in Suffolk soon after 1500, yet many vestiges of the ancient oak forest were still virtually untouched in 1580 elsewhere in England. The Weald, Epping, Selwood, Sherwood, Dean, Arden and the New Forest still remained along with other smaller stands; but other areas less heavily blessed with woodland were beginning to feel the pinch. The four main reasons for the growing shortages were seen by contemporaries to be: the extravagant use of timber in buildings; the growth of the Navy and the mercantile marine; the prodigal consumption of firewood in emergent industries such as glass and iron production; and the spread of sheep farming with the consequent demand for pasture.
In his Description of England, William Harrison estimated that in ten years of recent building, the English had used more oak than in the previous century. He ridiculed the wasteful amounts of timber used by the builders around him, and his feelings were echoed in 1618 by Robert Reyce, who complained of the
"...carelesse wart of this age of our wonted plenty of timber ..."
Harrison also lamented the use of native timber in smelting products which could more cheaply be obtained from abroad;
"...manic needfull commodities...arc perfected with great cost (which may) with farre more ease and lesse cost be provided from other countries. I will not speake of iron, glasse and such like, which spoil much wood, and yet are brought from the other countries better cheepe than we can make them here at home..."
The same sentiment was expressed by Thomas Fuller in an elegy to the native timbers sacrificed as fuel for smelting:
Jove's oak, the warlike ash, veined elm, the softer beech, Short hazel, maple plain, light asp, the bending wych, Tough holly and smooth birch, must altogether burn, What should the builder serve, supplies the forger's turn.
Harrison's experience was particularly of Essex and the Home Counties, but elsewhere similar problems are seen. The matter was particularly acute in areas of traditional shortage, such as the Fens and Cornwall, but complaints may also be noted in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Wiltshire, East Anglia and the Weald. The latter seems a surprising case, but in 1607 John Norden felt moved to note depletions of Wealden timber, largely consumed.
Although it is customary to regard oak as the chief furniture timber of the medieval and post-medieval periods, that is until walnut (after 1660) and mahogany (after 1725) supplanted it as the more fashionable materials, it would be a mistake to assume that it was the only timber in use before '1660, or indeed that walnut and mahogany caused any appreciable decline in the proportion of oak furniture which continued to be made in their heyday. Rather, the popularity of oak furniture seems to have been a constant factor amongst the broad middle classes well into the nineteenth century. It is the more modish woods which suffer the aberrations of fashion, apparently in cycles of sixty to eighty years (during the second quarter of the eighteenth century, walnut and mahogany were equally popular, though mahogany has survived more completely from this period).