Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Stranger than Pulp Fiction: Balsa wood is a HARDWOOD

Woods used in antique furniture (or in anything else for that matter) are sadly misunderstood. 

They're misunderstood kind of like James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. Great movie. But our version would be all about the world of wood and called Rebel without a Butt-Joint. And it would star James Dean as the angst-ridden teenage Quince who smokes too much (so it can have a subplot about forest fire prevention). And then Natalie Wood would reprieve her role as a poor little Sapling prone to big talk, daddy issues, fast cars, and hopeless crushes on trees from the "wrong side of town." In wood terms, she'd be classified as a "Bad Seed" and thrown away with the rest of the trash.

But back to our topic: when it comes to fine wood antiques, everyone wants "hardwood" and no one wants that junky "softwood". Or so they think. 

In reality, hardwoods and softwoods have nothing whatsoever to do with how hard or soft they are. That misconception is just another staggering consumer fraud perpetuated by the sinister military/industrial/timber complex in D.C. or maybe someone else. I have no idea. It might even be the devil-work of AIG. I blame AIG for everything these days including my unnaturally high waist.

Shown below: An 18th Century Italian Walnut and Satinwood Parquetry Center Table
List price: $150,000 USD

FACT: Some of the hardest woods in the world are technically softwoods.

A great example is old growth American yellow pine. It's a softwood by definition (see below). But it's also incredibly dense and one of the hardest woods you can find. In fact, many "old yella" (I loved that movie) pine flitches (meaning planks from the same tree) are so dense they can bend nails.

And what's a hardwood that's really a namby pamby soft wood in disguise? Balsa wood. I kid you not. Balsa is a "hardwood" despite the fact that it's one of the lightest, softest and least dense woods there is.

So be careful when you ask if an antique farm table is hardwood. If the dealer says no that may be just fine because it may well be as hard as nails.

Shown here: An 18th Century Italian Commode of "French" walnut, rosewood, satinwood, and ebony:
List price: $136,000 USD

So how do you know if a wood is really a hardwood or a softwood? 

Simple dimple: Hardwoods are from trees that are deciduous (they drop their leaves every year like walnut, mahogany, and yes, balsa). And softwood comes from trees that are conifers and have needles (like pine trees). Softwood trees don't tend to drop their needles annually; that is, they are evergreens.

And shown below: An 18th Century Italian Marquetry and Parquetry Side Table:
List price: $53,500 USD

The thing to understand is that the world of wood is incredibly confusing in so many ways. So where do we start then to figure it out? 

Well, the basic thing to know (in addition to hardwood versus softwood as explained above), is that a lot of the confusion stems from the fact that most woods have multiple names. And sometimes the names make no sense. Take "Black Italian Poplar". It isn't black (it's white) and it doesn't grow in Italy (it grows in the UK). Hmmmmm.

But the confusion doesn't stop there. Even with a more simple wood like "walnut"--you'd think walnut would be pretty straightforward, right? But nooooo. Consider this: "African walnut" is not walnut at all nor is "Queensland walnut." True walnuts are from the Juglandaceae specie: African walnut is from the Meliaceae family and Queensland walnut is from the Lauraceae family. I'm sure that both these families are perfectly respectable but they're not walnut. Ugh. Too much information, too boring and you don't need to know all this baloney anyhow. So let's move on, OK? Well, no. 

I can't resist sharing just one more mind-twister with you on walnut (if you're thinking "Buzz, get a life" you're very insightful)....ok, so check this out: even for those who agree that a certain walnut is really a true walnut, there's a HUGE difference in the quality, look, and durability of different walnuts. For example, American domestic walnut (often called Black Walnut) is far less attractive, less expensive, and less durable than a European walnut (often called French Walnut). 

More on woods later. For today, let's just agree that: "hardwoods can be very soft and softwoods can be very hard." There, now wasn't that fun and easy? And better yet, it's true.

No comments: