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Classical Chinese Furniture Materials
INDIGENOUS HARDWOODS AND SOFTWOODS:
Boxwood (Huangyang - 黃楊木)

Huangyangmu

Boxwood is a small tree and shrub. Due to the limited size of the material, it is rarely used for full-sized pieces of furniture, but more often for small, carved objects or as decorative inlay. Boxwood is very durable and dense (.83-.93 g/cm3), and its fine even texture makes it especially suitable for carving.

Numerous varieties, which all produce material of similar characteristics, are widely distributed throughout China; noted timber varieties are also harvested in Hubei, Jiangxi, and Sichuan. The tree grows very slowly, with some varieties reaching only 10-15 cm diameter after 100 years; forests of Laoshan in Shandong produce boxwood trees with diameters reaching 30 cm.

The sapwood and heartwood of boxwood are indistinguishable, and their freshly cut pale-yellow color turns to a warm brownish-yellow tone after exposure. The grain is usually very straight, but can also be irregular. The timber is difficult to dry and especially prone to splitting. Freshly worked boxwood has an earthy fragrance. Because of its extremely small vessel cells, the texture is exceptionally smooth and fine, and the surface polishes to a silky luster.

Burl (Yingmu - 廮木, Huamu - 花木)

Burl

Burls are abnormal projections that bulge out from or encircle the trunks or branches of trees. What causes them remains unknown and their tumor-like growth does not appear to adversely affect the tree's health. Various theories suggest that they result from falling trees, fire or frost damage, invading fungus or bacteria, or even woodpeckers. Certain species, such as camphor, elm, nanmu, cypress, and willow also seem to be more susceptible to burl growths.

The wood tissue of a burl is extremely disoriented and is comprised of many small bud formations that often appear as clusters of round curls. It is often difficult to distinguish one burl species from another. However, similar coloring, texture, and grain patterns of the parent tree can often be detected.

Nanmu Burl

Nanmu burl (楠木癭) is often described as having a "grape seed pattern," which describes the tiny seed-like bud formations within it. Such burl may also come from the roots of massive nanmu trees. Wood from the junction of the trunk and roots is full of interesting and distorted figure caused by the changes in direction of the wood fibers as they branch out as roots, and by the effects of compression from bearing the weight of the tree.

Burl-like figure also frequently develops in several varieties of birch (huamu (Betula)) that grow throughout China. The heartwood is generally light yellow and sometimes figured with rust-colored 'bird's-eye' or striped patterns. In Chinese, the term huamu is used interchangeably for birch and birch with burl-like figure, as well as for burls in general.

Camphor (Xiangzhang - 香樟木)

Xiangzhangmu

Because of its resistance to insects as well as its attractive grain patterns, camphor wood has long been used for making wardrobes and storage chests. Camphor is a large evergreen tree of the laurel family. It frequently grows to huge proportions approaching 50 meters in height with trunks reaching 5 meters in diameter. It is widely distributed south of the Yangzi River including Hainan Island, with the largest concentrations found in Taiwan, followed by Jiangxi and Fujian.

The pale sapwood of camphor is clearly distinguished from the heartwood, whose reddish-brown color is typically figured with darker reddish striations. The fragrance of camphor is intense after freshly cut, and its strong scent does not diminish with time. The interlocked grain pattern of camphor imparts a light and dark striped figure patterned with its open pores appearing as slanted parallel lines in the radial surface. It is light to medium in weight (.42-.54 g/cm3) and soft to medium in hardness. It is relatively stable but not particularly strong as a timber. The texture is even, and the surface can be polished to a rich luster.

Yellow Camphor (C. parthenoxylon) also grows throughout southern China, but does not reach the mammoth proportions of its relative. Although the material is similarly figured, it is lighter in color, and less dense; and after cutting, its fragrance dissipates with time. This material is often substituted for the more highly prized variety.

Cypress (Baimu, Bomu - 柏木)

Baimu

Cypress is categorized along with nanmu in the Song dynasty "Yingzao Fashi" (營造法式) categorizes as a "miscellaneous soft wood" (za ruanmu - 雜軟木). Late Ming connoisseurs noted the use of Sichuan cypress as a suitable furniture-making material, and Qing dynasty records from the Yuanmingyuan (圓明園) also indicate that southern cypress was of comparable value to nanmu.

Of several cypress varieties found in modern China, Weeping Cypress (C. funebris) is the most highly regarded for its timber. It is heavily concentrated in Sichuan where it reaches heights of thirty meters and two meters in diameter. Smaller varieties of lesser quality include Bhutan Cypress, with concentrations in Gansu, Fujian Cypress, distributed throughout southern China to the Vietnamese border regions, and Himalayan Cypress (Xizang bai - 西藏柏).

The heartwood of Weeping Cypress has a grassy yellowish-brown tonality, and is sometimes slightly streaked with red. With prolonged exposure, the color becomes deeper; the sapwood has paler tonalities. The material has good luster, is somewhat waxy or oily to the touch, and has a pungent fragrance. The grain is generally quite straight and evenly textured. The weight, density (±.58 g/cm3) and hardness are both medium to high. Drying is relatively slow, and requires attention to avoid warpage problems. Afterwards, it is highly resistant to rot and insect damage. The finely textured material is easy to work and polishes to a bright surface.


Huaimu (Chinese Locust - 槐木)

Huaimu

Locust initially appears quite similar to northern elm. In the Northern Song architecture treatise "Yingzao Fashi" (營造法式), locust and elm (yu - 榆樹) were categorized as "miscellaneous hardwoods" of similar sawing difficulty. However, locust is appreciably more dense (.79-.81 g/cm3), and the surface is more coarsely textured.

Locust is distributed throughout China, however the best is considered to come from northern China. Aside from its noted density, the timber is hard and very strong. The pores in the early wood can be relatively large; the grain is relatively straight but unevenly textured. It is relatively easy to dry, with little warpage; however, it tends to develop large cracks. After drying, the wood is quite stable and naturally resistant to moisture and insect damage. It is difficult to cut and to surface; however, afterwards, it reveals a lustrous surface.

Jumu (Southern Elm, Zelkova - 櫸木)

Jumu

Southern Elm was a popular furniture-making wood in the Suzhou region. It is distinguished from its northern counterpart by a more refined ring porous structure that is apparent in the tangential surface, and by small medullary rays that are visible as fine reflective flecks across the radial surface. Southern Elm is also comparatively denser and stronger.

Southern Elm is widely distributed throughout China with concentrations found in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Anhui provinces as well as Korea and Japan, where it is commonly known as keyaki. The arbor reaches 30 meters in height and the trunk, 1.5 meter in diameter.

The sapwood is distinguished from the slightly darker heartwood, which varies in tonality from yellowish brown to coffee-brown. Jiangsu craftsmen traditionally divide jumu into three types: yellow ju (huangju - 黃櫸), red ju (hongju - 紅櫸), and blood ju (xueju - 血櫸). Factors including the age of the tree are thought to account for these variations in color as well as ranging densities (.63-.79 g/cm3). Blood ju, with a reddish-brown coffee color as well as some feathery like figure in the tangential surface, is the most highly prized.

Nanmu (Phoebe Nees - 楠木)

Nanmu

Nanmu (楠木) and nanmu burl (楠木癭) (douban nan) were frequently mentioned as materials par excellence in Ming literati writings. The former was often used for cabinet construction; the latter, for decorative cabinet door and table top panels as well as smaller scholar's objects.

Nanmu is a large, slow growing tree of the evergreen laurel family that develops with a long straight trunk ranging from 10-40 meters in height, and 50 to 100 cm in diameter. While sharing some characteristics with the coniferous cedar, it bears no botanical relationship. More than thirty varieties are found south of the Yangzi River with concentrations in the southwest; varieties are also indigenous to Hainan Island and Vietnam.

Zhennan (楨楠) from Sichuan and Guizhou, zinan (Purple Nanmu - 紫楠) from the southeastern and south-central regions, and hongmaoshan nan (Hongmao Mountain Nanmu) from Hainan Island are generally considered to produce the finest timber. These wood ranges in color from a warm olive-brown color to a reddish-brown color. Other species of nanmu with a coarse, loosely structured grain and lighter color are considered inferior.

Because it is highly resistant to decay, nanmu was frequently used for architectural woodworking and boat-building. The wood dries well with minimal warping or splitting after which it is dimensionally stable and of medium density (zhennan ±.61 g/cm3). Nanmu also emits a pungent fragrance when freshly worked. And because it polishes to a shimmering surface and has fine smooth texture, it was also prized as furniture-making wood. Shimmering characteristics also qualify that which is termed 'jinsi' (golden-thread - 金絲楠) nanmu. The burl of nanmu (douban nan) was also commonly featured in table and cabinet door panels.

Oak (Zuomu - 柞木, Gaolimu - 高麗木)

Zuomu

Although furniture made from oak is somewhat rare, the material has long been known as an excellent furniture-making wood. The variety known as gaoli (高麗) was used in the Yongzheng (雍正) (1723-1735) Imperial workshops, and earlier examples have also survived. Botanists have identified one hundred forty types of oaks widely distributed throughout China. These are divided into the evergreen Qingfeng group and the Mali group, the latter inclusive of both deciduous and evergreen varieties. Three species suited for furniture-making are noted below.

The Blue Japanese Oak (C. glauca) is widely distributed from Japan to India and commonly reaches heights of 20 meters with trunk diameters of one meter. The sapwood and heartwood are not clearly distinguished and range from grayish-yellow to grayish-brown with streaks of brown or red. The material is difficult to dry and not easy to work, however, it is extremely dense (±.90 g/cm3) and hard. Distinctive medullary rays appear in the tangential surface as short dark lines; in the radial surface, they appear as lustrous flecks woven through the longitudinal grain. The Sawtooth Oak (Q. acutissima) is also broadly distributed throughout China. With the exception of its reddish-brown heartwood, other characteristics are similar to the Blue Japanese Oak.

The somewhat less dense (.67-.75 g/cm3) Mongolian Oak (Q. mongolica) grows throughout north central and northeastern China, and is found from stretching westward through Japan , Korea, Mongolia, and Siberia. A similar species of growing in the Xing'anling (興安嶺) region of Mongolia has been related to that commonly termed gaoli mu---Gaoli being a Chinese reference to ancient Korea.

Walnut (Hetao - 核桃木)

Hetaomu

Walnut was used for many examples of Qing period furniture sourced from the Shanxi region, which generally demonstrate refined workmanship; earlier pieces are extremely rare. Walnut is easily confused with nanmu (楠木) , however, the surface of walnut tends to have more of an open-grained texture, and the color tends more towards golden-brown or reddish-brown when contrasted with the olive-brown tones of nanmu. Furthermore, their freshly worked surfaces each emit a distinctive fragrance.

China has several species of walnut that produce timber suited for high-quality furniture-making. True Walnut (J. regia L.) is generally cultivated in the north and northwestern regions, but also extends into the southwestern provinces. It is a deciduous tree reaching 20 meters in height that produces an edible nut that can be pressed into a high-quality vegetable oil. The light-colored sapwood is clearly distinguishable from the heartwood, the latter being reddish-brown too chestnut-brown in color, and sometimes even purplish, or with darker striated patterning. It dries very slowly, but is quite stable afterwards. It is of medium density (±.62 g/cm3) and has a relatively fine texture.

Because True Walnut is generally cultivated for its fruit rather than timber, Manchurian Walnut (J. mandsharica M.) is often used in its place. It is distributed throughout the northern to northeastern forests of China. It is somewhat lower in density (±.53 g/cm3) than True Walnut, and somewhat lighter in color. Wild Walnut (J. cathayensis) is distributed throughout central-to-eastern China, with noted concentrations in Yunnan province.

Yumu (Northern Elm - 榆木)

Yumu

Northern Elm is the most common furniture-making wood found throughout northern China. It is referred to throughout the catalogue as Northern Elm to differentiate it from the somewhat similar appearing Zelkova, which is also commonly called elm, or Southern Elm.

There are over twenty varieties of elm which are widely distributed tree throughout China, but more highly concentrated in the northern regions. Northern varieties noted for producing furniture-making timber include the Japanese Elm (chunyu (U. davidiana var. japonica)), which reaches 30 meters in height and 1 meter in diameter, and the somewhat smaller Manchurian Elm (lieye yu (U. laciniata)). These, along with the more broadly distributed Siberian Elm (bai yu (U. pumila)) all share similar characteristics.

The sapwood of Northern Elm is yellowish-brown; the heartwood, a slight chestnut brown. The wood is difficult to dry and easily develops cracks. The material is of medium density (.59-.64 g/cm3) and hardness, and with the exception of Siberian elm, has relatively low strength. The material is somewhat resistant to decay and easy to work. Because the wood is ring porous, with a wave-like patterning in the growth rings of the late wood, the tangential surface often reveals a layered, feather-like figure that is popular for furniture-making.

Chinese Elm (lang yu - 榔榆 (U. parviflora)) is more concentrated in the southern tropical regions, but is also found throughout Shaanxi, Shanxi, Hebei. Its coffee-colored heartwood may also relate to the furniture-making wood popularly called Purple Elm (ziyu - 紫榆). This timber is also difficult to dry, easy to warp and split, but considerably denser (±.90 g/cm3) and harder than the other varieties. It has high structural strength, but the grain patterning is not as striking as Japanese Elm or Siberian Elm; it is also more difficult to work.

Zhazhen

Zhazhenmu

Commonly termed zhazhen or zhajing, this furniture-making wood is associated with the mulberry species. Furniture made from zhazhen wood is commonly found in the Subei region of Jiangsu. The wood is dark reddish-brown and layered with coffee-colored tissue; it has a fine grain pattern with medullary rays visible in the radial cut. The material is of medium density, but has low resistance to decay.


TROPICAL HARDWOODS:

Hongmu (紅木)

Hongmu

No early references to hongmu have yet been discovered; however, the equivalent southern Chinese term 'suanzhi' (酸枝) appears during the middle Qing period—its literal meaning, 'sourwood' describes the pungent odor emitted when it is worked. Most of the dark heavily carved Qing period furniture is made from hongmu. Also called 'blackwood', it can resemble zitan (紫檀木) but lacks the latters deep lustrous surface and its 'crab-claw markings'. There is also a light variety which can be difficult to distinguish from huanghuali (黃花梨木).

Huanghuali (黃花梨木)

huanghualimuhuanghualimu

The Chinese term huanghuali (黃花梨木) literally means "yellow flowering pear" wood. It is a member of the rosewood family and is botanically classified as Dalbergia odorifera. In premodern times the wood was know as huali (花梨) or hualu (花櫚). The modifier huang (yellowish-brown) was added in the early twentieth century to describe old huali woodwhose surfaces had mellowed to a yellowish tone due to long exposure to light. The sweet fragrance of huali distinguishes it from the similar appearing but pungent-odored hongmu (紅木).

The finest huanghuali has a translucent shimmering surface with abstractly figured patterns that delight the eye--those appearing like ghost faces were highly prized. The color can range from reddish-brown to golden-yellow. Historical references point to Hainan Island as the main source of huali. However, variations in the color, figure, and density suggest similar species sourced throughout North Vietnam, Guangxi, Indochina and the other isles of the South China Sea.

Jichimu (雞翅木)

Jichimu

Jichimu (雞翅木), literally translated as 'chicken-wing wood', describes a wood whose deep brown and gray patterns when cut tangentially resemble the patterns of bird feathers. The radial cut appears less dramatically with parallel lines of concentric layered tissue. It is botanically classified in the Ormosia genus of which as many as twenty-six species may grow in China. Jichimu is indigenous to Hainan Island, and the relatively large quantity of jichimu furniture found in Fujian province also corresponds to a source where seven different species are reportedly found today, and whose materials are virtually undifferentiated, yet bear varying leaf patterns. Hongdou (紅豆 - red bean), and xiangsi (相思) may also be other names for related species.

Tieli Wood (鐵力木)

Tielimu

Tieli wood (鐵力木) is often confused with jichimu (雞翅木), yet lacks the latter's contrasting colors. Tieli is predominantly grayish black, and its open grain has a coarse texture. It once grew abundant in Guangdong where its large timbers were used for bridges and house construction; on Hainan Island the natives used it for firewood. Nevertheless, in the more northern regions its was regarded as a rare hardwood and was noted for as a desirable wood for furniture-making in late Ming texts. Furniture made from tieli often has a thick quality and is frequently with little or no carved decoration.

Ebony (Wumu - 烏木)

Wumu

Wumu (烏木), or ebony, is botanically related to the Ebenacea family. It has a fine closed grain which is very brittle, and the color can be pure black to black and brown. Because it grows as a small-diameter tree, it is rarely used as primary material for large pieces of furniture, but more often shaped into secondary decorative elements or as small precious objects.

Zitanmu (紫檀木)

Zitanmu

Zitanmu (紫檀木) is an extremely dense wood which sinks in water. It is a member of the rosewood family and is botanically classified in the Pterocarpus genus. The wood is blackish-purple to blackish-red in color, and its fibers are laden with deep red pigments which have been used for dye since ancient times. The fine texture of the wood grain is especially suitable for intricate carving.

Early records indicate that zitanmu was sourced in tropical forests of Indochina and from Hainan Island. The tree grows quite slowly. Few pieces are known to be greater than one foot in width. While the tree is relatively rare, it is not extinct. New resources have been repeatedly found throughout the centuries, and those from India and China and Southeast Asia have been supplying the modern-day makers of reproduction zitanmu furniture.


MISCELLANEOUS MATERIALS:

Decorative Stone

MarbleSerpentine

Decorative stone was used as a secondary material for table top panels, decorative inlay panels, and impressionistic screen panels. The natural imagery revealed in a slice of geological time often revealed abstract landscape scenes or figures.

Soft decorative stone such as marble or serpentine were commonly used; agate panels were also used, but much more rarely.

Paktong (白銅)

Patong

Paktong, or baitong (白銅) hardware was commonly used for reinforcement and decoration. Paktong is essentially a brass alloy with a 5-10% nickel content with imparts a silvery luster and retards the tarnishing which is typical to brass. Metalsmiths were a specialized trade distict from woodworking carpenters.

Woven Cane

Woven CaneWoven Cane

Soft, woven seats were traditional to Ming and early Qing furniture, although the use of hard seat panels is occasionally noted in early examples. Aside from its pliable support, the airiness of the woven bed frame was especially comfortable during the hot summer seasons. With regard to chairs, the customary use of woven seats gives way to increasing use of hard-panel seats during the 18th and 19th centuries, and old soft seats were also occasionally replaced with maintenance-free hard panels during this period.
 
Seat weaving was a specialized tradition, and itinerant specialists facilitated their frequent repair and renewal. Soft seats were produced in several traditional styles. Occasionally, processed animal tendons were used to weave an extremely pliant matting. Woven-rope and leather-strip seats were common to folding stools and folding chairs. More commonly, an underwebbing of twisted palm fiber was woven through the holes in the seat frame, after which, split cane was woven directly on top.

The craft of weaving cane has all but disappeared. Modern recaning continues the underwebbing technique, however, the finely woven mat has been replaced by sheet matting that is cut to size and simply pinned into the holes with softwood wedges. The fiber and cane, having been soaked for several hours before weaving, dries to a taught, yet elastic seat panel.

Time of Hong Kong: Tuesday, November 30, 2021 12:36 pm (GMT+8)