Collecting Guide
American Furniture

Construction image

The construction of any type of furniture, hand-made or machine-manufactured, begins with a simple sketch of the piece. The sketch is further developed into a working-scale drawing to be used for future production. The wood, prepared for construction usually by either air- or kiln-drying, is cut into boards, veneers, and plywoods in a multitude of sizes for easy assembly. The finish to cover the porosity of the material and to give the piece its ultimate look, can be a combination of many-from painting and carving to inlaying and veneering. See Decoration

Assembly and skill help determine the value of the piece. Skilled handwork, rare and time-consuming, usually adds to the cost but guarantees quality and uniqueness of a piece-two factors of special importance to collectors of American furniture.


The joints, the most important parts of a piece of furniture, determine the strength and stability of a piece. Nails are rarely used, except perhaps temporarily to hold joints together while the glue is drying. Screws and clip fasteners are frequently used when movement is required. Braces and stretchers are consistently used for even distribution of the strain of the frame. Corner blocks and glue blocks also are widely used to strengthen joints and support the overlaying surface.

The mortise-and-tenon type of joinery was used in furniture making in the 17th century, and was often decorated at the seam that joins heavy frame and panel. Joinery was the most expensive type of furniture made at the time.

After about 1700, the introduction of the dovetailed board allowed furniture makers to create seamless surfaces in furniture with large case sides. Earlier versions required the use of heavy frame and panel construction.

This becomes evident in the broad case sides of William and Mary furniture. The mortise-and-tenon and dovetail constructions have continued in American furniture from their beginnings in the 17th century into furniture making today.


Cabinetmakers used different types of wood for their furniture.

For strength and appearance, they chose hardwoods, or primary woods, such as cherrywood, mahogany, maple and walnut.

For economy, ease of use and for the interior parts, they preferred softwoods, or secondary woods, such as chestnut, pine and poplar.

William and Mary furniture was mostly made from oak, pine, walnut and maple.

Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture was primarily composed of walnut and mahogany, while more rural pieces were made from maple and cherrywood.

Federal furniture was predominantly made of mahogany with birch and satinwood inlay.

Revival furniture was made from rosewood, mahogany and burl walnut.