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Wood of Qing Dynasty Style Furniture

The type and quality of woods plays as important a role in antique Chinese furniture as it does in Western pieces, sometimes more so. Identical tables, for example, from the same region and the same period but made from different types of woods can have different prices - differences that could put two extra zero in front of the decimal point.

We found a coffee table in a friend's home that was made from zitan, not the traditional southern elm of the late Qing dynasty. She had bought it at a garage sale for $30. Its value could well be $10,000, because not only is zitan a hardwood that somehow feels buttery soft, it is extinct.

But all the woods used in Chinese furniture are beatiful to look at and touch. The Chinese usually selected woods with vivid grains and warm hues. This is an important feature even in furniture that has been colored. One of the attractions of these antiques is pieces with worn down finishes that reveal the bare wood beneath. The juxtaposition of wood and color creates a warm textured finish that is highly desirable.

What follows is a list of the woods you might expect, or hope, to find in late Qing pieces, plus a couple of extras, notably zitan, which had apparently vanished from the planet by the time the late Qing furniture makers picked up their planes.

Zitan (zee-tahn): The most sought after wood of the Chinese court, it was imported from southeast Asia and cut to extinction. It is a very hard wood and thought to be a yellow flower pear wood. It has a rich, deep purple/black color. Once you've laid a hand to zitan, you'll always be able to identify it by touch.

Huanghuali (Wong-wah-lee): The other hardwood valued by the ruling elite, it belongs to the rosewood family and originally came from the south China island of Hainan. Furniture makers often died huanghuali to look like zitan, but it became so popular among Western collectors that in the late 19th and 20th centuries, the color was often stripped off. Usually thought to have a honey colored hue and a light, even grain, it can actually range in color from light brown to mahogany dark. Huanghuali was long thought to be, like zitan, extinct, and finding a huanghuali piece of furniture was considered a virtual guarantee of age. But there have reportedly been new stands of huanghuali discovered in southeast Asian, perhaps Vietnman, and contemporary furniture makers are busy churning out fakes. So proceed with caution because huanghuali no longer guarantees age and value. Although Western collectors will do back flips to find furniture made from huanghuali, there is evidence that also Chinese nobles may have regarded it as a primarily utilitarian, not aesthetic, building material.

Huanli(Wah-lee): This is not huanghuali, although it is sometimes mistaken for it. Huali is usually a light, honey color. It's very pretty, but not rare.

Hongmu (Hong-moo): More commonly calledd "blackwood," hongmu is rare but certainly not uncommon. It is often used for decorative trim on cabinets and can show up in chairs and sometimes on smaller cabinets. Its color is a deep, chocolate brown bordering on black with a small grain. We recently sold a small (33 x 19 x 36 inch) cabinet made of blackwood, and it was one of the most beautiful pieces we've ever had. It's a much more interesting wood, to us, than huanghuali.

Jinchimu (Gee-chee-moo): If you see this hardwood, you will want it. "Chickenwood" is brown with a vivid grain that resembles the layered feathers of a chicken wing. The Chinese often label a wood for the way it looks, and this is one of the most colorful examples, Chickenwood is rare, gorgeous, and adds considerably to the value of a piece.

Wumu: This is ebony: not especially rare and not especially common in late Qing pieces.

Jumu (Joo-moo): Southern elm, this softwood is the most common wood in late Qing pieces. It helps to known that the Chinese idea of softwood differs from the Western designation. The Chinese softwood are actually hardwoods in Western terms because they come from deciduous trees, not ever-greens such as pine. They are called soft because they are porous enough to hold a color. Southern elm is plentiful in central and southern China, and it had an interesting, rich grain. The shapes in the grain earn it the nickname of "pagoda wood." Usually a medium brown color, it can also be light or dark brown. The grain, texture, and coloring are often not especially interesting in bare-wood condition but develop a rich, warm patina with the addition of finishes such as varnish, shellac, and clear Chinese lacquer.

Yumu(Yoo-moo): This is northern elm and similar to jumu, the southern elm.

Hetaomu (Het-o-moo):This Chinese walnut is similar to Western walnut in appearance, and its color can range from a medium to dark brown. It is somewhat rare and seems to show up most often in tables from the 18th century. It adds value to a piece.

Huamu (Wah-moo): Burlwood presents an interesting but somewhat academic problem among Chinese woods because its name stems from the appearance of the grain, not the tree it comes from. A burled grain can come from any of a number of woods - maple, walnu, elm, camphor - but the Chinese don't make that distinction. It is thought that Chinese burlwood usually comes from canphor wood (zhangmu), but, as we said, it's largely academic. Burlwood is often used as decorative inset for table or door panels. Burlwood furniture was rare until 1999, when it started to show up increasingly. It's a great touch and adds a nice element of color and grain contrast in the furniture.

Huangyanmu (Wong-yahn-moo): Boxwood is a brown hardwood used ornamentally in Chinese furniture. It grows slowly and produces a trunk that might be 4 inches in diameter at maturity, so it's not practical for furniture panels. But it does hold up well to carving, so you might see it used as relief sculpture on a cabinet or as a carved hinge on a cabinet door.

Baimu (Bye-moo): This is cypress, a softwood, that one sometimes sees in large pieces of furniture, but the light-colored grain is not as imaginative as some of the other woods. It can also be found as decorative trim, since its color blends well with southern elm.

Namu: This softwood is similar to cedar and doesn't show up very often in late Qing furniture.

Songmu: Songmu is pine, and it is sometimes used for table tops, notably on bamboo tables, and occasionally for entire pieces of furniture. But it doesn't hold up as well as jumu, southern elm, and was not as widely available. The grain is also not as distinctive as jumu, so furniture makers generally did not favor it.

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