In all probability, wood was the first material shaped by human beings. It has several advantages as a material for the craftsperson. Because it is relatively soft, it easy to work. Only the simplest of tools are needed.

The disadvantage, however, is that it is organic, and subject to decay. Since it is less permanent than many other materials, we have few surviving examples of ancient wooden artifacts.

A variety of simple techniques are used to embellish and shape wood. First, wood can be painted. Painting has a double purpose; first, preservation. Paint seals the surface and prevents decay of the wood. Second, embellishment-- paint adds color and decoration.

Wood can also be carved. Only the simplest of tools-- at a minimum, a knife-- is necessary to carve wood. Therefore we can have the simple, relatively unskilled carvings of folk artists, such as Norwegian chip carving, used to embellish boxes and tools, or a carved altar frontal made by an immigrant farmer for his frontier church. On the other hand, we also have the sophisticated work of master craftsmen, as can be seen in examples of Victorian furniture, or medieval gothic church interiors.

Marquetry is a method of cutting thin sheets of different colored woods (veneers) and cutting shapes from them to inlay a design on a wooden surface, such as a table, cabinet, or box. This technique is widely found on luxury furnishings, from China, to Europe, and the Middle East.

Turning involves the use of a lathe, introduced in Europe in the 16th century. The piece of wood is spun while being held in the lathe, and a knife or shaped cutting tool is held against it as it turns, resulting in symmetrically curved forms. Typical turned products are elaborate spindles used in stair railings, or the rounded spindle and legs of furniture such as a Windsor chair, and wooden bowls. This link will take you to a Web gallery maintained by a Woodturners group .

A peculiar characteristic of wood is that it can be bent if it is soaked in water. Other solutions, such as glycerine may be used to enhance this flexibility. This technique has long been used in the making of functional items such as round boxes (like those made by the Shakers), and in making wooden baskets from slats of softened wood. In the late 19th century,the French designer Thonet produced a series of bentwood chair designs that have become classics, and are still in production.

Wood has always been used for the making of furniture. This includes storage units, such as trunks and cabinets, but also the making of other furniture, such as chairs. The earliest examples of chairs have been found in Egyptian tombs dating to about 1500-1350 BC. The Chinese also used chairs, and in the 18th c. Chinese chairs inspired the great furniture maker, Chippendale, in his design of chairs that have become classics in European design. Today there are still craftsmen/designers working in wood to create beautiful furniture, relying on the ancient methods and skills of the woodworker to create modern designs.

Wood has also been used for the creation of shelter since prehistoric times. The bark and sapling structures as made by East Coast Indians and copied by early settlers in 17th c. New England have been reproduced at Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts.

Another common form of traditional house construction is the half timbered house. It is commonly associated with Tudor England of the 16th century, but was brought to the Americas by English settlers in the 17th century. The skeleton of the house is made of heavy timbers, with stone and plaster used to fill the large spaces between the timbers. This method is often used where wood is in limited supply. On occasion, this structure may be later covered with wood siding, as it often was in 18th century America.

Just as half timbered construction methods were brought to this country by early English immigrants, so also were various styles of log construction. For example, the square cut log houses still found in Northern Minnesota, built by Finnish immigrants,closely resemble the log houses seen in Finland. Log construction was common on the American frontier because of the abundance of free wood, and the lack of equipment to readily turn logs into boards.

In time, as wood became less available, and mills provided standardized lumber, the lighter frame construction became the standard method of home construction in this country. Typically a skeleton of 2" x 4" lumber is covered with boards, insulation, and siding, with a plaster surface on the inside.

This web site Copyright © 1995 by Charlotte Jirousek
Questions or comments? Let us know at caj7@cornell.edu.