Furniture Know-How: To Figure or Not to Figure?

To help guide our customers in their furniture choices – and unveil the art of furniture-making — we are proud to offer a blog series on the topic of wood grain and figure.

In this series (click for first, second, and third blogs) we have discussed grain and figure in wood, where it comes from, and provided examples. Now, we will put it all together by answering the question: Should you choose highly figured wood for your furniture, or not?

Choosing figured wood or not comes down to two major factors. First is the finished appearance of the final product. Second is whether or not making a particular piece with figured wood is even advisable. We will discuss each in a more detail below.

Figured Chest by Steve Robinson

In terms of look, figured wood is usually considered more beautiful. As you have seen in the prior blog posts and in this one, the many examples of various figures confirm this. Figured woods aren’t just beautiful, they also make a piece more unique. Uniqueness is attractive all by itself, but also makes for great heirlooms. Finally, highly figured wood is both more sought after, and harder to come by. By the rules of economics, this usually makes it more expensive.

Though it is often considered more beautiful, not everyone desires highly figured wood. Guild member Steve Robinson explains, “As far as appearance, figured wood can dazzle people or steer them away. It’s all in how you use it in the piece. Some people would prefer just to have straight grained material. Myself, I love figured grain — every morning the sun hits my head board just right and the quilted cherry is absolutely spectacular.”

Headboard detail by Steve Robinson

The best option is to look through these blog posts at the various figured wood pieces, and compare to a simple but elegant straight grain and find out what suits your tastes and the piece you are hoping to create the best. Are you looking for a centerpiece to inspire conversation, or something more functional but not distracting? Figure draws in the eye, gets people talking. Your furniture maker will be able to tell you about the options and advise you.

Speaking of being advised, your furniture maker will also tell you which figures can actually be used in a piece. As explained in the first blog in this series, highly figured woods can be more difficult to work with, especially for small delicate pieces, intricate carvings, bent wood, and so on.

Windsor Chair by George Sawyer

Guild member George Sawyer, known for his Windsor chairs, incorporates all of these features into his chairs, making the use of figured woods untenable. “Those who work with green wood,” Sawyer says, “as we do in building Windsor chairs, have a rather unique and very close relationship with wood grain. Our mantra is ‘follow the grain.’ The majority of components in the chair are split directly from the log then shaved and shaped by hand. With this in mind, we try to find logs with the straightest grain possible. Any sort of figure or knot makes the job of splitting and shaping more difficult, if not impossible. The goal, especially for spindles and steam bent back bows, is to have wood fibers that follow the piece from one end to the other. This results in a very strong yet flexible chair, well suited to the dynamic loads (people) they must endure day after day. Grain structure also factors into the species of wood we select for different components.”

Windsor Chair by George Sawyer

Ultimately, furniture making is a collaborative process. Your furniture maker can help you choose the right woods and the right styles for each piece. And now that you know the ins and outs of grain and figure, you’ll have a lot more information to bring to the table. We hope this helps you to refine your vision to get the perfect furniture for your family and your home.


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