Flat-pack furniture design in the 1950s

There is a lot of good things to be said about furniture design in the 1950s, mostly because so many of the designs were innovative, and clean, thanks in part to the mid-century aesthetic. A case in point are Timber-Packs, which were Ikea-like flat pack furniture system designed by Australian designer Frederick Ward in the 1950s. They were available via mail order from Australian Home Beautiful magazine. These kits included pre-cut wood pieces, ready to glue and assemble together.


The mighty New Zealand Kauri tree

One of my favourite trees is Agathis australis, more commonly known as the kauri tree. Whilst California has the giant sequoias, the kauri is New Zealand’s behemoth. Whilst they may only grow 50m tall, they can grow up to 4m in diameter. The largest is Tane Mahuta, Maori for “Lord of the Forest”, and is supposedly somewhere between 1250-2500 years old.

Tane Mahuta

Don’t let the name Agathis australis fool you though, these pine trees are only found in New Zealand, and then only in the warmer northwestern portion of the north island. There were thousands of acres of Kauri trees before the arrival of the British. however they where quickly depleted. They were  considered a valuable resource for ships spars and masts, and also for their gum (used as a fire starter and to make chewing gum). The Maori in the northern regions used these great trees to build waka taua, or sea-going canoes. It is an interesting pine, mainly because it is not the sort of conifer we are use to seeing in north American, partially because the leaves are flat, oblong and leathery.

The wood is light, strong, and apparently easily worked. In J.C.S. Brough’s book “Timbers for Woodwork”, he describes the grain as being able to “respond to every turn of the tool”. The wood is  whitish-brown and has a clear, firm, and even texture. In “The Forest Flora of New Zealand” published in 1890, the author Thomas Kirk cites that Kauri was “the best timber in the colony for general building purposes, ground-plates, beams, framing, rafters, joists, flooring, and weather-boards; also for open roof-work, dadoing, panelling, mouldings, sashes, doors, and all kinds of joiners’ work“, “railway sleepers, bridges, wharves, and constructive work generally“. Basically it was used for everything. Now like many of it’s cousins brought to the verge of extinction, it is rare to find.

If you’re in NZ, visit the Waipoua Kauri Forest, or maybe the Kauri Museum. You can get Kauri lumber in the US from Ancientwood Ltd, which recovers 45,000 years old Kauri logs in NZ buried in peat.


The basics of identifying wood (i)

The next few posts are just a basic overview of trying to identify wood, looking at some of the more common characteristics. So if we have an old piece of wood, how do we identify what it is?

The easiest way is to look for distinguishing characteristics, some of which will separate hardwoods from softwoods. These can include rings, pores, grain (long surface), rays, hardness, weight, smell, and colour. First some basics. All wood is designed to carry sap, and it starts life as sapwood. As a tree ages, the inner core of the tree requires more for structural support, and hence the sapwood is modified to become heartwood. An example of a cross-section from an elm tree is shown below. Notice the distinct difference between sapwood and heartwood (this isn’t always the case).

The photograph also shows the grow rings. Both softwood and hardwood have rings, although certain types of trees (e.g. tropical near the equator) lack apparent rings, because the growth cycle is all-year around. In temperate regions, wood is formed only during spring and summer, and the wood formed in the summer differs from that formed in the spring.

Springwood (or earlywood) is usually light in colour, light in weight, and contains numerous tubes to transport sap (i.e pores), and is only moderately strong. When summer takes over from spring, the tree changes the character of the wood it produces. Nutrients can now travel upwards through the springwood, but the tree needs more structural support. Summerwood (or latewood), is usually fibrous, with thick, strong walls, and small cavities – it is often darker in colour. The width of annular growth rings varies depending on water availability, sunshine etc. Fast growing trees may have thick rings, whilst slower growing trees have narrow rings. The other structure most apparent are rays – radial structures which occur perpendicular to the growth rings, used for the radial transport of sap.

The first thing to determine is of course is the wood a hardwood or softwood? A softwood is a coniferous or needle-leaved trees. It is called softwood because it is generally soft and easy to work, and it has a simple structure. A hardwood (deciduous) is a tree that has broad leaves, and is sometimes physically harder than softwoods and also denser. A notable exception is poplar. Here are some basic differences:

  • Softwoods have rays that are very narrow, and barely visible.
  • Softwoods contain resin (often giving them a characteristic turpentine smell).
  • Hardwoods have visible pores.
  • Hardwoods often develop large and characteristic rays.


The FeatherPro featherboard

I had been eyeing this featherboard for a while now… the FeatherPro, and I bought it a couple of months back when Lee Valley started to carry it. Now I have used some of the other feather-boards – you know the ones, all plastic feathers? Problem with some of those is that you often can’t adjust them close enough to the blade, or the tightening knobs are hard to use. Even worse, you have a portable tablesaw like me, and sometime no matter how hard you tighten them, they slide.

Well, the FeatherPro is a different animal altogether. I used it recently to run through some T&G cedar boards to nix the T&G (change in projected use). I ran through 20 8-foot boards, and this featherboard was truly excellent. It was easy to install, and the knobs allow for a good bit of torque without any effort – meaning that the unit doe not slip.

The “feathers” are made of hardened foam, and compress the wood nicely – flexible yet strong, but not rigid like the normal featherboards. In fact the rigid plastic or wooden feathers often hamper board movement. They provide excellent anti-kickback coverage, and are available in two densities: regular and light feathers, and are replaceable.

An extremely well-designed and engineered product – well worth purchasing. Here are a couple of reviews if anyone is interested:

Identifying old wood (i)

Old houses are full of good quality, old-growth wood. Wood like chestnut which has long since disappeared from the lumber mills. It is often reclaimed in the form of beams when large old buildings are deconstructed, but this is not always the case with houses. (For anyone interested, Baltimore Brick By Brick is an excellent blog on unbuilding). One of the challenges of reclaiming old wood is being able to  identify it. How does one go about this?

There are many characteristics, including both macroscopic (visible to the naked eye) and microscopic features. Here are some macroscopic characteristics to consider: rings, pores, grain (long surface), rays, hardness, weight, smell, colour. I am going to write a few posts on the basic steps of wood identification. For identifying vintage wood, I strongly suggest getting a copy of  R. Bruce Hoadley’s book – “A Field Guide to Identifying Woods in American Antiques & Collectibles“. It’s packed with features of wood, tools and techniques, and a compendium of commonly used furniture and antique woods showing identification criteria and sample artifacts.

Here are some additional resources for anyone looking to identify the wood used in a piece of furniture.


So there are a number of resources out there to help identifying old wood. Mostly this is a visual process, and only becomes difficult if you are required to go to the micro level of investigation. Some of these books are somewhat older, but they are well written.

The Wood Database is an exceptional online database of wood species. Here’s a great article on softwood anatomy on The Wood Database.

Edlin, H.E., “WHAT WOOD IS THAT?“, Thames and Hudson, London, 1969.
– This is an excellent book which has gone through a number of printings. The book has three parts. Part I deals with a brief introduction to the history of lumber. Part II explores wood identification, using 14 keys. Lastly, Part III describes forty common trees and the wood derived from them.

Core, H.A., Côte, W.A., Day, A.C., “Wood Structure and Identification“, (2nd ed.), Syracuse University Press, 1979.
– This book examines the wood structure, at the “gross, microscopic, and ultrastructural levels”. The book provides an excellent key to differentiating hardwoods, and softwoods based on There is an indexed glossary of 75 wood species, with associated low-power photomacrographs.

Hough, R.B., “The Woodbook: The Complete Plates“, Taschen, 2013.
– This book has a nice set of photographs of each wood showing tangential, radial and cross-sections in colour.


WoodCuts magazine?

Anyone ever read one of these magazines? I came across a pile of this issue from 1993, for free at a Lee Valley store. Guess there was a box of them somewhere. Published by Algrove Publishing (founded by Leonard Lee, so it was a Lee Valley-ish publication) from 1991-1993 there were 9 issues before it ended. Now it seems quite rare – in fact there is an Issue No.1 for sale at vintagemagazines.com for US$199.95 (36 pages worth). (And the copy I got for free is being sold for US$99.95). It seems like an interesting read, with no advertising… in many ways it reminds me of Woodworking Magazine.