Custom has received the two kinds of timber … oak and fir, in place of all others … At present we have no medium between the oak and fir.
Isaac Ware, A compleat Body of Architecture, (London, 1756) 75-76.
Timber was an essential material in the early modern building, used by carpenters and joiners for structural and decorative purposes. Matters of economics and supply, as well as workability and suitability to purpose impacted greatly on the choice of timber employed. While oak was traditionally the preferred material for structural carpentry and decorative joinery, scarcity of supply and the consequent expense of this timber resulted in the increased use of imported softwoods, as well as exotic hardwoods in the British and Irish building industry.
A strong hardwood timber, exploited for its warm colour and decorative potential, as well as its durability, native oak was traditionally the principal timber for structural framing and internal joinery. Despite issues with supply, English Oak remained the material of choice throughout the late-seventeenth century for internal joinery and carved elements such as the magnificent staircase, formerly at Cassiobury Park, Hertfordshire (1677–80), where oak treads and risers were used alongside elm and pine. By the early-eighteenth century scarcity of supply, particularly in Ireland, and the consequent expense of this material prohibited large-scale use in all but the most prestigious building projects. In England oak remained relatively plentiful in the south west of the country and local supplies from estate copses were utilised for such mid-century schemes as the floor of the former Dining room from Kirtlington Park, Oxfordshire (1748).
Irish Oak was used in the wainscoting of the Library at Trinity College, and the Parliament House (1729-39) in Dublin made extensive use of Irish oak for internal joinery, exploiting the rich decorative potential of this native material. Although supply was dwindling by this period, pockets of mature oak woodlands survived in the north and south-west of Ireland, and in countries Wexford and Wicklow in the east. Lord Powerscourt’s estates in County Wicklow, in particular, yielding a good supply of this material, though oddly the building accounts for Powerscourt House (1731-41) do not include any reference to the haulage of oak from around the estate, as they do for other locally sourced materials, such as ‘Ash from the woods’ (NLI, MS4875).
The use of imported oak from Riga, Holland and Danzig in Northern Poland underlines the scarcity of native oak in this period. Danzig oak was softer and easier to work, but lacked the colour and decorative richness of Irish or English oak. It was used by the joiner John Sisson, together with the Irish variety, in the wainscotting of the Library at Trinity College, costing 6s per sq. yard as opposed to the 8s per sq. yard for Irish oak (TCD MUN/P2/59/9.) As well as scarcity, transport costs affected the price of native oak, as it had to be shipped both over land and by water.
According to Arthur Gibney, Irish oak was usually purchased as felled trees from large estates. The oak wood was cut or split along the middle length of the trunk or bole, and transported as logs to the building site, where it was sawn into building boards and scantlings. Oak was stiffer and more brittle than softwood but had the benefit of performing well in damp conditions. As well as problems with the availability, the size of straight timber available was also a constraint, while workability was also a factor in the declining use of oak, or rather in the advent of softwood as a principal building material. Green or unseasoned oak had a high moisture content, making it softer and therefore easier to work, however, as it dried out and seasoned shrinkage occurred, affecting the stability of the material.
According to Isaac Ware (1756) Lime was ‘serviceable for many kinds of inside work, and particularly is excellent for carving; much superior to deal and to most other woods.’ Despite being a hardwood the fine even-grained structure of Limewood makes it particularly suitable for high-relief carving, being soft yet ‘elastic’ and easier to cut across the grain than other hard woods. Grinling Gibbons favoured lime wood for carved enrichments, which not only produced a fine crisp finish that rarely warped but also had a striking pale silvery colour when first carved. The effect would have had even more impact when mounted against darker oak panelling, as Gibbons tended to do. The overdoor, formerly at Cassiobury Park, now in the V&A is one of the earliest examples of limewood foliage carving in Britain. The texture and relief achieved in the varied layers of separately-carved elements, flowers, foliage and fruits, attest both to skill of the carver and the workability of the medium. In 1734 lime wood was supplied at Powerscourt House, Co. Wicklow (NLI, MS 4875).
Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, and the consequent rebuilding campaign, imported softwood timbers came into common use in London, where this relatively cheap and durable material was used extensively in speculative building practice. The scarcity of native oak in Ireland in the early-eighteenth century resulted in a similar increase in the use of new softwood timbers from Scandinavia and the Baltic regions. Reduced transport costs from the late-seventeenth century were also a factor in the growing popularity of softwood as a building material, with huge qualities imported from the Baltic ports of Memel, Danzig and Riga, and from Christiania (today’s Oslo) in Norway during the next century. Imported timbers were sometimes named for their port of origin in building accounts, and specific regional variety were sometimes specified, calling for Christiana Pine or Riga Fir. At Powerscourt, Co. Wicklow, Daniel Redmond was paid for the freight of ‘Swedish planks’ in 1735, as opposed the more generic ‘dales’ [deal] he had delivered the previous year (NLI, Ms3162). Felled wood logs were sawn into squared lengths or baulks before being transported to the major ports of Britain and Ireland. There, the timber baulks were sold to timber merchants, who would often store and season the material at their yards, before delivering the pre-sawn boards or scantlings to the building site. According to The concise practical measurer (London 1740) fir ‘may be us’d as soon as it can be converted after it comes to England in large scantlings, but as to Deals for Flooring and Stairs, and many other Uses, as Deal Wainscotting, etc these Deals should be piled at least a year.’
Although there were several varieties of softwood timbers in common use, these tended to be generically described as ‘fir’, or deal in eighteenth-century building accounts. As these imported timbers were often painted or treated when in situ, distinguishing between the different varieties employed is problematic. Building records show that there were two main varieties of ‘fir’ in use in the eighteenth century. White fir or deal was the cheaper of the two, and was sometimes referred to simply as fir or ‘common deal’. The wood was a Norwegian Spruce, found not just in Norway but throughout the Baltic forests. It was white to pale beige in colour, with a fine regular grain, making it suitably for use by joiners in making moulds, wainscot panels and kitchen furniture. Yellow fir/deal or ‘red fir’ or ‘red deal’ as it was known in Ireland, was the more expensive of the two varieties. In actuality a Scots pine, according to Gibney, this softwood performed as well as oak, but at a much reduced price. Despite the transport costs from Northern Europe, it was still cheaper to purchase this imported material in Dublin, than it was to get oak from Wicklow in the eighteenth century.
Builders manuals such as Francis Price’s A Treatise on Carpentry (1733) promoted the new structural and decorative possibilities of this material, while Thomas Miles, The concise practical measurer (1740) describes their alternative uses:
‘Yellow Deals are to be applied for Flooring, Stairs, and all outside Works, the White for Pannells to Wainscotting is better on account of its being clearer of Turpentine, it holds the Glew [sic.] much better than yellow Stuff.’
New World hardwoods
A growing taste for exotic New World hardwoods, such as walnut and mahogany developed in eighteenth-century joinery and furniture making, though owing to their expense these imported materials were not used as extensively as either oak or softwood timbers. According to John Evelyn, walnut was of ‘singular account with the joyner [sic.], for the best grain’d and colour’d wainscot.’ Supply of European walnut had always been limited, and by 1700 the colonial ports of Jamaica, Virginia and New York provided more plentiful and relatively cheaper supply routes into Britain, while after 1730 mahogany from Honduras and the West Indies began to feature regularly in British and Irish building accounts. Up to 1770 such colonial produce had to be first imported into Britain, before being shipped to, skewing the record somewhat.
‘In no other part of the world, except in Great Britain and its American colonies, was mahogany used so extensively, so comprehensively, and with such technical virtuosity’.
Percy Macquoid, The Age of Mahogany, 1906.
Mahogany is a hard, fine-grained wood of varying colour, most commonly red-brown, and often highly polished. Initially it was imported to Britain from the plantations as a relatively cheap general-purpose hardwood which by an Act of 1722 was exempted from duty. Adam Bowett has shown the ‘bland character’ of much early mahogany and its gradual emergence as a prized wood, while Jennifer Anderson has highlighted the ‘contentious human circumstances’ surrounding its production. For Bowett, mahogany was ‘part of the great expansion of trans-Atlantic commerce… driven by the twin commodities of slaves and sugar’. Robert Walpole was among those who availed of its durability and low cost and shipped tons of mahogany to King’s Lynn in Norfolk for the construction of Houghton.
Vanbrugh used mahogany at King’s Weston and Seaton Delaval, and Walpole’s protégé Thomas Ripley, a master-carpenter turned architect, also employed mahogany at the Admiralty office in Whitehall begun in 1723. In Ireland, Richard Castle made extensive use of mahogany in town and country houses of the 1730s and 1740s, including spectacular mahogany staircases at Number 85 Saint Stephen’s Green (begun 1738) and Russborough (begun c.1743). By then mahogany had doubled in price and had become coveted and luxurious.
Jennifer L. Anderson, Mahogany: the costs of luxury in early America (Cambridge, Mass. & London, 2012).
James Ayres, Building the Georgian city (London, 1998).
Adam Bowett, ‘The English mahogany trade 1700-1792’ (PhD, Brunel University, 1996).
Joseph Bispham, ‘Architectural Timber: History and Conservation,’ The Building Conservation Directory, 2015. http//www.buildingconservation.com/articles/architectural-timber/architectural-timber.htm
Michael Forsyth, & Lisa White, eds. Interior Finishes & Fittings for Historic Building Conservation (Oxford, 2012).
Arthur Gibney, Livia Hurley & Edward McParland, eds. The building site in eighteenth-century Ireland (Dublin, 2017).
Elizabeth McKellar,. The birth of modern London: the development and design of the city, 1660-1720 (Manchester, 1999).