A History of Unfinished Furniture - UnfinishedFurnitureExpo

A History of Unfinished Furniture

Unfinished furniture is any piece of furniture that is made of raw wood boards, and the furniture has not been sealed, painted, stained, or treated in any way. It is essentially a blank canvas for those who like to turn their furniture into customized pieces of their own. All of the various pieces of furniture today, and pieces that have been found throughout time, show just how long woodworking has been around and how it has evolved. Woodworking has been seen all over the world, from the Egyptians, to the Greeks, to the Romans, the Chinese, and the Japanese; it has even shown up in the Middle Ages, Middle East, and Biblical history. It began with small things, like weapons and tools for survival and over time, it evolved into more complex and civilized creations - creations like the furniture we may have in our homes or offices today.

History of Woodworking Unfinished Furniture

Going back to 2000 B.C., Egyptian drawings depicted various pieces of wood furniture and physical evidence has also been found throughout the tombs. Egyptian woodworkers regularly practiced and developed techniques that people still use today. One such technique was veneering - gluing thin slices together. To build this furniture, they used tools such as axes, chisels, pull saws, bow drills, pegs, dowels, leather, and animal glue. Various types of wood were used as well, such as cedar, Aleppo pine, boxwood, and oak; all were imported from the Middle East after deforestation destroyed their native supplies of acacias, sycamore, and tamarisk.

tamarisk tree history of unfinished furniture

Around 720 B.C., woodworking began to develop rapidly in the early Chinese civilizations. They managed to develop sophisticated techniques that improved woodworking, such as precise measurements when building various pieces of furniture or other household items. Lu Ban, a well-known carpenter during the time, was believed to be one of the originators of woodworking in China. After his death, a book was put together of his teachings, which included the steps of building construction, an overview of the measures and standards of furniture, and it gives insight into the practice of construction craftsmanship among the common people. 

Japan is known for developing a practice of woodworking that did not require using electric equipment, nails, or glue to hold it all together. This kind of practice gave their pieces strength and durability. Today, various structures still stand as proof of how well developed their carpentry skills were and how devoted they were to preserving their structures so that they could be admired for years to come. Their development of high-carbon steel tools and their engineering skills made it possible for woodworkers to become leaders in crafting round and curved objects. This resulted in cooperage - the making of barrels - and bentwood works, which is wood that is artificially shaped for making furniture. 

Japanese woodworkers today still enjoy working in conjunction with nature to accomplish their goals, not just use nature alone. For example, they keep natural curves of the wood for aesthetic purposes and they use certain parts of the trees for certain parts of structures. The wood from the bottom of trees is used for the bottom of structures in order to prevent warping and to keep the order of nature. Trees are not viewed as dead, but rather as able to live another life and serve another purpose, whether that is as furniture or other structures. 

The Roman Empire seemed to have been more advanced in terms of woodworking and the tools they used regularly. They did not use wood only for furniture, but for warships, barges, and catapults as well. Like the Egyptians, the Romans also used a variety of wood for their creations, such as ilex, beech, maple, elm, olive, and ash.  The most popular wood was thyine, an African wood believed to contain mystical powers. Wood is so durable that archaeologists found a furniture shop still intact in Pompeii, centuries after Mt. Vesuvius erupted; wooden furniture and decorations were also found in the ancient city.

In the Middle East woodworking goes back centuries, even to Biblical times. In the Near East, woodworkers built timber boats; this particular wood was incredibly valuable to so many that it served as tribute for invading armies. There was also wooden furniture, dating as far back as 800 B.C., that contained ivory or metal and the earlier mosques contained wooden windows. Throughout Persia, Syria, Egypt, and Spain, Muslim woodcarvers used wood to create paneling, wall linings, ceilings, and pulpits. The various woodworkers used basic tools such as wedges, mallets, chisels, hammers, drills, and compasses.

From about 400 A.D. to the 15th century, during the Middle Ages, carpenters prospered and were considered to be some of the most skilled craftsmen of their time. These carpenters were required to do apprenticeships with already established carpenters and gain the knowledge necessary to build furniture, wagons, and homes. Many of the buildings and houses during this time contained wood in some shape or form - some were made entirely out of wood, the walls and roofs were framed by wood, and/or the siding and shingles were wooden. Although many of the wooden buildings are no longer in existence today, there are still figurines and statues standing that display the extreme patience and love for the skill the woodworkers had. 

Unfinished Furniture in Bible Times

One of the most well-known Biblical woodworkers was Noah in the Book of Genesis. He created a large ark from cypress wood with the help of his sons and hired help. During the time of Solomon, Phoenician artisans were imported from the city of Tyre to build Solomon’s temple. They were skilled in intricate woodworking such as making furniture with ivory carved in. Lebanese cedar was imported from Lebanon and it was one of the most popular building materials used throughout the Biblical world. It was of the highest quality, had an appealing scent, and was resistant to rot and insects.

woodworking unfinished furniture in biblical times

During the time of Jesus, carpenters were often busy constructing or repairing plows or threshing sleds, cutting roofing beams, or shaping a yoke for a new team of oxen. They also repaired doors and door frames, helped construct wooden balconies, made doors or stairs for synagogues, and would also be asked to create holy objects. Whenever a carpenter needed wood, they would saw the trees into boards, cutting them very thin. The wood they used always varied based on the types of projects they were working on; cypress, oak, ash, sycamore, and olive were some of them. Occasionally for expensive projects, expensive cedar was imported from Lebanon. 

The Rise in Popularity of Unfinished Furniture

Throughout time, woodworkers would seal their pieces and do everything they could to keep their work sturdy and protected from the environment. Today, woodworking has evolved into a practice that creates unfinished furniture and sells it as is. This practice has gained popularity throughout the years, for many reasons. One reason for its growing popularity is that it is more customizable than buying a finished project at a store or online. The buyer can find any piece that they are looking for, through unfinished furniture stores and websites, and they can design and decorate it however they want. People can add their personal touches to it, make it look a certain way to fit their style of decorating, and overall make the piece their own and one-of-a-kind. 

unfinished wood furniture good for budget decorating

Another reason unfinished furniture is so popular today is because it is an affordable project. People do not need to shop for expensive pieces that will cut into their budget. Finding an unfinished piece that they need is more cost efficient because the price is for the piece itself, not any seals, paint, stains, or any other alterations. DIY projects are gaining popularity due to them being so affordable and easy to do, with ideas popping up on social media sites like Facebook and Pinterest. Also, unfinished furniture projects are great ideas for families to participate in. If various parts of the house need furniture, each family member can customize their piece to make it match the room; everyone can have a say in the design and keep it unique.

Top Reasons People Buy Unfinished Furniture

The fact that people know what they are buying helps contribute to the growing popularity. When people buy these unfinished pieces, they can see the original piece and any imperfections that finished pieces can hide. Finished pieces can hide scratches, nicks, discolorations, and many other blemishes with paint, seals, or multiple coats. These things can prevent the buyer from customizing in any way because the blemishes are in the way and could potentially be in a spot that is unable to be hidden by the buyer. Obviously these projects are hands-on and can get a little messy, so if you are someone who does not mind these things, unfinished furniture projects may just be perfect. They can allow your creativity to come out and personalize the pieces to match your style.

Finishing the furniture not only adds some life and color to the piece, but it also helps keep it safe from any damages; the furniture stays safe from drying out, cracking, swelling, or deteriorating in any way. Every piece of furniture is different, resulting in a lot of different finishes that one could apply to their piece but, there are two main categories; penetrating and surface. Penetrating finishes dry inside the wood, are easier to apply, and they look more natural. Surface finishes dry on the surface and do not look as natural but they are more durable.

Wood Finishing Techniques

Some wood finishing techniques include natural finishes, pigmented finishes, wax polish, staining, glazing and toning, pickling and liming, bleaching, and distressing. Natural finishes are clear finishes that add warmth and character to a piece, similar to surface coatings. Pigmented finishes resemble paint and can also be distressed and/or glazed as well. Wax polish is more labor intensive, rich-looking, and it can either be a finish on its own or it can be used to polish up an older finish. Staining enhances the true color of the wood and the painter can also stain to alter the original color of the wood in order to make it match their taste.

Glazing and toning highlight the details in the woodwork and can add depth to the color. They are also beneficial techniques to add age to the piece. Pickling and liming are more traditional finishes, using two contrasting colors to emphasize the wood grain. Bleaching is just as it sounds - it lightens the natural color of the wood or it can remove any discolorations. This particular technique is effective in preparing the piece for picking or liming. Distressing gives age and interest to the finish, there being multiple ways to execute this technique; sanding or rubbing the finish away and striking the surface to dent the finish.

aged espresso finishing
There are many more finishing techniques people apply to their projects; water based wood stains, water based milk paints and glaze, general finishes milk paints, general finishes glazes, general finishes water based top coats, buffing, distressed and antique finishes, distressing milk paints and glaze effects, faux marble, primitive wood grain with wood stains and milk paints, pickling, and color washing. There are also finishes that look more professional and some that allow one to preserve antique pieces. All of these various techniques allow the artist to create something unique that fits with their personal style, without spending hundreds to thousands of dollars on a piece they find online or in another store.

Woodworking has been around for centuries, the practice being seen all throughout time, all over the world. Each place made it unique in some way and over time, the practices, techniques, and tools have seemed to meet in the middle and become popular today. If one types in ‘unfinished furniture’ in the search engine, many business’ websites pop up, showing just how popular it is today. There are many different ways to finish a project, it seems overwhelming at first, but all of the options allow for people to create a one-of-a-kind piece that may not be seen in any other house or office space.