A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

October 2009

Click on any image to enlarge it.


Rob Tarule riving an oak log.

Riven oak coffer, c. 1580, four-square and perfectly smooth on the outside.

The stiles:only the arris is squared off. The front top rail varies between 1-1/2" and 1-3/4" thick.

Riven and adzed boards on the back.


Riving, rather than sawing, oak was a technique used more frequently in New England than Old England. This may have been because it was more wasteful of timber – a riven board is wedge-shaped in cross-section and so a lot of wood has to be trimmed off to make the two sides roughly parallel. Another factor was that American oaks were better for riving – they grew straighter and taller than English ones.

Riving is done from the end of the log using a wedge and mallet and then a froe to split the log. The first split halves the log, the next halves one of the halves, and so on. Each split is along the radius, hence the wedge shape. About an inch or two of the heartwood and the sapwood is discarded, so the widest riven board that a 24-inch diameter tree could produce is about 10 inches wide. Sawyers could get a 20-inch board from it, though quarter-sawn oak, of course, is limited to the same board-width as riven oak.

Riving was faster and less hard work than sawing, and it could be done in the forest where the tree had been felled. This meant that the joiner had to haul home only the wood that he would actually use. His wife and children would come by later to collect the trimmings for fire-wood or charcoal.

Riven oak is stronger than sawn, and is less likely to warp, because the spits run along the fibers and don’t cut any of them, as the saw inevitably does. A riven board follows the natural growth of the tree.

When working with riven oak, the joiner needs only one straight corner (an edge and two true sides), which is called the "arris." All measurements are made from the arris, so the other three edges can be off-true with no ill effect. Most joiners, however, did square off the visible edges till they were roughly parallel, but this was for visual appeal, not structural necessity.

Riven surfaces were usually smoothed first with an adze, then a plane, and then with an abrasive paste of brick-dust or stone-dust. We’ve often heard that shark-skin was used like sandpiper, but we’ve not been able to verify this (can anyone help here?). Different surfaces were given different degrees of smoothing depending on their visibility.

Most collectors love riven oak. Perhaps because it’s comparatively rare, but more likely because it seems more natural, less processed. It is properly finished only where it needs to be and leaves many signs of handwork on its surfaces. Its non-parallel sides and non-right-angled edges take it a step further away from the regularity of the machine age. That’s why it’s so appealing.

As you can see from the illustrations, we currently have a lovely Tudor coffer made of riven oak (Small Elizabethan Coffer).


Why We Don't Buy at Christie's

We thought you’d be interested in a Good / Better / Best of carved coffers that were included in Christie’s September 29 sale in South Kensington. Note, however, that we did not physically inspect any of these items (except, of course, for the one in our inventory!).




The "Good" coffer (est. $700 - $1,000) was catalogued as Cheshire, late 17th century. The serpent-like motifs centering the top rail are good, the carving on the panels is good, and the ebonized moldings are attractive. It sold for $2,475 (including that whopping 25% premium) and over here would retail at about $3,000-$3,500. Add shipping and we might, if we were lucky, make $250 on it.




The "Better" coffer (est. $1,900 - $2,300) was catalogued as late 17th century, but looked earlier. It had, to our eyes, more interesting and distinctive carvings (though not as decorative), better proportions, a paneled lid, and, as a bonus, nice little spandrels. Its appeal was to the collector’s eye, not the decorator’s. It sold for $3,965, and over here would retail at $3,500-$4,000. Add shipping, and we’d be able to sell it at a nice little loss.




The "Best" showed Christie’s at their worst. It was catalogued as late 17th century -- off by about 75 very important years (it could be late 16th). The carving was exceptional – how often do you see a figural central panel, especially when flanked by a pair of caryatids? Christie’s crazy estimate was $1,600-$2,300, but it sold for a whopping $17,347. Way out of our range, and, we suspect, most of yours. There must have been two highly competitive collectors fighting each other, and the devil take the hindmost! We’ve never seen a coffer "go north of ten" (dealerspeak) over here, but then, we’ve not seen one quite as exceptional as this.




Coming back to earth, the realities of our economy still provide good buying for us. We’ve just bought a coffer -- attractive, useful and in very good condition -- for a price that allows us to offer it "way under the money" (more dealerspeak.) Don't be fooled by the color difference in the photos; that's just our lighting.

It’s $2,000 firm, and we hope someone buys it quickly, because it makes our others look expensive, and they’re not! Joined and Paneled Coffer (pj653).

Our overall impression of Chrisite’s sale? High prices, high buy-in rate, and the usual slap-dash cataloguing. And of course, we didn't check actual condition against their condition reports, but ...






Pick of Our Picks

Perhaps the most spectacular decoration of the late seventeenth century is what we call "oyster veneer." The basic veneer is made up of thin slices of a laburnum (sometimes olive) branch cut slightly on the diagonal to give the "oyster" shape. These are trimmed, and fitted together to form lively, swirling patterns. This "ground" veneer is then cut through for inlaid figures, usually circles, to be inserted. Veneering was a new skill for the new class of English cabinetmakers who were rapidly replacing the unfortunately old-fashioned joiners. Most oyster-veneered chests of drawers were made by cabinetmakers, not joiners. Cabinetmakers made the case with dovetails, which provided smooth surfaces for the veneer.

This chest of drawers is unusual, and to our eyes more characterful, because it was made by a joiner using traditional mortise and tenon joints. The only flat surfaces on a joined chest were the top and the drawer fronts, so those were the only surfaces that our joiner could veneer. We can almost hear him saying to himself, "Dang that fancy new dovetail joint, but at least I can I can stick some veneer on and be as fashionable as them Lunnon folk!"

Or more likely, he hired a London-trained veneerer to gussy up his traditional chest of drawers. The previous one he made was exactly like this, except that it was decorated with applied geometric moldings and split balusters instead of veneer. We don’t know, therefore, if we should call this a transitional piece, or a country piece that is telling them uppity Londoners that anything they can do we can do better (or, at least, as well). We prefer the latter.

At any rate, the fact that it’s provincial, and not a cabinetmaker’s metropolitan example, means that it’s far more affordable.

The homey English origin of this chest, however, did not prevent it ending up in Castle Hyde, Ireland, originally the home of Douglas Hyde, the first President of Ireland. The castle has recently been bought and renovated by Michael Flatley, the creator and star of Riverdance.

There are more images in a slideshow under the listing for Oyster Veneered Chest of Drawers.