Technical Terms Used in Furniture Making

Here are some of the commonest terms used in furniture construction explained. Hopefully this list will help to throw some light on to the terminology used by furniture restorers and french polishers when discussing restoration projects.

ACANTHUS Formalised leaf used in classical ornament, particularly on Corinthian capitals; frequently found on furniture as carved decoration.
ANTHEMION Ornament of Greek origin based on the honeysuckle.
ARAQBESQUE Ornament of flowing lines composed of foliage, scrolls or animal forms, used for the decoration of borders or panels.
ARCADING Carved decoration composed of a series of arches supported on columns or pilasters.
ARCHITRAVE In furniture of classical form, the lowest point of the entablature, the lintel above the columns.
ART NOUVEAU Style of decoration which first appeared in England in the 1880’s but was developed in Europe, especially in Belgium, France and Germany, in the early 1890’s, then to survive some twenty years. Traditional motifs were eschewed and instead, plant forms, waves or flame-like shapes were reflected in languid, sinuous curves expressing a new sense of abandon. The style was known in Germany as Jugenstil, in Austria as Sezession an in Italy as Le Stile Liberty.
AURICULAR ORNAMENT Form of decoration known in Germany as Knorpelwerk in which parts of the human skeleton, surrounded by membrane and fleshy forms were used, sometimes as the name implies, suggesting the curving lines of the human ear. These grisly motifs appear first to have been developed by Dutch goldsmiths, Paulus and Adam van Vianen in the first decade of the 17th century and were inspired by contemporary studies of anatomy. They were rapidly adopted as a form of decoration by carvers and cabinetmakers and did not lose popularity until the third quarter of the century.
BALL FOOT Round, ball-shaped foot forming the terminal for turned legs or the support to a cabinet or cupboard, particularly in the late 17th century.
BALUSTER Turned member of columnar form, straight, twisted, tapered or vase-shaped.
BAROQUE STYLE Style, based on classical example, which originated in Italy around 1600 and gradually spread through Europe, characterised by dynamic movement, the use of rich, symmetrical, sculptured forms and bold contrasts of colour.
BELL FLOWER American term for a conventional hanging flower bud of three or five petals used in repeated and diminishing patterns.
BENTWOOD Wood steamed and bent to form the structural members of chairs etc, first developed in the early 19th century and widely extended in the 20th century.
BERGERE Large embracing armchair with upholstered sides, popular in France in the Louis XV period and later. In England in the 18th century, these chairs were known as ‘burjairs’ or 'barjairs’.
BIEDERMIER Style of furniture and decoration current in the German territories around 1815 to 1848 in which simplicity of line and decoration was combined with a regard for function.
BLOCK FRONT Term used to describe a technical method of constructing the fronts of case furniture, such as chests of drawers or cabinets, developed in America and especially in New England in the 18th century. Inspired by northern European Baroque prototypes, block fronts and composed of three flattened curves, the central of concave and the two outer of convex shape.
BOISERIE Carved wood panelling.
BOMBE Convex, bulging, descriptive particularly of Rococo case furniture with outward swelling front and sides.
BONNET SCROLLS An American term describing a curved and scrolled pediment on a bookcase, cabinet or tallboy.
BOULLE Term loosely used to describe a form of marquetry particularly associated with the French cabinetmaker, Andre-Charles Boulle (1642-1732). Veneers of tortoiseshell and brass sometimes combined with other materials such as pewter, copper, mother of pearl or stained horn were used. Thin sheets of brass and tortoiseshell, glued together, were cut into various patterns. These were then separated and by combining them in different ways they could be used to create two distinct marquetries. Premiere-partie describes that in which the pattern in brass is set in the ground of tortoiseshell, while contre-partie refers to the alternative arrangement in which the pattern is in tortoiseshell, set in the ground of brass. This system of applying marquetry was in fact not invented but developed by Boulle and was used in France throughout the 18th and19th centuries and copied elsewhere in Europe.
BRACKET Member projecting from vertical surface to provide horizontal support.
BRACKET FOOT Squared foot supporting the underframing of case furniture.
BREAKFRONT Term used to describe a bookcase or cabinet in which the central section projects beyond the lateral sections.
BULB The bulb-like part of the turned supports of furniture; of Flemish origin and commonly found on tables, court cupboards etc in the 16th and early 17th centuries.
BUN FOOT Flattened ball foot.
CABRIOLE LEG Curving outwards at knee, inwards below the knee and outwards again at the foot; terminating in feet of varied forms – hoof, club paw, bun claw and ball, scroll etc.
CANTILEVER A projecting support or arm, carrying a load at the free end or evenly distributed along the projecting part. The cantilever principle involved the subjection to tensile stress of the upper half of the thickness of such a support, thus elongating the fibres, while the lower half is subjected to compressive stress which tends to crush the fibres.
CAPITAL The upper part of a column or pilaster, conforming in classical architecture to the Greek (Doric, Ionic and Corinthian) and Roman (Tuscan and Composite) orders.
CARCASE The body of a piece of furniture to which veneers sre applied.
CARTOUCHE Tablet in form of a scroll with curled edges, often bearing an inscription, a monogram or a coat-of-arms. Used as a decorative motif in the centre of apron pieces or pediments.
CARIATID Sculptured support to an entablature or moulding in form of a female figure.
CHEQUER ORNAMENT Ornamental inlay of alternating squares of light and dark wood.
CHIMERA A fabulous animal, with either a lion’s or goat’s body and legs, eagle’s wings and a serpent’s tail, used occasionally in Greek or Roman ornament.
CHINOISERIE Free and feanciful rendering, in Western terms, of features adopted from the decorative repertoire of Chinese ornament. European admiration for Chinese porcelain, laquer, textiles and wallpapers hed grown rapidly in the course of the 17th century. Before the mid 18th century such motifs as latticework, frets, pagodas, bells and figures of Chinamen appeared, as an aspect of Rococo taste, in the stucco decoration of ceilings and walls and as decorative features on furniture.
CHIP CARVING Shallow carved ornament usually composed of geometrical patterns, drawn with the aid of a pair of compasses and chipped out.
CLASSICAL Greek and Roman and their derivatives.
CLAW and FOOT Terminal to a cabriole leg in the form of a paw or claw clutching a ball; of oriental derivation; widely used in England and the Nethrlands in the second quarter of the 18th century and in America in the mid 18th century.
CONSOLE Variety of bracket, resembling a scroll, supporting the frieze or cornice of a piece of cabinet furniture. Also applied to a table standing against a wall, supported by two bracket shaped legs.
CORNICE Moulded projections surmounting a frieze; the top member of an entablature.
CUSP Projecting point on a foiled Gothic arch, roundel, etc.
DOVETAIL A joint used in woodwork, in which fan-shaped tongues projecting from one member fir into corresponding fan-shaped slots cut in a second member.
DOWEL Wooden peg used for jointing wood.
EBONIED WOOD Stained black to imitate ebony.
EGYPTIAN TASTE In Europe and subsequently in America the revival of Egyptian decorative motifs was stimulated by Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign of 1798 and the publication of Baron Dominique-Vivant Denon’s account of Egyptian antiquities,” Voyage dans la Basse et Haute Egypte”, Ornamental features which were, consequently adopted included sphinxes and lotus leaves.
ENTABLATURE In Classical architecture, everything above the columns, i.e. architrave, frieze and cornice.
EN SUITE As a matching set.
FALL FRONT Writing-board of a desk, lowered to form the writing surface.
FRETS Angular patterns, either pierced as in the galleries on tables, etc or cut in the solid or applied , on friezes, legs etc.
FRIEZE Horizontal section below a cornice. A cushion frieze is a convex profile.
GESSO A composition, often in chalk and parchment size, applied to furniture as foundation upon a which gilding or silvering could be applied.
GILDING The decoration of surfaces with gold leaf. Woodwork was first coated with gesso before being gilded.
GOTHIC STYLE A style first developed in France in the min 12th century, spreading over Europe, where it remained dominant until the Renaissance. It is characterised in architecture by pointed arches, flying buttresses, ribs, vaults and tracery in windows. The furniture of the period is also ornamented with such typical architectural features.
GRIFFIN A fabulous creature of Classical origin with an Eagle’s head and wings on a lion’s body.
GROTESQUES Decorative design used on Friezes, panels and pilasters, composed of such motifs as trailing leaves, anthemion, urns and fantastic creatures. These decorative designs were of Classical origin and were initiated and developed by Renaissance artists. As they had first been discovered on the walls of Roman ruins, or grotti, they have come to be known as groteschi, hence grotesques.
GUILLOCHE Carved ornament of Classical derivation consisting of interlaced circles.
HOOF FOOT Commonly, terminal of the early cabriole leg in the form of a hoof.
HUSK ORNAMENT Ornament resembling the husk of wheat, used in repeated and diminishing pattern, particularly on Neo-Classical furniture.
INTAGLIO Incised carving or engraving on a hard material such as a gem.
INTANSIA Italian term to describe inlay or marquetry. A type of geometrical intersis is found, for example, on Venetian 15th century chests. At the same time, Florence was famous for intersis panels representing pictorial scenes, while while perspective views of real or imaginary architecture were popular in Italy as a whole in the late 15th and 16th centuries. At this period, too, intersis panels for walls or furniture were skilfully produced in south Germany workshops.
JAPANWORK A term used in England and America to describe lacquer made in imitation of oriental lacquer. Both Chinese and oriental lacquer was widely collected by European patrons in the late 17th and earlier part of the 18th centuries, but the Japanese was of a higher quality. As demand exceeded supply, European craftmen were quick to provide for the fashion by their own efforts. English japanwork was in bright colours such as scarlet or yellow, and much of it was exported, particularly to Portugal. Normally designs were raised on the surface, but inferior work was merely varnished.
KEY PATTERN Repetitive pattern, of Classical origin, composed of lines set at right angles, usually applied to frieze or border.
KNEE-HOLE DESK Desk with central section, containing a small cupboard or drawers, recessed to allow space for the writer’s knees.
KNURL FOOT Curled inwards.
LACQUER Essentially, decoration in coloured varnishes of oriental origin; loosly applied to European substitutes.
LADDER-BACK CHAIR Modern form for a chair with back composed of horizontal slats or rails.
LAMBREQUIN Ornamental drapery, sometimes copied in wood, with a scalloped lower edge.
LAMINATED Composed of layers of the same or alternatng materials, such as plywood or plywood faced with plastic sheets.
LINENFOLD Modern name for a style of panel decoration, probably originating in Flanders in the late 15th century, and much used in the first half of the 16th century on panelled furniture, in which the carved ornament has the appearance of folded linen.
MANNERIST STYLE A style evolved in Italy in the second decade of the 16th century as a reaction against the Classical tenets of the Renaissance. As a court art, adopted at Fontainebleau, it spread throuought Europe, rejecting Classical proportions and eschewing naturalistic forms.
MARQUETRY Decorative veneer of wood or other materials, such as ivory or mother of pearl, in which thin sheets are cut out and applied to the carcase. Floral marquetry, composed of trailing leaves and flowers sometimes included birds and butterflies, was a special feature of Dutch and French cabinetmaking from the mid 17th century and was quickly copied elsewhere. In the 18th century the Parisian cabinet makers set a new standard in the art of marquetry which was the admiration of all Europe,
MASTERPIECE Piece of work by which a crafsman gained from his guild the recognised rank of ‘master’.
MITRE JOINT A corner joint of mouldings framing a panel, each edge of the join cut at an angle of 45 degrees.
MONOPODIUM Support for tables, etc in the form of an animal’s head and body with a single leg and foot; of Classical origin, revived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
MORTICE Cavity into which a projecting tenon is fitted to join two pieces of wood (mortice-and-tenon joint).
MOULDING Projecting band shaped in section, often continuous patterning.
MUDEJAR STYLE Hispano-Mauresque style of the late 15th century evolved in Spain as a result of the influence of Moorish craftsmen who remained in the country after the fall of Granada.
NEO-CLASSICAL STYLE Style evolved in France and England in the third quarter of the 18th century and quickly adopted elsewhere in Europe and America, inspired by an increasingly informed knowledge of Roman and also Greek art.
OGEE MOULDING Moulding of double curvature, concave below and convex above.
ORMOLU English term, derived from the French but not, in fact, used in France, to describe decorative objects and furniture mounts of cast and gilt bronze is an alternative description.
OYSTER VENEER Veneers cut transversely from small beranches of walnut, ;laburnum, olive or other trees, showing the whorled pattern of the graining, and laid side by side, a method developed in Holland in the second half of the 17th century.
PAD FOOT Resembling club foot, but set on a disc.
'PAINTBRUSH' FOOT American term to describe the foot of a chair or table curled inwards in resemblance of a paintbrush; otherwise known as tassel foot or Spanish foot.
PAINETTE Ornament of formalised palm leaf, of Classical derivation, often resembling a spread fan.
PARCEL GILT Partly gilt.
PARQUETRY A form of veneer, creating a geometrical pattern.
PASSEMENTERIE Lace work or trimming.
PATERA A motif of Classical origin, consisting of a round or oval decoration, much used in the Neo-Classical period, applied, carved, inlaid or painted.
PEDESTAL In architecture a moulded base supporting a column. In terms of furniture, a solid support for a lamp or a decorative object. Pedestal desks are those in which the top is supported on two sections containing drawers. Pedestal tables are supported on a single pillar or column.
PEDIMENT Member of triangular or curved form surmounting a Classical cornice. When ‘broken’, lines of the pediment are stopped before reaching the apex.
PIET e DURE Ornamental work in hard stone originating in Florence an the late 16th century. Widely used for table tops and decorative cabinets from that period.
PILASTER Flattened column, rectangular in section.
PLATERESQUE Descriptive of exhuberant early Renaissance decoration on Spanish furniture; name first applied to such decoration on silver.
PRESS Cupboard.
PUTTO Naked male infant much used as a decorative motif on furniture from the Renaissance.
REEDING Convex moulding resembling a series of reeds; the exact opposite of fluting.
REGENCY PERIOD Term used to describe the years between 1715 and 1723 when Phillipe, Duc d’Orleans, was regent of France during the minority of Louis XV.
ROCOCO Derived from the French rocaille, the term describes a style which originated in Frence in the early 18th century and spread throughout Europe. A decorative style conceived at first in terms of flowing arabesque, it developed in the second quarter and in the mid 18th century a more sculptural volatile manner, in which motif based on shell and rock forms, foliage, flowers, sprightly animals, ‘X’-scrolls and tortuous curves were combined with fantasy and charm.
ROLL-TOP DESK A desk closed by means of a flexible shutter of convex shape composed of strips of wood.
ROMANESQUE Style current in Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries characterised by the round arch inspired by Classical example.
ROUNDEL Ornament occupying a circular space.
SABRE LEG A leg curved in resemblance of a cavalry sabre.
SCONCE Wall light.
SERPENTINE FORM A profile composed of a convex curve, flanked by two concave curves.
SPHYNX Hybrid monster with the head of a woman and the body of a lion.
SPLAT Vertical member between the uprights of a chair back; often pierced or shaped.
SPLIT BALUSTER or SPINDLE Turned member split lengthwise and applied as matched decoration on furniture.
SPOON-BACK American term to describe a ‘Queen Anne’ chair with a back curved like a spoon to give comfort to the sitter.
STRAPWORK Decoration composed of interlacing bands or straps sometimes combined with foliage. A popular ornament in northern Europe in the second half of the 16th and early 17th centuries. Late 17th century Baroque ornament also included a delicate form of foliate strapwork based upon the designs of the French designer’ Jean Berain.
STRETCHER Horizontal bar joining and strengthening the legs of chairs and tables.
TAMBOUR FRONT A roll front or shutter made of narrow strips of wood glued to a canvas backing, and used for desk tops etc.
TREFOIL An ornament suggesting a three-lobed leaf.
TROUBADOUR STYLE Description in France in the 19th century of furniture in the revived Gothic style.
TURKEYWORK Upholstery of even, deep pile formed by knotting wools on a canvas base, in imitation of Turkey carpets. In use from the 16th century onwards.
VENEER Thin sheets of wood glued to the carcase of furniture for decorative effect; formerly sawn by hand, now cut by machine.
VERNIS MARTIN Term used generically to describe varnishes and lacquers used for furniture and interiors in France in the 18th century. The four Martin brothers developed a method of lacquering which brought them patronage and widespread fame. They used many colours, but theis green lacquer was the most celebrated.
VITRINE Display or china cabinet.
VITRUVIAN SCROLL Border decoration of Classical origin composed of a band of convoluted scrolls.
VOLUTE Spiral scroll, particularly associated with Ionic capitals.
WAINSCOT Name originally used in medieval England for imported timber suitable for wagon construction, and thus for furniture and panelling, more strictly applied in America to panelling and panelled furniture.