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Our Glossary of English Antique Furniture terms and terminology

We are often asked to explain certain words used to describe our antique desks and antique writing furniture, therefore we have prepared a short Glossary of key terms that provides definitions for commonly used words and phrases. We hope you find it useful

Apron: the part of a piece of furniture that runs just under the top or seat and attaches the legs (as in a chair or table) sometimes called a "skirt."

Astragal Moulding: a type of moulding usually used on glass doors, where thin strips of wood crisscross the glass in regular patterns.

Backplate: the component of a pull that forms the plate attached to the surface

Ball-and-Claw Feet: feet carved in the image of a ball gripped by a clawed foot resembling that of a bird.

Baluster: thick, turned column that is larger in the middle and often used as a component of a leg.

Barley Twist: a type of framing that usually consists of the image of a round, carved band winding around a column. Sometimes, the column is dispensed with and replaced by a second twist, which intertwines with the first. Barley twist is an abstracted version of the head of barley grass containing the grains..

Beaded Edging: carved trim that is composed of half-bead shapes.

Bevel: usually the sloping edge of glass characteristic of antique furniture; sometimes used in other materials such as wood or metal.

Bird's Eye: a striking burl wood grain pattern that resembles birds' eyes.

Bobbin Twist: similar to barley twist, the bobbin twist is a form of carved framing. Instead of winding bands, however, bobbin twist framing tends to resemble bobbins carved around a round, central column. Sometimes referred to as "bobbin turned."

Bonnet Top: a curved cornice whose crest is split, with the sides curving upwards in the shape of a bonnet.

Bowfront: a shape applied to various furniture items, including chests of drawers, side tables and sideboards, that resembles the curve of a bow.

Bracket Foot: a foot that stems out from a furniture piece, usually a chest of drawers, which forms a square corner and usually features some type of shaping on the sides.

Breakfront: a design where the central section of a piece protrudes more than the sides, thus producing a kind of "broken" front.

Bun Feet: also called "ball feet," bun feet resemble round, carved balls and usually have flat bottoms.

Bureau: a piece of furniture designed for writing featuring a slanted face called a "fall" that opens to reveal a desk section. The fall rests on supports that sometimes automatically protract. Often used synonymously with "secretary."

Burl: a feature of wood resulting from unusual growth that produces a striking grain.

Cabriole Leg: originating in East Asia, this leg type developed in England during the Queen Anne Period (1702-1714). Typically, cabriole legs curved in a serpentine shape and end in ball-and-claw feet. Still popular with Queen Anne Style furniture today, the cabriole leg features a strong knee that negates the need for a stretcher. Thus, when the leg became popular during the Queen Anne period, chairs, tables and other items that began to use cabriole legs also tended not to use stretchers. Also, the general shape and design of furniture in general took on a more sinuous shape in adaptation to the cabriole leg. The result was a style that remains distinct today as it was then.

Cane: rattan woven into open-holed patterns for use in furniture, particularly in chair backs and seats.

Canted Corner: corners that, rather than being square, appear to have a section of wood cut out, thus replacing the ninety degree angle with a flat face.

Caster: a round ball or flat-edged circle attached to the base or foot of a piece of furniture for the purpose of rolling it about..

Chinoiserie: derives from the French "chinois" for "Chinese." A style of furniture, art and design that uses Chinese or pseudo-Chinese symbols, motifs and design. Lacquer is common.

Clerk's Desk: often resembling lecterns, these desks tend to be high off the ground with a slanted face that lifts to reveal a storage area.

Cockbeading:  Beading typically found around the leading edges of drawers to frame the front of the drawer

Console: often refers to a table fixed to a wall and supported by only two legs but also refers generally to any wall table.

Credenza: an office furniture piece, usually featuring many drawers and cabinets and sometimes similar to a miniature desk, which sits behind the desk.

Crest: quite simply the crown or top of a piece; specifically, the apex, typically carved or adorned in some way.

Crossbanding: often shortened to just "banding," crossbanding is a form of inlay or veneer that forms a border around a furniture piece or parts of a furniture piece. Examples include drawer fronts with crossbanding or the top of a chest of drawers with crossbanding. Most often, the wood used for crossbanding is a different wood than the main wood, and typically differs in shade or tint from the main wood. The most popular woods used for banding in English furniture are satinwood and yew, with mahogany, rosewood and other types being less common. Banding of the same wood type is also used commonly.

Cylinder-top desk: usually a writing desk with a rounded face resembling a section of a barrel. The face retracts up into the structure of the desk and usually can be locked when closed

Davenport Desk: a compact form of desk or writing table which was developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Regency versions were box-like in appearance with a hinged lid above a case of drawers, but during the mid 19th century, versions with "piano tops" were made, with a recessed slide-out writing surface. These davenports often had hidden catches to release a rising compartment fitted with stationery drawers.

Dickens Desk:  typically a “pedestal desk” with “superstructure” – the superstructure compising a writing slope and/or lockable cupboards or drawers – as used by Charles Dickens in the mid 1800’s

Demi-lune: literally, "half-moon." Refers to a shape of furniture, usually in tables.

Dentil Moulding: decorative moulding comprised of a line of squares that resemble teeth.

Dovetails: two interlocking joints produce these "dovetails," which are triangular or squarish sections where the wood of one plank interlocks with another.

Ebony:  any number of wood types that have been ebonized, or significantly darkened to the point of blackness. Ebony wood is most frequently used as a decorative inlay.

Embossing: - see "tooling"

Escritoire: a secretary, usually of French influence.

Escutcheon: in furniture, an ornamental or protective plate surrounding a keyhole. Escutcheons are similar to the backplates on pulls and vary widely in appearance and style.

Fall: the face (or slope) of a bureau or secretary that falls down to reveal the desk section.

Fan Inlay: a particularly inlay (or veneer) pattern that resembles a paper fan and most often consists of a combination of yellowish- and green-stained satinwood. Fan inlay is a neo-classical pattern popularized in the Georgian Period (1714-1820).

Flame Mahogany: a striking variation of mahogany that is also known as "quartersawn" mahogany, which is obtained by cross-cutting the joint where the limb meets the trunk. As the wood ages and develops a patina, the grain and complexion of flame mahogany tend to become more pronounced and are capable of producing a stunning appearance.

Floating Panelling: loose panels that are held to a piece of furniture by a tight frame. Floating panels are a particularly old method of furniture construction and thus are characteristic of pieces that possess both fine quality and great age.

Fluting: a pattern of parallel grooves popularized in the Georgian Period (1714-1820) used to decorate a variety of furniture surfaces, including legs, corners, columns, and table edges.

French Leg: similar to the cabriole leg, the French leg is a squarish leg carved in a sinuous pattern that curves out from the joint, back in at the middle, and out again at the foot, which ends in a flat surface.

Gallery: ornamental railing, sometimes used for hanging curtains or other fabric, mostly seen on sideboards and servers..

Herringbone Veneer: a style of veneer, usually satinwood, composed of two very small, straight-grained sections of veneer, usually cut from the same timber, whose grain oppose one another at forty-five degree angles so as to bear a resemblance to the spinal pattern of a herring..

Inlay: wood, mother-of-pearl, metal or other material set into a groove. Veneer, on the other hand, is overlaid on top of a surface.

Inverted Bowfront: like the bowfront shape, the inverted bowfront follows the curve of a bow but is concave rather than convex.

Knee-hole Desk: A smaller flat topped desk usually made all in one piece, the knee-hole section between the left and right hand pedestals having a “modesty” panel behind or sometimes a small cupboard.

Ladies' Bureau: a small, narrow bureau, typically of light design and build.

Ladies' Secretary: a small, narrow secretary, typically of light design and build.

Ladies' Writing Desk: a small, narrow writing desk, typically of light design and build. Ladies' writing desks often feature a small hutch.

Lectern: an older term for "podium," the lectern is similar to the clerks' desk. Lecterns, however, tend to be narrower.

Lion's-paw Feet: brass feet that were especially popular during the Regency Period (1800-1830) and which reflected Greek and Roman classical models.

Library Table: A writing table having (lockable) drawers under both sides of the top or occasionally at the ends.

Marquetry: elaborate decorative veneer patterns that form pictorial mosaics, typically using rare or exotic woods over more common woods; first recorded in the Italian Renaissance and later adopted by the 16th century in Germanic Europe and the Low Countries..

Mortice-and-tenon joint: a joint formed by interlocking perpendicular pieces of wood. Dovetailed joints are a product of this technique.

Mother-of-pearl: the hard, shimmering substance that forms the inner surface of a mollusc shell. Highly prized as an inlay material, furniture pieces featuring mother-of-pearl tend to be of a very high quality.

Ogee Feet: a type of shaped bracket feet, ogee feet differ in that they are shaped both on the inside and the outside, whereas shaped bracket feet are square on the outside.

Oyster Veneer: a highly prized veneer pattern obtained from cross-cut limbs. The favoured wood for this technique is yew.

Pad Feet: feet that end in distinct pads that extend slightly out from the leg itself.

Parquetry: invented during the Italian Renaissance to decorate floors, parquetry was first used on Northern European cabinets in the mid-17th century, veneered parquetry is similar to marquetry except that it employs geometrical shapes, the most popular of which are the cube, lozenge, trellis and dot trellis.

Partners' Desk: a desk usually composed of two pedestals and a top, with seating and storage on both sides, thus allowing for two "partners" to both occupy the desk at the same time.

Patina: the visible character of aging that metal and wood take on after a long period of time. Wood tends to develop a more striking grain and complexion upon developing a rich enough patina.

Pedestal Desk: a desk composed of two pedestals and a top. i.e.  the desk comes in three pieces for ease of transportation and assembly. The top and pedestals both house drawers and/or cupboards.

Pierced Backplate: a backplate "pierced" with decorative holes.

Plain Twist Framing: plain twist is very much like barley twist except the twined patterns more closely resemble flat planes wrapped about a round column.

Plinth Base: a flat base without feet and flush with the floor..

Pull: a handle.

Quartersawn: sawn from a quartered log so the annual rings are nearly at right angles to the face; produces the distinct tiger oak grain.

Reeding: pattern more or less identical with fluting.

Rexine: a hardwearing alternative to the traditional leather writing surface often found on antique desks, writing tables and library tables. Also know as leather cloth this material was used from the 1890's onwards. When waxed gives an excellent durable surface that can also be tooled and embossed as necessary

Roll Top Desk: Usually a four piece desk consisting of two pedestals containing drawers, a rear panel and a either a cylinder top or sliding tambour. The top opens to reveal a flat writing surface, stationery compartments and drawers

Rush: dried, woven tuft plants used to make chair seats.

Sabre Leg: a leg, popular on 18th century chairs, that curves forwards.

Satinwood: usually a wood used for inlay, satinwood displays a small, fine, consistent grain.

Secretary: see “bureau”.

Semi-partners' Desk: Similar to the partners' desk description above, but with false drawers to the rear

Serpentine: a sinuous shape that takes its name from the S-shaped movement of serpents.

Skirt: see “apron”

Spade Feet: square, tapered feet that resemble the metal end of a spade or shovel.

Splayed Feet: thin, squarish-shaped feet that curv out slightly from the body of the furniture piece, and which are usually accompanied by a shaped skirt.

Starburst Veneer: a pattern resembling diverging rays of light. Typically, the veeners are cut from the same timber.

Stretcher: a piece of framing, usually horizontal and joining legs.

String Inlay: very thin pieces of decorative inlay, usually satinwood or ebony wood.

Superstructure: An arrangement of small drawers on cupboards on top of the flat surface of a pedestal or kneehole desk

Swag Inlay: inlay, usually light satinwood against a darker wood, characterized by curved lines hanging between two points, usually in floral or ribbon shapes.

Swan-neck Handle: pulls that dip sinuously from the left and right to form a handle in the middle. The dips resemble the swan necks for which the pulls are named.

Tambour top: typically found on roll top desks this is the flexible sliding cover that protects the desk top.  Made from slats of wood held together by wire cable.  Usually lockable.

Tear-drop Moulding: moulding composed of a series of carvings that resemble a line of tear drops.

Tear-drop Handle: a pull in the shape of a tear drop.

Textured Carving: carving composed a multitude of small dots or markings that are employed to give the impression of three-dimensionality, often featured in intricately carved displays.

Tiger Oak: also known as quartersawn oak, this prized variety of oak displays distinct stripes like that of a tiger.

Tongue-in-Groove Panelling: (Tongue and Groove) panels that are jointed by the interlocking of tongues and grooves. Tongue-in-groove panelling usually indicates sturdy, high-quality furniture, and is typical of antique furniture-making..

Tooling: the ornamental application of gold onto another surface, especially leather; often referred to as "gold tooling." or "embossing".  "Blind tooling" or "Blind embossing" refers to patterns or indentations made to decorate the surface without the addition of gold.

Turned Framing: round framing that is shaped ("turned") by a lathe.

Veneer: thin layer of wood specially glued onto another layer of wood. Typically, the veneered wood is of a higher quality than the wood beneath. Unlike contemporary conceptualizations of veneer work, the use of veneers in old times was recognized as skilled and elegant; the term did not acquire the generally pejorative sense until the 20th century, when mass-production furniture manufacturers used thinner veneers or wood substitutes like plastic or composite materials.

Writing Desk:  a desk or table with multiple drawers (more than a simple line of drawers beneath the table top or frieze) – can include specific desk types such as “Davenport Writing Desks”, “Dickens Desks” etc

Writing Table: A work desk or table designed for the purposes of writing with a row of lockable drawers immediately below the table top or frieze – to one side of the top only (note: a library table which has drawers to both sides of the table)


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