Different types of Chinese wood

Wood species of classical Chinese furniture

When it comes to classic Chinese furniture, the first thing that often comes to mind is its delicate oriental design and appearance.

But among lovers of Chinese furniture, one element that is no less important is the material and, more specifically, the type of wood used to create these superb pieces.

Here we present some of the woods often used in the making of classical Chinese furniture.

Zitan, or red or purple sandalwood is a type of wood much coveted by collectors of classic Chinese furniture. Very rare, it is found only in China's Hainan province, in Indochina, and along the Indian coast. In the past, it had to be imported under difficult conditions, resulting in exorbitant prices.

Zitan is famous for its density - a piece of Zitan would sink in water - its dark purple or red color, and a fine texture that allows intricate sculpting.

Woods such as Huanghuali and Zitan feature detailed lines on their surface layers, so the decorative method of lacquering is not necessary. For collectors, they offer a more natural feel and are therefore highly sought-after.

Huanghuali and Zitan, because of their unique texture and decorative effect, have become the most recognizable types of wood and have had a great influence on modern people's assessment of Ming and Qing style furniture.

Chine fer a cheval detoure 2 2
Folded seat - Qing Dynasty (click on the image)

Huanghuali, Chinese rosewood or scented rosewood, is the ultimate material for classic Chinese furniture. It is one of the two most precious woods after Zitan (sandalwood).

Hu anghuali is a type of hardwood found in China's southern coastal provinces, notably Fujian, Guangdong, Zhejiang and the island of Hainan.

Because of its extremely long growth cycle and the difficulty of obtaining it, some Huanghuali were imported from Indochina during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

In addition to its rarity, Huanghuali is known for its fragrance and fine, light texture. It is dimensionally stable, crack-free and stands the test of time. Its color ranges from light to dark yellow, with a rich, elegant sheen.

All this makes Huanghuali furniture a highly sought-after product today, as well as a symbol of wealth and status for Chinese collectors and decorators.

HHL coffee table
Low table in Huanghuali

Yumu or Northern Elm is one of the most traditional furniture-making materials in China. This type of wood is found in the Shanxi, Shandong, Hebei and Henan regions.

However, Yumu is rather a collective name for many varieties of wood found in northern China, particularly in the Yellow River basin.

Typically very large and wide, quite strong in texture, with beautiful rough and wavy patterns on the surface, it is ideal for making chair seats or table tops where the patterns can be highlighted.

The colors of Yumu range from brownish yellow to dark purple.

In the past, Northern elm wood was mainly used to make offering furniture, such as the worship tables most often found in temples or ancestral halls.

The details of these antique pieces remain intact despite the absence of lacquer treatment, giving them a very natural look.

Because it has been made into furniture for centuries, some collectors also seek out antique Northern Elm pieces, although they are not as sought after as the high-end Huanghuali and Zitan.

Chinese altar 11 white 2
Chinese elm altar (click on image)

Jumu or Southern Elm or sometimes translated as Zelkova or Beech, is more concentrated in the Jiangnan regions such as Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Anhui provinces. But Jumu furniture is especially popular around Suzhou.

Jumu is denser and harder than Yumu, and the pattern on its surface is more refined. The most striking feature of Jumu is its natural grain, which resembles layered mountain peaks, and is specifically referred to as the "pagoda pattern", a characteristic of Suzhou woodworking.

High-quality Jumu is called "Blood Ju (Xue Ju)" because of its reddish-brown color, similar to that of Huanghuali.

Moreover, in Chinese, there is a saying "Yu from the North, Ju from the South" to differentiate these two types of wood. Northern and Southern elms are also renowned for their long-lasting quality.

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Chinese chest in elm

Baimu or cypressclassified by a Song dynasty text as a "miscellaneous softwood", includes several varieties and is found throughout China, but cultivation is fairly concentrated in Sichuan, western Hubei and Guizhou.

A certain variety of Baimu grown in Sichuan province, known as "weeping cypress", is considered to have better quality wood and is therefore more suitable for furniture-making.

Baimu is known for its powerful aroma and resistance to rot, insects and water, making it a preferred material for architecture, bridge building, shipbuilding and carpentry.

In furniture manufacture, Baimu is sometimes used in decorative pieces with other hardwoods, so it is also considered a secondary material.

Chinese cypress
Chinese furniture in cypress

Songmu or pine is also very commonly used in the manufacture of Chinese furniture and furniture parts.

Also considered a softwood, although its wood is light and soft and generally less resistant to decay, Songmu is more practical because simpler tools make it easier to cut, and it's more economical.

It can be used to make an entire piece of furniture, but as its quality is lighter than that of hardwoods, Songmu is often used to make decorative pieces such as table tops, as well as other more robust woods.

As the grain and pattern of its surface are not considered as exceptional as those of other types of wood, songmu furniture is sometimes finished with a lacquer as a means of decoration.

Chinoios in pine
Chinese furniture in pine

Zhangmu or camphor wood is most commonly found in Taiwan and the provinces of Fujian, Jiangxi, Hunan and Hebei.

The well-known characteristic of Zhangmu is its smell which repels insects and does not disappear with time.

This is the reason why it is widely used for wardrobes and other dressers.

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