Are your burls and crotches getting the consideration they deserve? If you have “brown furniture” (not the reconstituted or chemically produced genre, but items made from real trees), take a moment to appreciate your wood’s physiological and historical past…and definitely “think” before you decide to makeover with PAINT! If your furniture exhibits burls or crotches, do you really want to mask a tree’s history and the fruits of Mother Nature’s labours? Thus, the dilemma:

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Should a tree burl like this…
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…split open in the 19th century and transformed into a walnut veneer drawer (image: Gretchen Sawatzki)…
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…be painted to conform to contemporary tastes?

The “brown furniture” problem

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It is destabilizing when this 1960’s “tam tam”…..

“Brown furniture” has gone out of fashion. Over the decade, the value of antique furniture has dropped 28% (oddly, other collectables like classic cars or fine art have gone up). One disagreeable aspect of preparing an estate sale is having to tell owners that their heirloom furniture is worth zip. Just last year I saw an elderly Parisian lady burst into tears at the realisation that her 1960’s plastic “tam tam” stool was fetching more than a 18th century Norman mahogany armoire.

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…can fetch a better price than an 18th century Norman oak wedding cabinet.

While man’s need to live in the presence of history has waxed and waned over time, curiously, we seem to be living in a waning moment. Romans revered Greek sculpture, antique collecting was in vogue during the Renaissance and the 18th century saw upper-classes tackling the Grand Tour. Currently, history has taken a back seat to an aesthetic determined by facility, comfort and mass cultural recognition. According to Parisian dealer Benjamin Steinitz, “If you have a Picasso or Jeff Koons everyone knows what it is and that you’re a success. If you have a lovely Boulle desk, people may think you have the taste of your grandmother.” Granted, antique appreciation does take training and time (something lacking these days).

Before picking up that paintbrush…

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For many, repainted neutral  “antiqued” furniture seems preferable…

Rather than solidity and longevity, contemporary taste emphasizes levity and impermanence. Mass popularity of Scandinavian “fast furniture” has created a generational taste for the neutral (with an occasional pop colour). Is it any wonder that many of us “stuck” with inherited or flea-marketed antique furniture think about reaching for the paintbrush as a solution? While I used to rant and rave at the travesty of painting antique wood furniture, I have mellowed a bit.

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…to the real thing (like this 18th c. Louis XV style oak chest).

Laquering didn’t seem to bother Louis XVI, so I don’t know why I am getting all hot and bothered, and unless the painting is very badly done, it can be stripped (albeit with considerable elbow grease) and returned to the original state.

HOWEVER, if your furniture has been made with wood burls or crotches, painting over them will obliterate their story forever. So before taking the decorative plunge and slapping on that coat of paint, let’s return to the subject and check your burls and crotches. (They’re like the wrinkles in Granny’s face and they do tell a tree’s story.)

Recognizing burls and crotches outdoors

A “burl” (or “burr” in the UK, “loupe” in French) is an abnormal growth on a tree. Looking a bit like attached tumors, they indicate a disruption of the tree’s normal cellular growth resulting from physical, environmental or invasive stress.

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No doubt you have a burl  or two right in your own back yard.
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Cross-section of a burl slab revealing irregular patterns 

Every tree has “dormant buds” containing genetic information needed by a tree to grow a new one. When a tree is damaged, these buds jump into action and create swirled, curly or striped grain patterns (burls) patching the damage (Mother Nature’s band aid). Often burls sprout their own leaves and twigs, an outgrowth of their genetic package.

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A forest full of spruce burls – the result of a tempest centuries ago?

“Crotches” occur when a tree has forked out in two directions and they, too, produce swirled, wavy grain patterns as an aftermath of the split. Neither burls nor crotches can be artificially produced…one has to wait (with the patience of decades) for storms, insects, fungus, bacteria and other natural disasters to promote their growth. It has been said that burls are like the diamonds in the forest.

 

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Crotches reflect patterns formed when a tree forks out in two directions.

There are a number of extemely rare grain mutations like “quilted”, “curly”, “mottled” or “ambrosia” (a by-product of tree trauma after an invasion of fungus or insects). While burls can grow to the size of a small car, this cancer-like abnormality has little negative health impact on the tree.

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Allegedly the world’s largest burl is found in British Columbia.

Burls, crotches and other wood grain anomalies are rare, beautiful and highly in demand by woodworkers and artists. If you need to cut down a tree  with exceptional burls, you may want to donate or even

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Get your saw…your backyard burls could be worth a fortune!

sell the tumors. The fact that a large burl cross-section can fetch a considerable sum, unfortunately, has resulted in the growth of burl criminal rings. A recent article in The New York Times cited some 18 known cases of “burl poaching” in Northern California –  including the chopping down of a 400 year-old redwood in order to reach it’s 500 lb. burl.

Looking for Burls and Crotches in Furniture

While some burls produce concentric rings similar to those found in healthy trees, others produce the more unique and desirable irregular ring patterns. In order to determine the pattern which exists, as well as it’s value, the burl must first be cracked open.

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Cross section of a walnut burl ready for transformation.
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Burls can be left in their entirety to create art objects like this chair…

Although the burl can be used in its entirety for small furniture and art objects, most commonly, the burl is cut in a variety of directions to produce thin strips called veneer which are applied to the surface of furniture, clocks and musical instruments.

 

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…or cut into veneer strips to cover objects like this guitar…

Popularized in the 18th century in France, burl wood veneers encouraged the introduction of the “ébéniste”  (skilled cabinetmaker) building furniture using high-end woods like burl or “ebony” – from which the word “ébéniste” derives.

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…and even used in jewelry.
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Burl veneer is highly coveted in drum sets…

 

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…as well as high end furniture like this Art Deco burl wood veneer bar cabinet.

 

Go check your furniture’s wood grain:

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If your wood grain has an overall “regular” pattern …

 

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…there is nothing exceptional going on burl-wise.  Go ahead and paint  (at your own risk of course).

 

 

 

 

HOWEVER…

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If  you are seeing irregular spotty grain, HOLD THAT PAINTBRUSH…
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…and appreciate the burl pattern (like that found on this 19th century English three drawer commode).
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If you see a wavy pattern…
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…you have an example of “crotch “burl veneer (as seen on this French Empire “Return from Egypt” mahogony commode).
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Spotty, grain patterns called “Birdseye” result from an invasion of insects…
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…but can be transformed by furniture designers like Willy Rizzo into a magnificent chest of drawers from the 1970’s..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So go ahead and relook your antique furniture…but do take care to respect and admire your burls and crotches . Mother Nature worked hard to produce those intricate patterns. They tell a story of storms, wind, insect carnage and other drama in the life of a tree. Think twice before you paint.

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