Materials and Joinery

Our materials

Our classical Chinese furniture is constructed mostly from local elm wood known as ‘Northern Elm’ (or ‘Yumu’ in Chinese). This has been the most popular wood used for furniture making in the north of China for hundreds of years. Although technically a hardwood by Western definitions, it is classed as a softwood by the Chinese as it is porous enough to hold a coloured lacquer. The sapwood of Northern Elm is yellowish-brown, while the heartwood is a darker chestnut brown. Its surface often shows a delightful wave-like pattern in the grain - one of the reasons for its popularity in furniture making. We also use poplar, a similar wood to elm, and pine in our other reproduction furniture ranges.

As far as possible use we reclaimed wood for our newly made furniture, sourced from China’s northern provinces. With the huge construction boom in China’s towns and cities, there is no shortage of good quality timber to be taken from demolished buildings. The wood we use has been seasoned for at least 80 years and in many cases is dried in a kiln before use to bring its moisture content down to a maximum of 10%. This minimises the risk of movement in a piece of furniture when it arrives in the UK’s less humid climate.

Joinery and Construction

Every piece in our range of classical Chinese furniture is handcrafted using joinery and construction methods that have been passed down through generations of Chinese craftsmen.

Complex techniques of wood joinery developed early on in China’s history, and the art reached its peak in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, when the import of dense tropical hardwoods allowed for extremely intricate joints to be developed. During this period the combination of joints used in furniture making was almost infinite, with a particular joint being selected based on its suitability to cope with the stresses and strains that would be put on it.

Our own furniture is made using the same frame and panel system, constructed using mortise-and-tenon joints, which was used during this golden age of Chinese furniture. Essentially it fits together almost like a puzzle, with no metal nails or screws being used, and with glue used only to support the joints and panels. Whereas in much contemporary furniture the joints are exposed and emphasised for aesthetical reasons, in traditional Chinese furniture the joints are concealed. This results in an extremely pure, clean style, with the focus being on the form of a piece and the beauty and texture of the wood itself.

Mortise-and-tenon joints

The mortise-and-tenon is the most basic joint used in Chinese furniture. A tenon is a protrusion at the end of one piece of wood, such as a frame member (one side of a frame). This then slots into the mortise - a corresponding cut out section in the piece to be attached. There are many types of mortise-and-tenon joints. In the most basic, the ends of both pieces to be joined are squared. In our own range as in most classical Chinese furniture, mitred mortise-and-tenon joints are most commonly used, where the ends of the frame members are cut at an angle.

Frame and panel construction

The frame and panel system is used in most Chinese furniture, most clearly in cabinet panels and doors, table tops and chair seats. The frame is constructed using mitred mortise-and-tenon joints. A groove is cut around the inside of the frame and the panel is constructed with a corresponding ‘tongue’, allowing it to slot into the frame. This ‘tongue and groove’ system secures the panel without using nails and allows for some movement in the furniture due to changes in humidity. It also has the advantage of concealing the end grains of the panel within the groove of the frame, so that only the most attractive wood grain can be seen.

For further information about the materials, joinery and construction used in classical Chinese furniture, see our resources section.

Learn about the history of Chinese furniture

Learn about how best to care for your Chinese furniture