Hand Tools Archive

Hardwood lumber market 1830

Bill Tindall, E.Tn.
Data from Furniture and its Makers, Chester County, PA Schiffer.

I’m interested in wood as most of you are about planes. No other justification for this diversion.

Most of the shop inventories (ca 1750-1850) listed the same woods we value today- cherry, maple (curled and “specked” (birds eye?), mahogany and walnut, with poplar and pine stocked as secondary wood and other specialty stuff like gum for wagon hubs. An inventory of mills in the early 1800’s suggests that much of the wood was sawed locally, lots of mills. Logs are difficult and expensive to haul. It is a recent development, last few decades, that logs are hauled to mills rather than siting the mill where the timber is harvested. Today it is common to haul logs over 100 miles to highly automated mills, rather than site a smaller mill at the timber.

There were a lot of shop inventories for early 1800’s so I took data for this time, but the relative data for other times are not greatly different. Two are shown below. No mention of grade. Only occasionally is a quality descriptor provided dividing lumber into two grades. Not uncommon in furniture advertising for sale to offer to trade finished furniture for lumber. Note how much lumber would be needed to barter a fancy bureau.
Format- date: species: price per 100 bdft. Interesting is the fact that lumber was priced per 100 bd ft. in many cases.
1834 poplar: $1.50, maple: $3.00
1833 mahogany $16, 25 and 12 (different thickness and grade?), walnut $2.75, white oak $3, curled maple $2, specked maple $4, cherry $3, poplar $1.

The take home here is that mahogany was pricy, the rest of the show woods about the same and secondary woods significantly cheaper. This situation is not hugely different than relative prices today of domestic and imported lumber. I would have guessed that the cost of sawing in that day would have shrunk the difference between “show woods” and secondary but as you can see the relative prices are not greatly different than today(wholesale).

It was interesting to compare the lumber prices to finished product prices.

1825 ½ column bureau mahogany: $18-20, maple $13.50-14.
1825 secretary: cherry $28, maple $28, mahogany $38
This pattern repeats in the early 1800’s. Walnut, cherry and maple furniture was about the same price with mahogany higher. The easier working properties of mahogany did not much dent the penalty of the higher material cost. Apparently the makers did not see much different in working the other woods, as there was not much or any difference in price in these pieces. I guess if you are experienced maple equals cherry....but not in my hands!

Say a piece took 50 bdft show lumber @$ 0.03 = $1.50 for lumber. Selling price $20-30. Lumber cost only 5%+/- of selling price. Today lumber is a larger fraction of selling price, I suppose because machines having taken labor cost out of manufacturer. 50 bdft walnut @$6 = $300 . At 5% the selling price would be $6000 for the piece. (Gallery furniture could be that much but we need to subtract the huge mark up the gallery takes (50%+/-) that would not be assessed with a shop marketing its own stuff. )

Anyway fun to speculate................


The furniture pictures in the book are highly biased to walnut, but shop inventory and sales suggests a more equal production of the wood species. Maybe fashion preserved the walnut preferentially?

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