Yew and Others Like Yew

Yew and Others Like Yew

The Coniferales are the order in which yew (Taxus) is found. In non-botanical terms, yew is considered a softwood meaning that it is a timber without pores. Standard misconceptions about softwood are that it is soft, yew for one is particularly hard and dense, and that they are evergreen. Larch or Laryx is not an evergreen and yet it is a softwood. Hardwoods can also be evergreen and they can also be soft. Balsa wood is a good example of a soft hardwood.

So why the prejudice against softwoods as a primary timber in the 18th century? Part of the reason has to be that pine and all the conifers do not take stain well and yet they are excellent for paint or gesso and hence you will find mirrors carved in pine and painted furniture made of pine. The grain of softwoods also could be considered too bland. Further, however, it must be understood that the economy of imported timbers dictated what timbers were used by the high end furniture trade. There are several articles in the Furniture History Society journal of 1994 by Adam Bowatt and John M. Cross which are illuminating on this subject.

Yew is a beautiful and native timber and was not subject to import levies in the 18th century. However, because native woods were closely guarded by their owners, it is unlikely that it was readily available commercially. It might also not have had as much éclat being a native timber. In addition, yew was a traditional grave yard tree which might have cast a pall on the material at least for the end user. Finally, it is not an easy timber to work as the grain is anything but straight. That yew was used in the country is understandable, but it is exceedingly rare to find it used in high style furniture. The yew banded satinwood card tables which started me off on this diatribe, at least from the point of view of their timber, are very rare indeed.

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