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Victorian Woodwork: Common Details, Species, and Finishes

A Brief History

“Victorian” architecture represents a series of architectural revival styles prevalent in the mid-to-late 19th century. The classification is a reference and nod to the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), known as the Victorian era.

Both the British and French carried on a custom of naming architectural styles for the reigning monarch of the time, a trend that carried over to the United States as the term is often used for American styles and buildings from the same period.

One would imagine that the Queen would be impressed had she known that her name would be associated with such a popular and enduring architectural style. A style still cherished by countless artisans, preservationists and enthusiasts today.

Enduring Characteristics of the Style

What characteristics of Victorian architecture differentiate it from its predecessors and successors? When one thinks of the Victorian style, the intricately designed woodwork comes to mind as its primary defining characteristic. Interiors decorated with extravagant, ornate furnishings, while decorative gables, eaves, and rooftop finials adorned the exteriors.

Detailed carvings, dark woods, and heavy luxurious fabrics characterize Victorian furniture. The furniture was traditionally made from mahogany, rosewood, or walnut, sometimes painted or gilded. Intricate carvings of natural images such as flowers, leaves, curling vines, ribbons, and bows adorned the pieces.

An Evolution of Finishes

Between approximately 1830 to the beginning of the 20th century, an evolution of finish preferences transitioned through the Victorian design landscape. Over the time, popular opinions changed as did the finish and look of the woodwork within the home.

Early Victorian Preferences

Paint was the traditional finish of earlier Federal style homes of the late 1700’s and that carried well into the 1830’s. Designers at the time preferred an approach known as “three gradations of color” for a room. Ceilings were painted a lighter color, followed by a darker wall, followed by incrementally darker tones for the woodwork. Nearly all interior woodwork, baseboards, doors, wooden mantles, etc. were painted in darker hues, or stained to deep rich tones.

A bit of sensory, deception was part of the designer’s plan as well, as not all finishes within the home were necessarily, as they seem. Woodgraining and faux marbling were popular finishing techniques used in both grand and modest Victorian homes.

Artisans would apply an oil base coat to the wood, followed by another coat of a thinned darker paint, which was then manipulated with special tools and brushes to mimic the grain lines and natural features of different species of wood. A final layer of varnish would be applied to protect the graining from wear and tear.

In a similar process, various types of marble could also be faux painted on fireplace mantels, columns and paneling.

For those skilled in the craft, observers would require a keen eye to recognize the alteration.

Mid Victorian Preferences

By the 1850’s through the onset of the Civil War, times and preferences began to change and the Victorian style incorporated more bare wood elements.

American homeowners, builders and architects embraced domestic woods like southern pine, black walnut, oak and chestnut. Finishing these woods called for less varnish in exchange for boiled linseed oil or other oils.

To add a barrier of safety to protect walls and the ornate wallpaper of the time, architects introduced chair rails as a functional yet stylish element into nearly every room where one might fight a place to sit.

Decorative paneling of wood and plaster frames became prevalent during this period as well.

Faux graining remained popular as it was considered a means by which those with more modest incomes could use lesser grade woods and faux grain them to mirror more affluent alternatives. Noting of course the homeowner would need to be cautious of scrapes or scuffs revealing a substrate’s true identity.

The Peak of Victorian Style and Preferences

The period between 1870 and 1890 represents the peak of Victorian architectural style. Ornate detail in woodwork and other decorative elements were elevated as a result of the Aesthetic Movement of the time.

When it came to intricate detail, they were making every effort to impress. Ornate wooden mantelpieces, built-ins, doors and other woodwork were each important to the overall decor in the room. Multiple colors and patterns adorned the walls, ceilings and furniture.

Also popular during this time was painting or stenciling the panels of doors with floral motifs.

Natural wood returned as the preference; specifically, stained hardwoods in the more public spaces of the home while softwoods would be selected for less public spaces. For example, a dining room or parlor would include stained hardwoods, while a bedroom would be painted with strong, bold color choices.

A Return to Simplicity

By 1890, the trajectory reversed, the elevated ornateness of Victorian Style had reached its pinnacle and soon became blasé. People’s preferences began to return to simpler times.

The more rustic and simple lines of the Arts and Crafts Movement coincided with the more classical lines of the Renaissance Revival movement.

Interior woodwork began to be less ornate, with simpler mantles, wainscoting, etc. Coffered ceilings remained popular, but in simpler, less decorated form.

The Colonial Revival gained momentum and Arts and Crafts homes with their rich dark oaks and dark stained woods began to replace Victorian Style preferences.

Victorian Treasures Today

For those fortunate enough to own a Victorian home, regardless of period, or lucky enough to have one or two pieces of Victorian furniture within their home, the appreciation of the style is as treasured today as it was by the gifted artisans who created them. Their skill and eye for detail initiated an appreciation that impressed owners in the 19th century, is cherished by present day 21st century caretakers, and is certain to endure for generations to come.

At John Canning & Co., we have had the privilege of taking part in the restoration of countless elements of Victorian-era woodwork, from parlor floors, to stenciled walls, to wainscoting, ornate fireplace surrounds to beautifully carved pieces of furniture. We consider it an honor to play a small role in ensuring that these Victorian woodworking elements are preserved and restored for the future. Perhaps motivating the next generation of artisans who will be equally inspired by such a timeless and enduring style.

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