Field Camera Woods

ebonized white wood
For inexpensive cameras, the wood used is usually referred to as white wood, that is, any one of several softwoods having little or no graining and are easy to work and shape, e.g., basswood (Linden), or poplar. Because there is little grain, such wood was often ebonized, that is, painted black.







Regardless of the limited beauty of white wood, it was also sometimes varnished.













Scovill used another type of wood for several inexpensive models (e.g., the New York, and probably the Dry Plate Outfit).  This wood has a distinctive flecked appearance that comes from quarter-sawn sycamore, which is also known as American lacewood.







For middle or high-end cameras, hardwoods were utilized.  Camera-making was very similar to cabinet-making (fine furniture making), so the same techniques and woods that can be found in furniture can also be found in view cameras of the period.  In the late 1800's, the classic hardwoods of American furniture were cherry and mahogany.  Cherry (or perhaps other fruitwood) was used for bases or rails, even on cameras that were mainly mahogany, because of its toughness.  However, some relatively inexpensive cameras used cherry throughout, and could still advertise that they were made of hardwood.  The Rochester Optical Company New Model was made of all cherry throughout its long period of production, although more highly figured cherry seems to have been used on early variations than on later ones.




The cabinetmaker's choice of wood was mahogany, though, which has an interesting grain and color, and is easily worked to close tolerances.  It is brittle, however - so much so that when a mahogany camera part is broken, the pieces can often be put back together without the repair being visible.  Mahogany is a commercial term for any of dozens of tropical trees that have generally red wood and close grain.  As older trees were cut or new markets were exploited, the species' available to the camera maker changed.  Also, some old growth trees having fancy grain would have been more expensive than faster growing trees having relatively plain grain.  As a result, there is a wide variety of appearance of mahogany.  Generally, older cameras and more expensive cameras show the fancy grain, where newer and less expensive cameras have less interesting wood. 

Mahogany is not as suitable for the hard use that assaults camera tracks, so often, a mahogany box will be combined with cherry tracks, then finished with stained varnish or lacquer to be all of one color.





The mahogany found on cameras of the American Optical Co. usually appear to be fine grained  if not highly figured (i.e., from slow-growing trees whose wood is expensive) and very finely filled and finished, whereas the mahogany found on cameras marked Scovill Mfg. Co. is usually open and coarsely grained, even though Scovill owned American Optical.  An extreme example is the wood on Waterbury cameras, which, strictly speaking, is probably a species of mahogany, yet is very porous and hardly even reddish.  When combined with the varnish finish rather than the more expensive French polish, the choice of wood consistently expresses the Waterbury's position as a median-priced model.







E. & H. T. Anthony advertised one model, the Victor, as being constructed either of mahogany or of highly-figured Circassion walnut, a synonym for English walnut.  In that walnut can appear very similar to a darker, fine-grained mahogany, it is not certain that the example given is, in fact, walnut, but it is more highly grained than other, lighter-in-color, examples of the Victor.










The Craftsman Movement c. 1910 produced an interest in furniture manufactured from fumed quarter-sawn white oak, a process that produces a medium brown color having contrasting light flecks throughout.  Since camera-makers were originally furniture-makers it is perhaps surprising that there aren't more cameras constructed of oak, but then, by 1910, camera factories had been specializing for decades.  Quarter-sawn oak cameras are known, as the example shows, even if their manufacturers are not.











By about 1910, whether by choice or whether by the exhaustion of more figured wood, the mahogany in cameras is rather bland in appearance.  And in 1921, Kodak introduced the 2d (d as in dark finish), whose walnut stain effectively obscured  the grain.  About the only worse thing to happen to a camera's appearance is the Ansco battleship gray paint of the mid-20th century.








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