Tulipwood & Walnut

Tulipwood & Walnut – A Trip Thru Time

The Workshop

Imagine stepping into a bustling Pennsylvania woodworking shop in the early 1800s. The air is thick with the smell of fresh-cut wood and the tang of sawdust. Perhaps you catch a whiff of smoke from a wood stove. Hopefully, someone has brought part of their breakfast into the shop and shared out the tasty German foods I imagine having around for snacks. Craftsmen move rhythmically, their tools tapping and scraping as they work on their projects. This is where our cabinet was born, crafted with care and precision from local walnut and tulipwood. These materials were chosen not just for their beauty but for their solid, dependable qualities.

The Birth of the Cabinet

The cabinet’s sides and top are solid walnut, chosen for its durability and rich, warm tones. The back, door, and drawer are made from tulipwood, a local Pennsylvania material prized for its unique pinkish color and fine grain. Tulipwood, a variation of poplar, is lighter and less dense than walnut, resulting in different acoustic qualities when tapped.

The construction techniques used are a hat tip to the skill involved. They weren’t showing off. They chose beautifully grained woods and then ‘did their thing’. I imagine, whomever was the ‘Master’ craftsperson for the shop was critical of it. Looking all over for errors the maker may have made.

The cabinet and door are assembled with blind mortise and tenon joints, ensuring strength without visible joinery. You can’t see any kind of a glue line anywhere. I can’t do this without machines. A joint is splitting on the door and I will attempt to correct it. The rest of the joints are all perfect and intact. There is no veneer, only solid wood, showcasing the beauty of the woods used. The drawer features rounded gussets on the inside front corners, adding both strength and an interesting touch. I don’t know for sure, but at least I suspect the gussets are not original. A dado – rabbit supports the back of the drawer, demonstrating thoughtful design in Yellow Poplar (also called Yellow Tulipwood).

The brackets are walnut. I’ve had to make four and I rebuilt one from two that were broken. I left the bracket flanges a 1/16th of an inch thicker as the thin versions are clearly too thin. This was a professional’s cabinet. With 3-5 adjustable shelves, the cabinet would have held letters, journals, diaries, and other bits of paperwork for the owner. I received only three shelves all of which, thankfully, were intact. I believe they are also Poplar – or Tulipwood.

The Life and Times of the Cabinet

Our cabinet has witnessed history. It may have stood in a home during the Revolutionary War or even earlier, surviving the challenges of early American life. The faint scars of a fire are visible in the grain of the front posts, telling a silent story of resilience. Was the fire from a Revolutionary War battle, a Civil War skirmish, or a simple chimney fire? This baked-in mystery leaves me wondering.

The cabinet comes to us through generations. The previous owner, now older, knew it came to him through his mother. Her father’s family originally owned the piece, placing its creation in the late 17th or early 18th century. The cabinet has been a witness to countless family stories and historical events. Just thinking about the headlines on the newspapers the various owners set on it every morning. Blows my mind.

If you look at the picture below closely, you should be able to see the apparent ‘grain’ running left-to-right – that is light fire damage. There are two spots, one on each front post, and none on the back or elsewhere. That tells me the cabinet was in a fire and was saved.

But what caused the fire? For me, the cabinet has this baked-in mystery that always has me wondering how the fire started. Was it from a Revolutionary War battle, or did it happen during the Civil War, or perhaps it was just a chimney fire? I’m thankful the cabinet was spared, but I’m also hopeful that since it was, perhaps the family was all safe as well.

The Cabinet’s Aesthetic and Structural Details

The grain of the walnut and tulipwood is mesmerizing, with fiery, electric patterns that captivate the eye. Even without finish, the wood’s natural beauty shines through. The original shellac finish, though crazed with age, was a layer of history, but there were some scratches in the wood that needed to be fixed, so I needed to remove the old layers.

The design elements hint at Federalist style, with the cabinet’s posts tapering gracefully. Yet, it lacks the detailed ornamentation typical of pure Federalist style, suggesting a unique blend of influences and practical craftsmanship. There is no evidence of paint, colorful or otherwise.

Restoration and Preservation

Over the years, the drawer has been repaired multiple times. Originally, the face was butted and gusseted, with a dado supporting the back. These repairs highlight the cabinet’s practical use and the efforts to maintain its functionality while preserving its original character.


Six tiny nails are in the piece, tiny yet significant markers of the cabinet’s age and authenticity. These nails, along with the joinery and wood choice, help date and authenticate the piece, connecting it to a specific time and place.


Conclusion: Reflection on the Cabinet’s Journey

This cabinet is more than just furniture; it is a journey through time, a witness to history, and a testament to craftsmanship. Its beauty lies not only in its materials and construction but also in the stories it holds and the hands through which it has passed. Owning such a piece is a privilege, a tangible link to the past.

I invite you to look at the historical pieces in your own life with new eyes. Appreciate the stories they tell, the craftsmanship they exhibit, and the history they carry. In doing so, we honor the past and preserve it for future generations.

I’m still amazed that I found this on Craigslist in the “Free” section. The couple I got it from were off on other adventures and didn’t have room for it. The owner said, “I’m glad it will go to a good home,” when I told him I was going to restore it. I didn’t know how beautiful it would be, but he may have. I could be wrong about the pedigree and would love to learn more about it. In the meantime, this cabinet’s journey through time will continue with me for a few years. 🙂


Author Since: March 21, 2023