This paper reviews the role of wood as material for making furniture, from the inception, through to the foreseeable future. It highlights the merits of wood as material for furniture making over other alternatives. The impact of leaving furniture production activities relating to material and processes in the hand of artisan and craftsmen, in Nigerian, on the acceptability of home-based wooden furniture items was discussed. It outlines the challenges lying ahead of Nigerian researchers in Wood Products Engineering. The paper concludes with suggestion on how to reinforce wood’s supremacy over other materials for use in furniture production.
In an attempt to trace the origin of furniture, many disagreements in positions on the earliest made furniture were noticed. There were indications that furniture usage was as old as the era of creation of human race as confirmed by the two leading religious books, the Holy Bible and al-Quran. The Noah’s Ark, reportedly built with Gopher’s wood (Taxodium distichum) is an example of a piece of furniture whose account is given in Genesis 6:14–22, and Surat Hûd (Quran11verse 37). Also, the tray (a furniture item) used by the forerunner of the traditional religion, the ‘Orunmila’, for his ‘Ifa’ divination (the ‘Opon Ifa’) was made of wood. But the modern day account to the contrary, reported that wooden chest of drawers and barrel were the first pieces of furniture to be made (FPL, 1976).
A report by Lucas and Olorunnisola (2002) that the wooden items found in the palaces of some traditional rulers in Nigeria were utilized as religious or traditional items lend credence to the believe that furniture shared origin with emergence of human needs during the stone ages. One could conclude in this way because almost all the alternative materials were products of modern technology whereas human tradition and religion predate modern technology.
Meanwhile, the two lines of thought have a line of symmetry in that both agreed that wood was undoubtedly the first material to be used for furniture production. Despite the emergence of different alternative materials over time coupled with the opportunity to study the weaponry of General Wood, the undefeatable material giant is still relevant in material contest in furniture production. Therefore, it suffices to agree, in totality, the opinion that timber (wood) being historically the first material to be used, will be one of the last material to be used Anonymous (2001).
THE CONTEST AMONG MATERIALS
Modern day technology has made possible the introduction of other materials in furniture production. Increase in demand and need for commercialization were the probable reasons for the introduction of alternative materials in some items that the wood is originally employed (Adewole, 2002). In furniture production, there was a similarity in that the growing desire to conserve wood resource coupled with the commercialization of furniture items during post World War II housing boom (FPL, 1976), were prominent amongst the reasons for introducing other materials. Materials like metal, plastic, glass and concrete, contesting popularity with wood, must have been tried for these reasons. The emergence of these alternative materials was surprisingly not sufficient to put out the use of wood for furniture making. Rather, it has further revealed the unparallel merits of wood resources in furniture production.
The wide availability, cheapness, aesthetic appeal, flexibility and its renewability have set wood apart from other alternatives. One overriding factor is the possibility of producing strong furniture item from wood, even with the cruddiest tool, at a place where electricity power is completely absent or epileptic (Eckelman, 2004). Except for concrete, none of the alternative materials can be used to make acceptable furniture without the need for electricity. The immobility of concrete furniture is a great bane. Indeed there are limitations as to what type of furniture that can be made from some of these alternative materials. For example, metal furniture is prone to rusting, costly and not readily available; plastics durability is questionable amongst other defects; glass furniture is fragile and costly; rattan limited in supply and not adequately durable because of jointing problems: while bamboo required high technology to convert to use.
The readiness of wood for use in any form and with or without electricity coupled with its intrinsic values must have constituted the immunity sustaining General Wood in material contest war. Since wood intrinsic values can be added to or improved upon, as the case may required, it follows that wood will continue to play a central role in furniture manufacturing either in its solid form, modified or composite form. More importantly in the developing countries of the world like Nigeria, it will be difficult to do away with wood in the foreseeable future in the production of furniture.
WHO IS GENERAL WOOD?
Wood is a solid material derived from woody plants, notably trees and also shrubs. Wood from the latter is only produced in small sizes, reducing the diversity of uses. In its most common meaning, "wood" is the secondary xylem of a woody plant, but this is an approximation only: in the wider sense, wood may refer to other materials and tissues with comparable properties. Wood is heterogeneous, hygroscopic, cellular and anisotropic in nature. Wood is composed of fibers of cellulose (40%–50%) and hemicellulose (15%–25%) held together by lignin (15%–30%).
Although there are over a hundred different kinds that can be used for furniture, some woods have natural properties that make them superior to the others. A relatively cheap material, wood lends itself to various kinds of treatment; for example, it can be stained, painted, gilded, and glued. It can be shaped by means of hand- or power-operated cutting and drilling tools. Heated, it can be bent to a certain extent into a predetermined shape and thereafter retain the shape. The grain in wood creates a structure with varying character, which in itself provides a natural ornamental surface, in which patterns can be formed by means of precalculated juxtapositions. Wood colour ranges from white to red to black through countless intermediary tones. By juxtaposing wood of different colours, extremely rich effects can be achieved. If stored under favourable conditions, wood is durable, and pieces of furniture from the oldest civilizations—Egypt, for example—are still extant. Lastly, most wood has an aromatic scent (Wikipedia, 2007).
FURNITURE PRODUCTION IN NIGERIA
It has been observed that the most widely distributed of the wood-based industries in Nigeria is the furniture sub-sector (Lucas and Olorunnisola, 2002). By estimation, an average of a wooden furniture workshop exists in about 500 square meters apart in most of Nigerian towns. Abdullah (2003) reported that facilities for furniture production in Nigeria range in size from small scale (two to three man) carpentry shops to multi-million dollar factories. However, the small-scale furniture workshops out-number the large scale factories. The spread of small-scale furniture workshops in Nigeria may be attributed to the wide availability of wood and possibility of using simple tools for production.
The Nigerian market is saturated with wooden furniture products from these indigenous furniture makers. These furniture items are, however, noted for their short service life, attributable to non-adherence to detailed engineering principles in design and construction. The problem of short service life seems considerable in Nigeria because the bulk of furniture items produced in the country are manufactured by craftsmen. Indeed craftsmen seldom have adequate knowledge of wood intrinsic properties. Many furniture items are manufactured by trial and error. One major reason for this is the complete absence of inputs from materials researchers. Hence, all their activities are based on the rules of thumb. To date, many furniture manufacturers still base their production decisions on previous experience (Furniture IDS, 2006). Nails are the commonest connectors in use except in few cases where glue is used in addition. Examination of damaged members of furniture in a recent survey by this author revealed that most of the failures were associated with nail withdrawal.
FURNITURE AND FUTURE
At present, furniture items are no longer treated as commodities but as products purchased and made to give value for one’s money. Every buyer is learning to be more discerning about furniture choices and constantly looking for ways to make his/her limited resources go further. The interest is usually on furniture suitability, life expectancy and flexibility. Changes in building design in recent years are reflected in the changes in furniture design as well. The emphasis on ergonomic design has prompted a complete re-thinking of the design of furniture especially at work places like school, offices etc. For years, comfort (form) was considered less critical than durability (function). Advances in materials and in manufacturing capabilities are now allowing furniture manufacturers to create pieces that are comfortable, but still durable enough to stand up to the rigors of use.
In the past, furniture manufacturers would produce a product that end-users saw for the first time when it was bought or delivered. Manufacturers today are using the latest in computer-aided design to “virtually” test products before a single piece is made. If the design proves worthy in the “virtual” world, prototypes are made and extensive field-testing in an actual setting is used before a product is deemed worthy for mass production(Richards, 2007) . This process yields furniture that better matches the needs of the end-user. Furniture production nowadays entails user’s-producer’s participatory approach.
Therefore, structural integrity of material with which furniture is produce is of important consideration now and in the future. Material researchers especially in Nigeria should collaborate with the producers to work on how to better manage the heterogeneous and anisotropic nature of wood for effective utilization to meet the demand of the new dispensation in furniture production. This is necessary to correct the present lack of requisite knowledge in wooden furniture design at various production levels in Nigeria.
With the new trend in furniture production, the followings were suggested:
1. Researchers in Wood Products Engineering field are expected to form the vanguard in the conduct of relevant research that will improve on the current qualities of wooden furniture and its production processes in Nigeria.
2. Involvement of experts in design, structural mechanics, materials, testing and manufacturing in wooden furniture design will certainly help the wooden furniture production in Nigeria.
3. Extensive research work on the abundant Nigerian indigenous wood species in relation to their utilization for furniture production will further reinforce its supremacy over other alternative materials.
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