Canadian Woodworking

Furniture styles – Colonial

Author: Michel Theriault
Photos: Lead Photo courtesy of Joseph Frost
Published: June July 2004
Colonial furniture style
Colonial furniture style

Defining furniture styles can be very difficult. Defining ‘American Colonial’ is a good example of just how difficult it can be.


For example, Colonial refers to a ‘period’ rather than a single ‘style’. During that period, a number of specific styles introduced themselves as influences on new furniture designs. These various styles included Queen Anne, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton. To make it more difficult, what is referred to as ‘American Colonial’ is predated by a period referred to as ‘Early Colonial’ or ‘Early American’.

High Chest 1750 – 1770, likely made in York, Maine by joiner Samuel Sewall. Photo courtesy of the Maine State Museum.

The American Colonial period is from about AD 1720 to 1790, with it’s style varying considerably throughout that sixty-year period. Overall the styles were mostly an adaptation of English furniture styles, as most of the settlers had originated there. The greatest variation in this style is based on geography. At that time there was little communication or travel between settlements. Therefore, variations in style were defined by individual craftsmen living in isolated communities, with access only to specific trees in their surrounding area.

During the colonial period, furniture ranged from utilitarian to sophisticated. It was utilitarian because the new immigrant craftsmen had to build furniture for themselves when they arrived. They didn’t bring their own furniture, but they brought the skills that they had learned furnishing wealthy homes.

It was sophisticated because, once their needs were met, the craftsmen could turn their attention to the ever increasing demand for furniture by the social class. This social class demanded more intricate and less utilitarian furniture. They were colonials and as such were increasingly style conscious. Ornamentation varied from simple to complicated. Essentially ornamentation was based on wealth, and the workmanship that it could buy. The joinery used in colonial style furniture was primarily mortise and tenon, and dovetails (including blind mitred dovetails and sliding dovetails). Other common joints were used to a lesser degree, including lap joints, post and hole (for chairs), mitres, splines, tongue and groove, rabbets, and dados.


AD 1720 – 1790

Key Design Elements

  • Influenced by the characteristics of Queen Anne, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton styles
  • Turnings; spiral turnings, and simple cabriole legs
  • Beds with short posts, the Windsor chair, ladder-back chairs, rocking chairs, and writing chairs
  • Curved lines
  • Decorative carving such as the scallop shell
  • Inset panels

Typical Wood Types

Pine, Maple, Walnut, Oak, Apple, and Cherry

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