This book is not a celebration of war any more than driving a Volkswagen or Porsche is a celebration of the Third Reich.
The plain fact of the matter is that conquest and defense are rich sources of innovation, improvisation and technological advances. The moulded plywood of Charles and Ray Eames was used by the Navy in World War II for splints and stretchers. That knowledge was turned to making moulded plywood furniture, including the iconic Eames chair.
The needs of the British Empire and its far-flung colonies created a style of furniture that was rugged, beautiful and stripped of ornament. There is little doubt in my mind that the utilitarian and plain aspects of campaign furniture represent the roots of Danish modern, Bauhaus and other 20th-century design trends.
So I do not regret the 28 months I spent researching, building and writing this book. I think the campaign furniture style is one of the most important and overlooked furniture movements of the last 200 years.
But I do have regrets.
When I set out to build the projects for this book, I consciously set aside my aversion to exotic tropical hardwoods. When I write about a historical style, I immerse myself in it as much as possible so I can understand it from the inside. That means ignoring well-known rules about wood movement, technological advances in adhesives and (in this case) deforestation.
When I reject my modern prejudices I usually find gold. I think the past has a lot to teach us. Time and again, I’ve found that old ways of woodworking are usually smarter, more nuanced and more practical than our own.
But when it comes to selecting wood for a project, I’m not so sure. Most pieces of campaign furniture were built using mahogany, camphor, teak, padauk, oak or walnut. The exotics on this list were beyond plentiful in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Imagine teak being cheaper than red oak.) The supply at the time seemed almost limitless when you read the accounts of the day.
I know that we furniture makers are not the primary offenders when it comes to stripping the land of tropical hardwoods. But I also know that writing a book featuring tropical hardwoods is no small affair.
So as you are picking out the wood for your first (or next) piece of campaign furniture, consider this: walnut. American and European walnut was a common staple of the campaign furniture trade, and so it’s an appropriate and beautiful choice.
Here in the Ohio River valley, we have so much walnut that we used it to frame houses and make sash. Heck, I have a pile of walnut in my shop that is bigger than a car.
If you choose to use mahogany or another exotic, consider looking for recycled lumber. Some of the wood in this book came from a (trashed) recycled dining set I purchased from a woodworker who finally decided to lay down his tools.
That old and recycled mahogany was darker, finer and more beautiful than any other modern stick of mahogany I have laid my hands on. So finding recycled wood can actually improve your finished piece (as opposed to using old McDLT boxes to make a garden bench).
In the end, it is your choice. I encourage you to ignore every word I have just written and do your own research to make an informed choice.
I don’t want blinded readers anymore than I want to spend a single day living in a totalitarian regime. You are free to make a choice about what you build, how you build it and what materials you use to build. So make it.
— Christopher Schwarz