Over the last 20 years we have occasionally used a material called parchment in several of our custom made furniture pieces.
Parchment is a thin material made from calfskin, sheepskin or goatskin. It is distinct from leather in that it is limed, not tanned. For this reason it is sensitive to humidity and not waterproof. Parchment use has a long history, going back to Egyptian Fourth Dynasty texts. The Assyrians and Babylonians also wrote their cuniforms on parchment from the 6th Century BC onward.
In Europe parchment craft emerged as an artform in the 15th or 16th century, but it wasn't until the emergence of the Art Deco movement from 1915 to the early 1930s that parchment became used in fine furniture made by the likes of Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Jules Leleu. Parchment also enjoyed a brief resurgence in the 1970s and 1980s thanks to the exotic work of furniture designers such as Ron Seff and Karl Springer.
Parchment can be a challenging material to work with because of its tensile rigidity and inclination to shrink when drying. In addition, because it is a natural material careful attention must be paid to the type of glue that gets used to adhere it to panels. We will typically use either a hyde glue or a dextrin adhesive made from plant materials.
My son Kevin has shown a keen interest in learning what I do for a living, so I recently challenged him to make sample panels out of some goatskin parchment we had on hand. The resulting panels are shown below and, frankly, I'm quite impressed at what Kevin was able to accomplish.
The panel on the left was finished in a high gloss low-VOC polyester, and the darker areas can be attributed to deeper resin penetration in areas where the parchment is thinner and more porous. The sample on the right was finished in a satin open grain pre-catalyzed lacquer, and this finish seems to give the parchment a more uniform and textured appearance.
I've since decided to also pull some shagreen (stingray skin) out of my core stash, and it will be interesting to see what Kevin comes up with on his next challenge.