Identifying Antique Furniture
Tips & Advice on Identifying Antique Furniture …
Antique Furniture, is one of the most fascinating sections of antique collecting. Primarily because so many of us naturally do what’s most important when collecting antique furniture… We buy what we like.
Most antique furniture tends to be bought by ordinary everyday people, rather than dedicated antique furniture collectors.
This means more vintage furniture is acquired for its beauty and function rather than the profit potential of a piece.
But whether you are looking for a piece of antique furniture for your home or looking for something to sell on; to become knowledgeable about identifying antique furniture takes research.
And that’s even if you’re focusing on only one aspect of this very varied subject.
Identifying Antique Furniture or Good Reproductions
When trying to identify antique furniture, dedicated antiques hunters search for beautifully preserved pieces, armed with pins, magnifying glasses, spirit levels and all sorts of testing equipment.
Other interior or home decorators tend not to take things so seriously, but are still interested in an items history and authenticity.
Many vintage furniture buyers opt for quality reproductions that are more affordable, and either option is fine providing you research your subject well when identifying antique furniture.
There’s no exact science where antique furniture is concerned, you simply make an educated decision based on what?s most important to you.
Researching and Identifying Antique Furniture
Becoming knowledgeable about antique furniture takes research, even if you?re focusing on only one aspect of this wide-ranging subject.
Establish value: Many collectors prefer specific eras, styles, and makers, while others have more eclectic tastes. In either case, an authentic items value is influenced and based on its condition, rarity, and history.
Get an expert opinion: A trained eye is more likely to find an undervalued treasure (or a clever fake) than a novice ever would. Use the press and stay informed about current trends and potential scams in the antiques trade by consulting popular and highly regarded antiques trade publications.
Consider practical matters Carefully: Always check the size and weight of any piece of antique furniture that interests you. Shipping furniture can be a costly proposition. To reduce these costs, search in local antique dealers and check other sellers who will provide a complete wrap and ship service.
There are several ways you can indentify an antique furniture item.
The first aspect is the joinery; machine-cut furniture wasn’t produced until about 1860. If the piece has drawers, remove a drawer and look closely where the front and back of the drawer are fastened to the sides of the drawer. If a joint was dovetailed by hand, it has only a few dovetails, and they aren’t exactly even; if it has closely spaced, precisely cut dovetails, it was machine-cut. Handmade dovetails almost always indicate a piece made before 1860.
It’s easy to spot an antique by the drawers, because joints weren’t machine-cut until about 1860. If it has only a few dovetail joints, with pins narrower than the dovetails, then the joint was made by hand.
Look carefully at the bottom, sides, and back of the drawer; if the wood shows nicks or cuts, it was probably cut with a plane, a spokeshave, or a drawknife. Straight saw marks also indicate an old piece. If the wood shows circular or arc-shaped marks, it was cut by a circular saw, not in use until about 1860.
Exact symmetry is another sign that the piece was machine-made. On handmade furniture, rungs, slats, spindles, rockers, and other small-diameter components are not uniform. Examine these parts carefully; slight differences in size or shape are not always easy to spot. A real antique is very rarely perfectly cut; a reproduction with the same components will be, because it will have been cut by machine.
The finish on the wood can also date the piece. Until Victorian times, shellac was the only clear surface finish; lacquer and varnish were not developed until the mid-1800s. The finish on a piece made before 1860 is usually shellac; if the piece is very old, it may be oil, wax, or milk paint. Fine old pieces are often French-polished, a variation of the shellac finish. A lacquer or varnish finish is a sure sign of later manufacture.
Testing a finish isn’t always possible in a dealer’s showroom, but if you can manage it, identify the finish before you buy. Test the piece in an inconspicuous spot with denatured alcohol; if finish dissolves, it’s shellac. If the piece is painted, test it with ammonia; very old pieces may be finished with milk paint, which can be removed only with ammonia. If the piece of furniture is very dirty or encrusted with wax, clean it first with a mixture of denatured alcohol, white vinegar, and kerosene, in equal parts.
The type of wood is the final clue. Very early furniture, before 1700, is mostly oak, but from 1700 on mahogany and walnut were widely used.
In America, pine has always been used because it’s easy to find and easy to work; better furniture may be made with maple, oak, walnut, cherry, or mahogany.
But because the same woods have always been favoured for antique furniture, workmanship and finish are probably a better indicator of age than the wood itself.
English and American furniture styles …
Most antique wooden furniture you will encounter, will either be from traditional English periods or American Colonial styles.
Identifying Antique English Furniture Styles
Queen Anne – Early 18th century
- Woods used: Walnut, also, cherry, mahogany, maple and oak.
- Description: Graceful curves, curved (cabriole) leg, with no rungs or stretchers;
minimal decoration, very simple; scallop-shell mount.
Georgian Chippendale – Late 18th century
- Woods used: Mahogany
- Description: Elaboration of Queen Anne; ornate carvings, either delicate or bold; many themes,
including rococo, English, Chinese, Greek classic; intricate chair backs.
Georgian Adam – Late 18th century
- Woods used: Mahogany
- Description: Straight, slender lines; heavy Greek classic influence; fluted columns;
delicate low-relief carvings, especially draped garlands.
Georgian Hepplewhite – Late 18th century
- Woods used: Mahogany; satinwood inlay/veneer
- Desscription: Based on Adam; straight tapered legs; shield- oval-, or heart-shaped chair backs;
less decoration; delicate carvings.
Georgian Sheraton – Late 18th century
- Woods used: Mahogany
- Description: Similar to Hepplewhite and other Georgian styles; straighter, more upright lines;
Greek classic influence; lyre-shaped chair backs; inlays and thick veneers.
Regency – Early 19th century
- Woods used: Mahogany
- Description: Simple, bold curves; smaller scale; more functional, more intimate; colors used.
Victorian – Late 19th century
- Woods used: Mahogany, walnut, rosewood
- Description: heavy, massive, substantial; dark finish; clumsy dessign; ornate carvings and
decorations; marble tops used.
Identifying Antique American Furniture Styles
Early Colonial – 17th century
- Pine, birch, maple and walnut
- Hybrid of English styles with square lines, solid construction, heavy decoration and carving.
Late Colonial – 18th century
- Pine and Mahogany
- Imported wood with interpretations of Queen Anne and Georgian styles. Formal. Windsor chair.
Federal – Early 19th century
- Mahogany and Cherry
- Interpretations of Georgian styles and Duncan Phyfe variations of Sheraton style. Some
French influences. Heavier versions of English styles. Boston rocker, Hitchcock chair.
Pennsylvania Dutch – Late 17th to mid-19th century
- Maple, pine, walnut and fruitwoods
- Solid, plain, Germanic style. Colorful painted Germanic decorations.
Shaker – Late 18th to mid-19th century
- Pine and maple
- Severely functional with no decoration. Superior craftsmanship and excellent design.