Whether you’re buying old or new furniture, you want the best furniture you can get. Today we’ll take a brief look at some features to consider when buying older, antique furniture. First thing to know is that most of the furniture you are likely to see – unless you are dealing with a VERY high end dealer – will most likely be ‘in the style of’. This means the furniture was built at a later date to look like an earlier period. For example, we’ve all seen Queen Anne style furniture. However, original pieces of Queen Anne furniture can be dated back to 1720-1750, whereas the items you’re likely to see at estate sales, in shops or at auctions was probably manufactured in the late-19th or early-20th century.
Some furniture styles go back to the early 1600’s. However, we’re only going to cover the more popular styles of furniture you’re likely to see – those starting in the mid-1700’s.
In each case, the original date for each style is shown in parentheses followed by the type of wood used and a few distinguishing features. If you would like more information on period furniture, you may want to order a good book on Antique Furniture – available on Amazon.
Queen Anne (1720 – 1750) – cabriolet leg with Dutch food, broken pediment top with urn or flame finials on tall pieces. Woods: walnut, maple, cherry. Decorations: carved shells, fans, sunburst motif.
Chippendale (1750 – 1775) – cabriolet leg with ball and claw foot. Woods: mahogany and sometimes walnut. Decorations: elaborate shell, scroll, foliage.
Hepplewhite (1785 – 1800) – square tapering legs. Woods: mahogany, frequently with satinwood veneer. Decorations: carving of drapery festoons, inlaid oval panels of satinwood, medallions of eagle or classic figures.
Sheraton (1800 – 1820) – turned and reeded legs. Woods: mahogany with satinwood veneer, curly maple. Decorations: shaped panels of satinwood, bow-knotted wheat ears, foliage sprays.
American Empire (1820 – 1840) – turned legs, spirally reeded or acanthus-leaf carved. Wood: mahogany with crotch-grain veneer, cherry, curly maple. Decorations: boldly done carving.
Victorian (1840 – 1901) – cabriole leg, white marble tops for tables. Woods: Rosewood, black walnut. Decorations: crestings and cartouche shaped medallions of flowers, fruits and foliage.
Eastlake (1870 – 1890) – considered part of the Victorian era. Can be found in oak with ‘scooped spoon’ type designs. Wood: Oak
Arts & Crafts (1900 – 1925) – straight lines with mortise and tenon construction. Wood: Oak. Decorations: brass, copper handles.
The following are some basic features to look for when shopping for furniture. While you may not be able to afford an original period piece, you can certainly afford a piece-in-the-style-of that is well made. So when shopping be sure to look for some of these clues as to the quality of furniture.
Dove-tailing is a means of construction to connect corners – typically drawers. It is created by the interlocking of tenons and mortises. (photo). Found in better furniture.
Veneering – is the application of a thin layer of fine – often expensive – wood that has been glued to less expensive wood to achieve a more desirable appearance. Most of the time the veneer is only applied to the top surface, however, sometimes the sides are also veneered. To determine if a piece has veneer, look for a separation line along the edges. Also, check the back of the piece of furniture. Less expensive pieces will have thin, low-quality wood here or sometimes pieces fitted together from other furniture.
Screws – Check the screws used on a piece of furniture to attach the hardware or hold the mirror and/or backboard in place. In some cases, you’ll see screws in the back where they are used to help hold the piece together. Flat head screws (and square nails) are an indication of an older piece. Phillips head screws (1) were first marketed in the early 1930’s – so any piece with a Phillips head screw is either not original or possibly has been repaired.
Types of support under chair seats springs, straps – Older chairs will have wire springs hand-tied tied together and supported with canvas straps. Check the underside of chairs for construction and screws!
Watch Our For:
Wood worms – typically found in English furniture. Wood worms can cause a piece of furniture to literally disintegrate. When shopping, look for small holes about the size of a pin head. This is epically true if the furniture has been imported. If you see these small holes, tap on the piece to see if ‘sawdust’ falls out. This is a sign the wood worms are still active. They can be very destructive to the point where at an auction one time, I witnessed a person put their hand through the side of piece of furniture that was nothing more than a paper thin sheet of ‘wood’ – with nothing behind it but wood dust.
If you think you have a piece of furniture with wood worms, they can be treated by encasing the piece in an air tight cover with formaldehyde tablets, and then leaving it for a period of time. The length of time depends on how bad the infestation is.
Grain Painting – not a problem if you know that is what you’re buying. Items such as this typically are made of less desirable wood (pine) that has been painted to look like a more expensive wood. Some pieces are quite nice and if painted by an artist, you’ll have to look close to tell the difference.
Stains – if a piece of furniture has stains, be aware that you most likely can’t get them out. Even refinishing a piece won’t help if the stain has penetrated the wood. In some cases, wood bleach might help – but unless the piece is something you can’t live without – it really isn’t worth the effort or expense. Wood bleach is not easy to work with and can be harmful to your person if not used correctly.
Bad veneer – watch our for peeling, torn, cracked or curling veneer. Veneer can be repaired using special glues to re-attach the existing veneer if it is just loose or bubbled. If veneer is missing, you’ll need to replace the damaged section – and in some cases the whole top. This can be a lot of tedious, expensive work if you do it yourself. An alternate solution for bad veneer would be to cover the top with another material. For example, marble.
By David Moncrief