Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Old, New, or Repro

QUESTION: How can you tell how old a piece of furniture is?

ANSWER: Believe it or not, that’s a relatively simple question, but one that seems to baffle many people. Too often they either buy or inherit a piece of furniture and believe it’s an antique when it’s not. This happens all too often when someone inherits a fine table, sideboard, sofa, or whatever and assumes it’s an antique because it belonged to their grandmother and she said it was old when she bought it. In another instance, a piece may have become surrounded by family legend which tells how one of their ancestors brought this thing over on the Mayflower. There was barely room for the passengers on the Mayflower–and their were several–let alone lots of furniture. Sure, there was the odd chair or small table, but not many pieces larger than that.

So how can you tell if you have an antique? A piece’s construction will give you clues to its age. Construction techniques improved as technology improved. Cabinetmakers discovered easier ways to make their furniture. Begin by looking over the piece to see how the maker joined the various parts. Cabinetmakers were also known as joiners. Did the maker use wooden pegs, square nails, or perhaps even screws. If a nail has a square head, it’s possible the piece dates prior to 1820. You probably won’t find many screws in old furniture, but if you do, look to see if the slot is off center, a sure sign the screw was handmade, dating to now later than 1815.

Look on the underside and backs of pieces for circular saw marks, only used after 1850. Before that cabinetmakers cut their wood using a hand saw. During the second half of the 19th century, furniture makers often constructed their pieces of quartersawn wood, giving it a distinctive wavy pattern.

Check the rungs on side chairs. If the chair is old, you’ll see wear marks on the rungs where people rested their feet. Look at the top of the back of the chair. Are there marks caused by being knocked against the wall?

Is the edge of a table worn? Are the bottoms of the legs worn from being dragged? Check to see if the legs are joined using wooden pegs. Also, a long dropleaf on a table usually indicates that it dates from the mid-18th to early 19th century.

Wood shrinks over time. If the piece has severe cracks, especially in paneled doors, then it’s probably at least 100 years old. The tops of round tables made of softer woods like pine eventually become slightly oval. Measure its diameter. If the diameter of the table varies, this shows that the tabletop has shrunk, a sure sign of age. Also, look for rings on the top which might indicate moisture damage. While this in itself isn’t a sign of age, deeper discoloration due to spills may be.

Another sign of the time are the dovetails used to join the front to the sides of drawers. Those from 18th-century chests were usually uneven since the cabinetmaker had to cut them by hand. As technology progressed, he had power tools to help with this, so by the first quarter of the 19th century, makers produced several smaller dovetails. Ones from the 20th century are exactly the same size in a sort of keystone shape.

Finally, look for wear caused by fingernails around knobs and handles, even if the hardware appears newer.

It’s especially important to check for age on Colonial Revival-type reproductions. A piece of furniture may have Chippendale style details, such as ball-and-claw feet, but may be no older than the 1950s. And if you see a paper label on the bottom of a chair or the back of a chest, you know right away that it’s no older than the first or second decade of the 20th century.