Identifying antique furniture is something of a challenge for most people. Yet with so many imitations out there, it is important to be able to identify a genuine item of furniture. The term “antique” can be interpreted in several ways.
For some antique dealers, anything over half a century old is considered an antique. While for others, 100 years is the age when a piece of furniture can be called an antique. A fine antique dealer, however, would only consider something that is older than 150 years an antique.
HOW TO IDENTIFY ANTIQUE WOODEN FURNITURE
Inspect the Joinery
This is one of the quickest ways to determine whether or not a wooden antique piece is in fact, antique. Machined joints only came into existence in 1860, so if you can remove a drawer, check the dovetail joints and if they are even and close together, this indicates the joint was machined.
If the dovetail joints are not perfectly symmetrical, then the item was likely made by hand. Which is not a guarantee of its age, but it does point to the piece being very old. If, for example, you are looking to get one of those antique dressing tables that look so elegant, there are online antique dealers who have an extensive collection of fine antiques.
Lack of Symmetry
Any timber furniture item that was handcrafted would not be perfectly symmetrical. Knobs, rungs, slats, spindles and rockers would all be slightly different. Which makes an antique piece so appealing and most of the time, it is clear if the item is not symmetrical.
The Timber Finish
Until the mid-19th century, shellac was the only clear finish that would be used to protect the wood, with varnish and lacquer emerging around the year 1850. If a piece is very old, it might be coated with oil, wax, or a milk paint finish, all of which were used to protect the timber surfaces of furniture.
While it might not always be possible to test the surface layer, it is possible test an inconspicuous spot with denatured alcohol and if it dissolves the finish, it is shellac. If the surface has been painted, milk paint can only be removed by ammonia, which will instantly tell you whether milk paint was, in fact, used.
The Timber Species
While there’s no guarantee, the species of timber can tell you something about the item’s age. Oak was mainly used before 1700. After which walnut and mahogany were also used to make furniture. Maple and cherry were also very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in the US, pine was a common choice.
If you are thinking of acquiring a particular antique item of furniture and are unsure as to its authenticity, you can always ask an antique dealer to take a look. If the item is being sold by a reputable dealer, then you can rest assured that it is as described. As the antique dealer will not risk tarnishing his reputation by trying to sell something fake.