Identifying Antique Furniture

Part 1

Some times the phone rings and a client asks, “ Will you go to such and such antique shop with me. There is a piece a of furniture there but I don’t know if it is really old.” When we get there just by first glance I know that it is a reproduction made in the 20’s or 30’s. Then there are the ones that I have to pull the drawers out and look closer. So how can one tell if what they have found is a fake, reproduction, or antique?

When looking at a piece of furniture one needs a good knowledge of how period pieces were constructed, what wood was used in which period, and a small tool kit.

In the 18th and early 19th century all the work was done by hand. The marking gauge, saws, and hand planes all left distinctive marks on the wood surface. The marking gauge was used to lay out the joints and left fine lines parallel to the edge of a board in the wood. Most of the time these marks were not completely erased by later use of a hand plane or scraper on the wood. Hand saws left parallel nicks, at about 30 degrees, on the edge of the board. Also on the inside of the drawer little nicks the width of the saw blade can be seen. This was the result of just a little over cutting of the dovetails. The jack plane left shallow scallops on drawer bottoms, underneath tops, and on the inside and backs of cases. Only on the out side of furniture were all the tool marks removed. Surfaces were for the most part not sanded but left polished from the hand plane or scraper. The polished surface of hand planing cannot be equaled by sanding.

Modern tools leave different marks. There is no need for a marking gauge with all the joints machine cut. The marks of a circular saw still leaves nicks on the edge of a board but they are in an arcing pattern. Todays thickness planer flattens the board but leaves a series of fine ripples across the entire with of the board. These ripples may even show after being sanded and finished. All the surfaces, inside and out, are machine sanded.

In the vocabulary of the joiner there are about 350 different kinds of joints used. The categories are dovetails, mortise-and-tenon, edge joints, and scarf joints the latter being used by housewrights. Furniture in the earlier periods depended on these joints to hold the work together. The dowel joint didn’t start to be used until the latter 1830’s. It was first used in chairs, to replace the labor intensive mortise-and-tenon joint. By 1850 machinery had replaced nearly all of the finer hand work. It wasn’t the machinery that caused a drop in quality but a lack of skill demanded to operate the machinery. Today, some ads for new machinery state in the ad, “can be used by unskilled labor.” To be highly skilled in both hand tools and machinery can result in very fine and exceptional pieces of furniture.

What should one look for when trying to determine the age of a piece? As mentioned before, certain tool marks. Also dovetails with thin narrow pins on the side of a drawer. Some machined dovetails try to imitate the hand cut dovetails but the pins are never as thin. Look at the back. The back should be attached with hand forged nails or early machine wire cut nails, not modern finishing nails or the round flat heads. Wire cut nails started to be made about 1820. Old nails also cause discoloration of the wood (blackened) around the nail. When looking at the back take note. Early backs were either frame-and-panel or boards ship lapped and  nailed on. If it is thin plywood, it’s later. Screws will also tell the age. Before 1848 screws were hand made. The threads were hand filed and blunted on the end. The most obvious way to tell a hand made screw in a shop is by the head. The slot will always be a little off center when filed by hand.

If a dealer will let you put a piece on its back look at the glue blocks. These may have been replaced but usually not all of them. Original glue bocks are fairly crude. You will be able to see heavy chisel or hatchet marks on old ones. At times when you can’t turn a piece up, feel under the bottom for these. Learn to let your fingers be your eyes.

Pay attention to the turnings and carvings. Earlier turnings and carvings were not sanded but left clean and very smooth right from the chisels. Sometimes, later the bed posts may have been put back in a lathe and sanded to refinish them. I have seen carving from Duncan Phyfe’s shop under a magnifying lens; there are very few if any chisels marks and no sign of sanding. Students are amazed when I give a lathe or carving lesson because the work doesn’t need sanding when it’s finished.

Knowing what woods were used in which period is a good clue to the age. Walnut was predominately used in the Queen Ann style. Mahogany was the main wood used in Chippendale and also into Federal style. The Grecian style used several different woods. Crotch mahogany veneer is found on the fronts of these pieces but the sides and tops were a mixture of walnut, cherry, and even poplar. If you find a Queen Ann style chair made in oak it was probably made in the later half of the 19th century. In contrast a Federal desk made in a rural area may well be made out of cherry. In the rural areas of Tennessee cherry is most commonly found followed by walnut.

Secondary wood will give a clue as to where it was made. In Tennessee tulip poplar, yellow pine, and sometimes white pine were used for drawer sides and backs. In the low country of South Carolina cypress was the common secondary wood. New England used white pine for this purpose while the South used yellow pine. Keep in mind that the growth range for some trees has changed since the 18th century.

In the conclusion of this article we will see what is needed in a tool kit when you go antique hunting; we’ll also examine the differences between antiques, reproductions, and fakes.

Identifying Antiques: Part 2

In part one I described some of the identifying features to look for on original antiques, such as marks left by hand tools, construction of the period, and use of woods for different periods. In this article I’ll describe what to look for if the piece is a fake or reproduction, and how to tell the difference.

Outright fakes are seldom made unless the price of the original is fairly substantial. This is because the work of faking is very labor intensive. The faker will go to great lengths to try to remove all signs of power tools. Then wear, such as dings and dents, has to be added. The patina and dust have to be convincing.

The most noted fake that ever passed inspection by  museum curators was a 17th century chair made by Armand LaMontagne. He started with green wood, so that after it was turned, it would shrink out of round. Original early turns are really oval in cross section because the wood was not seasoned long enough. After building the chair, LaMontagne simulated wear on rungs, arms, and back. Then he scorched it with a torch, covered it in a wash of thin glue and dust, painted and stripped it, set it out in the weather, broke and repaired some parts, and finally gave it to a dealer. The chair was sold and resold a few times. Eventually the chair was bought by the Henry Ford Museum and put on display as an original. When LaMontagne heard of this he told them he had made the chair. Their reply was, No, you couldn’t have, this is a 17th century chair. He said, If you x-ray the chair, you will see that the holes on the post were drilled with a modern drill. They did– and found the holes to indeed have been made by a modern drill and not by a pod auger of the period.

Some furniture is “made up” by using old parts, such as four original legs and old wood. How the legs were lost from the rest of the table is anyones guess. Fakers may find some old parts and use them in a new piece. It saves them some labor and almost looks right, especially if they have other old wood to go with the legs. This is where one has to examine the table more closely. There may be a nail hole with no corresponding part nailed to it or a mortise that has no tenon in it. These are signs of old parts having been used.

A tall case clock came into my shop one day. From all appearances, it looked to be early 18th century. I worked on it for several months, but it was not until the base below the waist had to be taken apart that I realized the case was made out of at least two other cases. When I removed the front panel of the base, there was a saw cut that should have gone thought to the underlying structure.  It didn’t go thought. Then I started looking at nail holes. Some of them didn’t line up. I knew then that it was made up, and from the appearance of the case many years ago. At some point in time, someone probably just wanted a good clock and made it out of old parts they had, and weren’t trying to fake an original.

“Marriages” are in the same category. A fall-front desk with the addition of a small bookcase and crown molding can transform a plain desk into a secretary. The bookcase may not quite fit the desk but the two halves are close enough that someone has put them together later. A good way to tell is by lifting the bookcase off and looking at the top of the desk. The top of the desk should be unfinished and the wood will be a little lighter in color if they were made together. William and Mary highboys are often made by using an early chest of drawers and the addition of a turned base. Sugar chest, are made out of old grain bins.

One clue to a married piece is to look  at the overall proportions. Does it look right? Most fakers don’t have any idea of the proportional system used by early cabinetmakers. Train your eye by going to museums and studying originals.

Reproductions can be harder to spot. Reproductions were honestly made but can now be misrepresented.  Some of them may be over 100 years old by now. Companies started doing reproductions during the nation’s Centennial in 1876. These now have wear, repairs, dust, and good patina. Look for the use of plywood, machine screws, and wire nails. Also study the carving. Later 19th century carving doesn’t flow as well as 18th century did. It’s not as crisp and is more bulbous. In making reproductions, there is not the same effort to remove the tool marks. Look for the little ripples left by the planer or shapers.  Check any turned parts– are they round or oval in cross section? In the latter part of the 19th century, wood started being kiln dried. This ensured that the wood was completely seasoned and wouldn’t distort after being worked into furniture.

Again, look to see if the proportions right. In Walace Nutting’s reproduction shop, a foreman, Frank Gottshall deliberately squatted chest- on- chest so they would fit into a room with an eight foot ceiling. I’ve read correspondence between Robert Emmitt, the gentleman I studied with, and Wallace Nutting. In these, Mr. Emmitt is chastising Nutting for ruining wonderful proportions. Nutting writes back defending the changes. This was in the early 1930s.

Take a tool kit when you go looking for antiques. In the tool kit, you will need to have a notebook and #2 pencils, tape measure, flashlight, straight screwdriver, pliers, needle and thread, pocket knife, magnifying glass, outside calipers,  small plastic envelope, and mirror.

When you see a piece take your time looking at it. Talk to the dealer. Ask if you can remove the drawers, turn it around, or lie it on its back. You may want to make notes about the piece: the heigth, width, and length, so you are sure it will fit in the space you want to use it in. Also, you may want to do rubbings or tracings of molding, hardware, and inlays. A flashlight will help you see inside when looking for tool marks. Direct bright sunlight is the best but is not always possible. When you see tool marks ,the magnifying glass may aid in identifying them; this is especially true if they are faint. Use the needle if there are nail holes without a nail. Does the hole go through to the wood behind it or does the hole stop? This will tell you if that piece of wood is original. The thread is so you can find the needle if you drop it.

If you have questions about the hardware ask if you can remove a pull. This is where the screwdriver and pliers will be useful. Often, you can see the outline of the original hardware underneath the new. Using the outside calipers on a turning can tell you the age. Remember, old turnings are out of round. The pocket knife and plastic envelope are useful to take a very small wood sample for analysis.* A mirror is use full if you can’t rotate a piece or put it on it’s back.

Knowing a few things about antiques can make your collecting more fun. Think of your self as Sherlock Holmes. There are a lot of good mysteries out there.

* Samples can be analyzed at: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Products Laboratory, One Gifford Pinchot, Madison, WI, 53705

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