Art & Antiques: Antique furniture clues

The elements of this Windsor chair will tell you a lot about its origin.

The elements of this Windsor chair will tell you a lot about its origin.

In today’s antiques market, collectors and connoisseurs seriously consider the style and the material of antique furniture before investing in a piece. Spotting an antique piece of furniture is not difficult if you know where to look.

Joinery or the way that the elements of a chair, sofa or table are joined to each other is an important value indicator for antique furniture. An easy clue to assess whether or not your antique was machine made or hand cut is to look carefully at the underside or bottom of the piece or look at the handling of the legs. Most machine cut furniture pieces were not produced until circa 1860.

Investigator’s tips

If the wood shows nicks or shallow cuts, then it is probably a piece of hand-made furniture. Most hand-made furniture was made using a hand plane or a draw knife. If a piece is handmade, it does not have the same exact features as a piece made by machine. Many of the smaller elements of a hand-made piece of furniture will not be exactly like the others.

If you are looking at a handmade chair, it is very possible that the spindles or the support pieces will not be uniform as they were made by a human hand. It is difficult to exactly replicate a piece of woodwork over and over again by hand. Machines can make the same perfect cut over and over again; a human hand cannot. Saw marks that are straight are also typical of early hand-made furniture. Circular saws which leave behind a circular or semi-circular mark in the wood were not used widely until the mid 1800s. These circular saw remnants are tell-tale signs of machine made furniture.

Caning and upholstery can be re-introduced to a piece of furniture at anytime in the lifespan of an antique. Don’t assume that all caning or upholstery is original or dates to the age of the wooden part of the chair.

Factors of the finish

Most people look only to the wooden finish to date an antique piece of furniture. That is not the only way to highlight a piece’s age or origin. Shellac is a clear coat for finishing furniture which was popular during the middle of the 19th Century. Varnish and lacquer, both of which differ from shellac, were developed after the late 1850s. And some old pieces of furniture may be finished with a coating of oil or wax.

Are certain woods more prevalent at certain times throughout history? The easy answer is “yes.” But, the more accurate answer is “yes with exceptions.” Furniture made prior to 1700 is typically but not always made of oak. After 1700, it is more common for furniture to be made of oak, mahogany, or walnut. By the 19th Century, maple and cherry woods are used for fine furniture. When assessing antique furniture, I advise you to look for the grain, not the stain (or color).

Condition is key to value when it comes to antique furniture. Make sure that antique chair is in good shape before you invest.

Ph.D. antiques appraiser, author, award-winning TV personality, Dr. Lori presents antiques appraisal events nationwide. Dr. Lori is the expert appraiser on Discovery’s “Auction Kings.” Visit, or call (888) 431-1010.

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