My First and Foremost Piece of Advice to Any Collector of Antique Furniture is to Never Strip That Old Finish Off!
The original finish on an antique is part of its valued charm....a lovely old patina (finish) develops over decades of polishing that can never be replaced and once removed may reduce its value by up to 50%. This is not to say that you may not clean or restore an old finish (in the antique trade known as "restoration"); this is sometimes recommended to remove decades of dirt, white rings, spots, burns and scratches that detract from the patina/finish. Caveat: I do not mean that you can not strip old furniture whose finish is beyond redemption and which could be made useable again with a new finish. I am referring here only to valuable antique furniture or 20th-century furniture of such style and "quality" that they will become valuable antiques in the future.
When shopping for antique furniture be sure and take the following "tools" with you: a good strong flashlight, a tape measure (not a ruler), baby wipes (for your hands as old furniture is sometimes dirty), a sewing needle (to check those wormholes), a magnifying glass, screwdriver, and a small sharp knife (for checking wood type).
To determine if a woodworm hole in antique furniture is genuine, insert a sewing needle into the hole if it goes straight it is a "fake hole" made by a drill. Worms never eat in a straight line!
Always be on the lookout for repairs (well-made ones are fine...poor ones are not)! Fakers are clever so be watchful for "new" furniture made from "old" parts (i.e. table legs, drawers, etc.), married pieces (a "new" base with an old top attached or just two old pieces put together to make a new piece), and of course the outright "fake". Note: the value of "married" pieces is usually affected Only if the assembly is irreversible.
Also, be watchful for the "honest reproduction"...these are not necessarily bad as if you can not afford a "period" Hepplewhite Pembroke table, a well made honest reproduction of the 19th or early 20th century may suit your needs.
Look for the signs of early workmanship in the proportions, finish, materials (both wood and hardware) and in the design details. Never rely too heavily on old labels...they can be faked/reproduced.
Learn to recognize period detail; read books and visit museums to help train your eye as to what details belong to which periods, this can help you spot a fake easily. Always be careful of style characteristics that should not occur together, such as cabriole legs in oak.
If you find old wrought iron nails in a piece of furniture look for a blackened area in the wood around the nail as iron corrodes over time. Therefore, do not rely on the presence of old nails to authenticate a piece as "new" old cut nails can be purchased from any restoration catalogue by the box full!
Learn to identify wood species...this will aid in knowing if the wood is right for a particular style or period. The early cabinet makers usually chose hardwoods as the primary wood (woods used on tops of a chest and drawer fronts for example) when making an article of furniture, softwoods were reserved for backs and bottoms of drawers. These "unseen" areas were also not given a coat of finish (i.e. shellac) as was the primary woods. So if you see a finish on the unseen wood of a piece of furniture this should be a "red flag" that something is wrong! You can easily determine if the wood is soft or hard by using your fingernail...press your fingernail into a piece of wood, if it yields the pressure or "dents" slightly it is softwood such as pine if it does not it is a hardwood such as oak, cherry, walnut, etc.
Always look for worn wood in the "right" places.....check the bottoms of feet, drawer runners and any other areas that would be normally subjected to the movement for evidence of wear. Something interesting to note is that the top right-hand drawer of a piece of furniture ( a desk for example) will show more wear than the left-hand drawer as most people are "right-handed"; this also holds true for chests, the top drawer will show more wear than the bottom!
Likewise, always check for color changes in the wood on the unfinished areas of a piece, for example pull out a drawer and look at the underside of the top and the underside of the drawer bottom...these should be lighter in color than wood that has been exposed to air over a period of 100 years. If they are not, be suspicious.
Check for shrinkage. Besides colour, wood also changes in size over time, as it dries out it shrinks. Here is where your tape measure comes in handy. Use it to see if that circa 1790 pie crust tabletop is perfectly round or slightly off. Wood stays pretty much the same along or "with" the grain; however, you can determine if there is any shrinkage by measuring across the grain. Shrinkage can also be detected in turned legs and sides of case pieces (you sometimes find splits in longer pieces of wood) and in dowelled joints. In genuinely old dowel joints, the dowel or "pin" will be slightly raised above the surface. If it is "flush" with the surface, then it is relatively new.
Early cabinetmakers used wide boards (these were plentiful 100 - 200 years ago) so look for tabletops to be comprised of boards that measure from 20 to 30" in width. You should expect tops (i.e. case pieces, tables, and sides) to be comprised of one or two pieces of wood in the above widths. Be suspicious of 3 or more boards.
Study early joint construction! There are many good books on the market today that provides detail sketches of early cabinet maker's joints such as mortise and tenon, butt, spline, tongue and groove, rule, lap, sliding and locking. Early dovetail joints are also important to recognize. Modern dovetail joints are machine made and are easily detected when you learn what an old "hand-cut" dovetail looks like. Check our bookstore for some good titles that include sketches of early joinery techniques.
Old tool marks also provide clues to age. Prior to the machine age, all cabinet makers used hand tools, such as planes and saws. Most modern/mechanical plane marks (introduced after 1800) will run across the grain and will be uniformly parallel. So if you detect uniform, parallel tool marks you can be pretty sure that the marks were made by modern power tools. Saw marks are also a good clue....if you see a series of parallel arcing marks these were made by the circular saw (which was introduced around the 1840s); prior to that time, the saws had vertical blades that left coarse vertical parallel lines. Also, look for "score" marks on old furniture. These are marks made by the cabinet maker for centring their work. You will usually find these marks in drawers where the dovetails were laid out or on the bottoms of feet.
Contrary to some beliefs, a veneer is not a "modern" invention. The veneer was used by early cabinet makers to embellish a piece with fancy wood grains such as burl walnut, bird's-eye maple, crotch mahogany, etc. and inlays. You can tell a veneer's age by its thickness, early veneers (prior to about 1825) were thick and sawn from a large block of wood sometimes being 1/4" thick. After 1825, a rotary process was developed to allow for the more thinly sliced veneer to be produced.
Glue is also a key to age. Early glues were made from hides, bones, and fish and were always applied "hot". These glues had a tendency to give way over the years as the woods they held moved and shifted. Modern "white" glue (20th c.) is very strong and usually permanent. Once either glue is applied and dried, you can not tell the difference just by looking, but if you find a joint that has loosened or come apart this is a good sign that it was once glued with the old "hot" glues.
Nails and screws are other important clues to look for. But beware, reproductions of old cut nails and early screws are easy to obtain...as are the originals (from old furniture that has been destroyed with the nails/ screws being salvaged for later use!) The old nails were square and not uniform in appearance, while modern nails (after 1880) are wire cut (round) are uniform in appearance.
Chest & Desks
Be aware that old chests that have two top drawers may very well be the top sections of high boys separated from their base! Sometimes, you will find these "top sections" with replaced tops and feet that have been added on. Always look at the back edge of the top, it should be of the same colour and show the same wear.
Marriages Not Made in Heaven: Be wary of any piece of furniture made up of two pieces (i.e. bookcase top on slant front desk bottom) and always check that the wood in both pieces matches! Be sure to slide the top section away from the base so that you can check for a "finished" (i.e. polished and/or veneered) top on the base....this is Always a clue to a married piece.
Old dining tables should be slightly "wavy" which is caused by the varying densities of the darker and lighter woods. Extra leaves of an extension table should be darker due to having been exposed to less sun/light, but the grain should match with the tabletop! If the leaves are a later addition, then the table would be valued as though it did not have leaves.
Decorative inlaid designs should be "lower" than the surrounding surface as wood contracts with age. Be aware that crossbanding in lighter woods was sometimes added to mahogany dining tables in the 1920s and 30's when it was popular to "dress up tables, sideboards, cabinets, etc.
Piecrust tables should have tops that are one solid board! Be alert if you find an antique pie crust table with an "attached" or different moulded edge (clue: the edge is made of a different wood than the top). If you find a table whose top is made of two pieces of wood then it dates after the middle of the 19th century! If there is carving on the legs, check to make sure the carving "sits" above the surface of the wood, if not it is a later embellishment.
Look for many sets of "nail holes" (say one set for about every 50 years of life) under the upholstery. If you do not find several sets of nail holes on an antique chair, then the upholstery is original (a rather rare occurrence and should be in poor condition) then the chair may be a reproduction or have had extensive restoration.
A common "add-on" to dining chairs is to make side chairs into more valuable armchairs. To check for this always remember that true armchair seats were always made wider than the corresponding side chair!
Hardware - Be aware that there are many good imitations/reproductions of antique hardware on the market (the guys who make these are really good!). Oftentimes, reproduction hardware will even have old screws, nails, and locks! Another old trick is to simulate the "natural" age discolouration found around antique hardware by using vinegar.
The origin of locks can be determined by the backplate; English and American locks have a square backplate while Continental (European) locks are rectangular.
If you are going to invest in antique furniture find yourself copies of the following "must-have" books (in order of importance). Trust me these will become your bibles for furniture info:
1- Fine Points of Furniture, Albert Sack (Get the Earlier Copies, They're Better)
2- Four Centuries of American Furniture, Oscar P. Fitzgerald
3- Fake, Fraud, or Genuine; Identifying Authentic American Antique Furniture, Myrna Kaye