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How To Identify Antique Furniture

Jun 27, 2008
Many people unknowingly own or purchase valuable pieces of antique furniture. It is helpful for those who frequently attend garage sales to learn how to recognize an antique piece. Although dealers and serious collectors are best able to distinguish a genuine piece of furniture from a replica, a few small bits of knowledge can go a long way.

Handypersons often like to purchase old pieces of furniture for refinishing purposes. Since most antiques are best left in their original state, many experts recommend finding out the value of a particular piece before engaging in any modifications. It is better to spend a few dollars on an expert opinion than to destroy a piece of furniture that could be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars.

English and American Colonial designs are common, but because these styles embrace a broad range of details, it can be hard to delineate. Regardless of the style, there are ways to tell if a piece is antique. Furniture components were not machine-cut until about 1860, so examining the drawers can provide tell-tale signs. If the drawer was constructed using handmade dovetails, it was produced prior to that time. Older pieces also required the use of hand tools, such as planes and draw-knives, which left nicks and marks in the wood.

True antiques do not often display exact symmetry, as this was impossible to achieve when working solely by hand. These pieces are imperfect and small details can usually be spotted, such as rungs and spindles that are not uniform, or shapes that vary somewhat. Machine-cut pieces are reproduced identically.

Another way to identify an antique is by examining the finish. Oil, wax, and milk paint were used on the earliest pieces and eventually replaced by Shellac. By the mid-1800s, lacquer and varnish became popular finishes, helping to date a later piece. It is possible to test for various finishes, much to the dismay of dealers. If a Shellac finish is dabbed with alcohol, it will dissolve.

Oak represents most of the oldest pieces of furniture, prior to 1700. With the turn of the 18th Century, mahogany and walnut dominated the woodworking world. Pine has always been a popular choice for American products because it is plentiful and easy to manipulate. More valuable pieces can also be found in maple, walnut and cherry.

Quality and condition are the final important factors to consider when shopping for antique furniture. Pieces constructed by a particular designer may be declared valuable, regardless of their age or condition. However, in most cases, original components in great condition equal higher worth.
About the Author
Victor Epand is an expert consultant for pottery, antiques, and figurines. When shopping for pottery, antiques and figurines, we recommend these online stores for pottery, antique furniture, and figurines.
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