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What to look for when buying old furniture

If you have an old, worn dresser or beat-up heirloom chair on your hands, you may be thinking about renovating it. Mass-produced antique parts whose origins lie between 1850 and 1960 are ideal candidates for finishing. With a few exceptions, they are not highly valued as antiques, but they are solidly built and can last for many years.
However, if you have questions about how old your piece is, consult an expert first, says Teri Masaschi, author of Foolproof Wood Finishing:For Those Who Love to Build and Hate to Finish . "The basic rule of thumb is that if the piece was made before 1850, you need to do some homework on whether it should be preserved versus restored, which means preserving and stabilizing the piece as it is now," she says. "If it's been in the family for a while, it's worth finding out before you do any damage."

To muddy the waters a bit, there are some more recent pieces from prominent manufacturers, for example from the Art Deco and Arts and Crafts periods (shown in the photo below), which command high prices and should not be touched. If you suspect there's something unusual or distinctively well done about your piece, go with your guts, says Masaschi, and ask someone who knows.

Here are some general guidelines for evaluating the age and quality of your piece. But keep in mind that there are many exceptions to these rules, so exercise caution.

Find dovetail joints

This construction detail is your first clue to the piece's age and quality of craftsmanship. Dovetail joints are strong and require skill to produce, so they are usually a sign of a well-made part. Hand-cut dovetails may date an older American piece before 1890, although they are still used by hobbyists and specialty makers. "There's no hard and fast rule, but hand-joining wasn't really done in factories after that date," says Masaschi. The hand tails are slightly jagged and the pins are thin and sharp. Wider, more uniform dovetails were common on factory-made parts from 1890 to the modern era.

If a part doesn't have a dovetail, it may still be a candidate for finishing if it's sturdy and well-designed, but it's not likely to be an antique part with antique value.

The hand tails (photo below, top piece) are slightly jagged and the pins are thin and sharp. Wider, more uniform dovetails (pictured below, bottom piece) were common on factory-made pieces from 1890 to the modern era.

Scott E. Kriner, Fox Chapel Publishing

Look for solid wood or plywood backing

Look at the back of your piece, including the inside and back of drawers, if applicable. Solid wood backing indicates a piece likely predates the 1880s; Plywood came into vogue at the end of the 20th century. Particleboard means you probably have something made in the 1960s or later, the "shortcut" era, as Masaschi puts it.

Look for the maker's inscriptions or stamps.

If you're lucky, a piece will have a mark indicating its origin. The first pieces that were made by hand will sometimes bear an inscription from an individual furniture maker, a clue to their value that should be examined by a professional appraiser. "If they're really old, it could just be a pencil signature on the inside of a drawer," says Masaschi. “But by the end of the 20th century, manufacturers were using paper labels (shown below), which later progressed to brass plates glued to the inside of drawers or the back of a piece. Then in the 1950s and 1960s they used spray stencils.” Keep in mind that sometimes furniture suites only had one piece marked, so if your piece got separated from its peers, you might not have anything. to pass.

Mass-produced pieces beginning in the early 20th century will often carry a manufacturer's label, such as "Larkin Soap Co." or "Cadillac Cabinet Company." This is a nice little story, but it also tells you how common the part is, which can help you determine if you should restore it yourself. In general, mass-produced pieces up until the 1950s and 1960s (when particle board and cheaper, flimsy construction techniques became popular) are excellent candidates for finishing trim.

Look for original hardware and other details

Does the part have its original hardware? What style is it? Solid cast brass or wooden knobs mean the piece is probably old; Using a collection reference guide, you can identify your style and therefore your age range. Common style examples are Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, Federal (shown below on an original dresser from the period), Depression-era, Victorian, and Queen Anne.

According to Masaschi, a few other details can help him date a piece:

  • The marble dressers and what Masaschi calls "dreadnought" beds with giant headboards and footboards are almost exclusively from the Victorian era (late 1800s). If you're comfortable handling any ornate details on these pieces, they're usually fine for a makeover.
  • Any piece on wheels (wheels) is typically pre-1930s.
  • If you have a dresser with a mirror connected to a harp, your piece was made in the late 20th century. If you have a set with a separate mirror that hangs on the wall above the dresser, you can date that to the 1940s or later.

Regardless of whether your piece has antique value, these clues about its age and history can help you find the right finishes and hardware before you dive into your project.