Antique Furniture

By John Tope

According to the Oxford English dictionary, the word conservation means:  Preservation and repair of objects.  This would also include protecting and minimizing deterioration in order to keep its’ original or existing state.  The word restoration is defined as:  The returning of something to a former condition.  This would also include treatments to stabilize the structure or finish of furniture.  The goal is to prolong its’ existence.

Most people have antiques in the home or a collection that is still in use.  Like a chair, bookcase, clock, music box, table or cabinet.  They still serve and continue to provide their useful purpose.

In museums, antiques only serve the purpose to be viewed, admired and to have an understanding of the past.  Since many of us who own antiques do not live in a museum, they still serve a useful purpose, like a chair, table or cabinet.   

Because museums only display their objects for bearing witness to our history, their approach to conservation and restoration can be different than one who has an antique in their home that is still in service.

There is a right way and many wrong ways of restoring antique furniture.  Unfortunately, we mostly see well meaning restorations that are done in the wrong way.  Seeing many bad repair jobs can be very disheartening.  This means the furniture is being ruined and destroyed.  Sometimes these repairs are reversible, but many times the damage is irreversible.  As time goes on, there is less and less furniture remaining to be never replaced again.  Antiques are a part of history, and in the bigger scope, a part of civilization.  More often than not, I generally find many ill advised restorations or rejuvenations that were done with the thought that it was the appropriate thing to do.  

There was a time many years ago when collectors expected and paid high prices for finely restored furniture.  The expectation was that all the metal hardware was to be perfectly polished by stripping it of any acquired patina or re-gilded and the old finish be completely stripped and refinished.  Later the emphasis shifted to originality.  

It does not need to look new, but should look old and aged with grace.  It is always better to make a mistake in your restoration process that is reversible than to permanently change or alter the piece.  There is not one solution to a problem presented to us for an antique.  Sometimes there are several options and solutions to the problem.

Modern finishing products were developed for ease of use, because people wanted quick, easy and effective results.  If you use modern finishing products, you no longer have a historic original finish.  The original classic finishes take much more time and skill in their application, but provide results with true character and natural beauty unmatched by any other products.

One negative aspect of antique finishes is that they are fragile.  They are not very resistant to water, alcohol or most any liquid.  They also scratch and fracture more easily than the modern finishes.  The modern finishes are durable and stand up to abuse.  But they are more artificial and plastic like and lack the warm qualities of an antique finish.

The finish or the wood needs to be fed?  Wood is dead.  I have seen antiques that were hundreds of years old that showed no signs of being hungry.  It makes no sense to feed a finish with oil since originally there was never any measurable amount of oil in wood.  The purpose of a finish is to protect the wood by repelling hazards like water and oil.

The goal is to learn how finishes work so you can make informed decisions on your own projects.  Remember, as stated before: Only period finishing materials can be used that are historically accurate for the repair or restoration to be done to an antique.

Although the 1600’s through the early 1800’s will be discussed in these courses, very few people own such furniture.  Most from this period are in museums.  This would be far out of reach for most people, and therefore, the majority of people would be excluded from the benefit of these courses.   

Furniture that predates the 1800’s should not be attempted by a novice.  Other than the obvious reason of potential loss of extreme value, finishes were more varied and were less uniform than those in the 1800’s.  An expert conservator would be required with an expertise of the particular time period.

An important clue that can help you detect a forgery is wood movement or shrinkage.  Wood will naturally shrink, warp and move across the grain.  Here are some examples of naturally occurring wood movement, warping and shrinking.  A new piece will have no warping or shrinkage.  When you find a genuine antique, it usually does not seem quite true, it may be loose or have some warping.  These inconsistencies occur in the wood through a long aging period that is virtually impossible to duplicate, and many experts look for these clues.

There are still many finds out there to be discovered of furniture created during the approximate 100 year period from of the early 1800’s until about 1940.  Another reason for this is not just because of the fact that the dates are more recent, but primarily because of the start of the industrial revolution that began in the early to mid 1800’s.  From this period forward, an enormous amount of furniture was mass produced.  Prior to this period, furniture was individually made by cabinetmakers.  Many went out of business because of their inability to compete with the large manufacturers of the industrial revolution.  Because of these events, furniture made prior to the industrial revolution were less numerous, handmade and as a result, far out of the price range of most current collectors.

Generally, an older piece is more valuable than a newer piece, but there were a lot of average quality pieces produced that are 100 to 150 years old.  So buying just based on age is not a definite rule to follow.

Let’s talk about furniture history and traits of period furniture.  This is an immense topic that would equate to a yearlong university course on history.  A multitude of books have been written on this topic.  Such detail would be beyond the scope of this document and I leave it to the volumes of books written on the topic, but here is a brief overview.

Furniture has been around as long as the history of civilization, but is doubtful that you would find any furniture before the 1650, except in museums.  

Most stylized furniture started in the 17th century.  Many skilled cabinetmaking craftsmen emerged to fill the demand for styled and embellished furniture.  France dominated not only in power but also set the standard for everything from furniture, art and clothing.  The French style was so popular that many other countries adopted and produced the French style of furniture.  Very fine examples of early French furniture can command hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars.  In time, other countries expanded on the French designs to create their own styles.

Around the 1720’s was the start of the importation of mahogany to Europe from the Americas.  Before that, the choices in Europe were walnut and oak.

From 1720 to 1750, furniture in England and Europe was equally made of either mahogany or walnut.  The last half of the 18th century was known as the Georgian period, and Mahogany was the predominate wood.

The Federal period of furniture started in America, after the revolutionary war.  This was a style developed to create a new American style, to be different than the rest of the world.  It was a mix of the various English styles from the Georgian period and mostly used mahogany.

Styles changed again in about the 1820’s during the reign of Napoleon.  This was French Empire furniture.  But that only lasted as long as Napoleon’s reign.  Napoleon’s time did not last very long, neither the style.  Following this period started the American Empire style.  This style lasted from the 1820’s to about 1850.

Around 1850 started the Victorian period.  The Victorian period dominated both English and American manufacturing for the remainder of the 1800’s.  Extensive use of solid wood machine made furniture was used in the Victorian period.  Mostly walnut was used in the beginning, and later mostly in oak.  There was some veneering, but it was generally solid wood construction.  During the American civil war, factories of the industrial revolution were producing materials for the war effort.  Then a major change occurred in about 1865 after the civil war.  The factories of the north that survived the war were used to create furniture.   Furniture made of the Victorian style was again mass-produced in these factories which lasted until the 20th century.

Solid construction became rare starting in the second half of the 20th century.  By 1960 the use of wood substitutes and composite wood products became common in furniture.  Through the years and centuries many furniture pieces have been made from cheaper woods to imitate more expensive woods.  Mahogany is an example that was widely imitated.  Walnut is a common substitute.  Walnut graining is similar to mahogany and color is added to imitate the appearance of mahogany.  Be careful, sometimes it may not be what it appears to be.  

When trying to identify an old piece of furniture, what you doing is trying to determine its’ age.  Age is the primary unknown in antique furniture.  There are some reference books at libraries and bookstores that may help you in your identification process.  You don’t want to pay the price of an 1850 piece that was reproduced in 1950.  Very few pieces have a date stamped on them.  I have seen dates written in pencil under tables, under drawers and other places within a piece.  It is impossible to tell if that is a true identification of its age or if someone later wrote that date to give an unsuspecting person the impression that the piece is older than it is.

Age can be determined in by construction techniques, materials and style or styles.

Construction techniques such as the use of veneer are directly tied to the technology of a given period.  But one problem is that any previous techniques can still be used today.  So, older techniques may have been used to make a particular piece at a much later date, even as early as today.  Expect some normal wear and tear.  Any piece in perfect condition is either new, refinished or a forgery.  Watch for “Married pieces”.  These are 2 or more pieces that were joined to make 1 piece.  You can find examples of this on the chest on chest types of furniture.

Drawers can give you clues to the age of a piece.  Because of the skill and complexities associated with drawers, the use of the best technology of the period would have been used.  The underside bottom of the drawer may not be perfectly smooth, but have ridges from hand planning indicating it was not machine made.  This technique was used from the 17th century to the mid 19th century.   Handmade drawers usually have joinery made of large dovetails.  Fewer dovetails meant less work and consumed less time to make a drawer.  

Handmade joints made in England lasted until the mid 20th century.  So some pieces that appear to be 18th or 19th century can actually be 20th century reproductions.  You cannot just rely on any one clue to determine age.  Always examine the underside of a piece of furniture.  Do you see any shiny screw or nail heads?  Is there a recent manufacturer stamp or label?  Is the underside finished?  Furniture was not generally finished on the underside and the wood should look naturally old from many years of oxidation.

The earlier pieces would have been constructed with other types of manmade joinery.  For example, Mortise and Tenon joining.

Then machinery was developed to make dowel joints.  Dowel joints were dominate from about the 1860’s.  Dowel joints are still commonly used today.  The difference between early dowel joints and modern dowel joints is the size of the dowel.  From the time of the Civil war through the Victorian period until about 1900, the dowel was smooth on the surface.  Also, they were 7/16th of an inch in diameter.  Around 1900, the general size changed to 3/8ths of an inch in diameter.  The modern dowels are usually made of birch with straight groves lines or round cuts like rings around the surface.  During transitional periods you can have a piece of furniture made with a combination of mortise and tenon and dowels.  This is because the piece was partially handmade and partially machine made.

Examine the nails to see if they are either round, square or rectangular.  Prior to 1800 all nails were handmade nails.  

In the early 1800’s, screws were hammered into their shape by a blacksmith.  Screws were all handmade and hand cut.  

About 1925 was the start of American Depression era of furniture.  It is a combination of many of the older styles that were used, and as a result, depression era furniture is misidentified.  Examples of some combination of styles used were Sheraton, Hepplewhite, Chippendale, Duncan Fife and Queen Ann.  The period started to use a significant amount of plywood on sides of cases, drawer sides and most frequently used in drawer bottoms.  The use of plywood is the tell tale sign for Depression Era Furniture.

Some say that a characteristic of older or antique furniture can be insect infestation.  This is not specific to any one period, but is many times found on old furniture.  

Wood is composed of fibers that are bound together.  Some woods have smaller and larger fibers.  This gives their character and distinguishes them from other species of woods.  The fibers absorb and release moisture from their environment.  This is referred to as being hydroscopic.  This absorption and release of moisture is in an attempt for the wood to maintain equilibrium with the environment.  Changes in the seasons with variations of temperature and humidity, account for wood movement.  These movements in the wood will cause a piece of wood to twist, warp and crack.  Proper joinery methods have been developed by woodworkers through the centuries to anticipate these movements.  A finish will restrict moisture absorption and stabilize the wood.  This makes it less liable to warp, crack and twist.

Another problem that can exist is; which environment did the object originate?  Maybe it was originally made, and spent most of its life in a part of the country that had high humidity.  Now the object is far from its’ original home and maybe now it is in a dryer climate.  It is advised that you purchase a hygrometer to monitor the humidity in your home.  You don’t want wide fluctuation from 20% to 70% relative humidity.  Using a humidifier in dry months is the easiest and best solution.  These can be found at most hardware stores or home centers.  Also, plants located near wooden antiques can increase some humidity to the immediate area since the soil is kept moist from periodic watering.   

Long periods of exposure to light will fade and yellow a finish.  It is best not to place a piece of furniture in the path of direct light from a southern window.   

Fortunately, light and humidity is within your control.  There are 2 simple solutions.  Don’t place antique furniture in direct sunlight and maintain the humidity in an acceptable range.  Also, don’t store antique furniture in a basement, garage, storage shed, near heat or air conditioning vents or an attic. The reasons for this are obvious.