learning how to identify antique furniture
Antique Collecting

Learning To Identify Antique Furniture

Posted On June 16, 2017 at 9:38 pm by / No Comments

Even in the middle of dark caves, our ancestors carved out crude stone furniture for comfort. Wooden furniture was first recorded by the ancient Egyptians, who decorated their homes lavishly. While you probably will not find furniture that old in your local flea market, there are many vintage treasures from the modern era to be had.

A popular antique show on public television often includes experts appraising vintage furniture. In a classic scene, one woman was shocked to find that her $2 yard sale find ended up being a chair worth a quarter of a million. The odds of you making such a discovery are astronomical; however, you can still find some quality antique furniture. You just need to know the proper characteristics.


When you look at a piece of furniture’s joinery, you may get a good estimate of its age. There are still more clues, such as the tools that were used and the appearance of certain components. If you look at individual parts of a piece and then consider it as a whole, you can accurately date it.

Other Parts To Examine

If you are examining a piece of furniture to see if it was made by hand or machine, take a look at the back and bottom. Look inside the drawers and doors of the piece, if it has them. A handmade article will show little nicks that were made by a hand plane. You may see more of them on inconspicuous parts of the piece, such at the back or inside of a drawer. Most furniture was made by machines after the Civil War. It is safe to assume that a completely smooth piece was probably made after the 1860s.

Compare The Elements Of The Piece

When furniture is carved by hand, it is only natural that its elements differ a little from each other. You will notice this on spindles, knobs, or other small components. This is a characteristic of furniture that was made before the machine age. Elements made after the 1860s are more uniform, because they were massed produced by machines.

Look For Identifying Tool Marks

If you have a basic understanding of hand tools, you can quickly identify markings that were left after construction. For example, the surface of hand-hewn wood is usually a little uneven.

Chisels leave little nicks and cuts as evidence that the piece was probably not made by a machine. When you see small hashes in a straight pattern, you can assume that a hand saw was used. Modern circular saws leave rounded patterns.

Remember that there have always been artisans who have created furniture by hand to this day. They keep the craft alive by using tools from the past. There are other signs of age that you must consider in addition to the piece being handmade.

Common Types of Wood and Upholstery

It takes some experience to have the ability to identify different kinds of woods and finishes used in furniture construction. If you know what type of primary and secondary woods were used to make the piece, you will have a better idea of when it was made. Certain woods were used during different periods of furniture making.

One of the earliest woods to be used for furniture was oak. American Colonial furniture was commonly constructed from walnut and mahogany. Later, cherry, maple, and rosewood were the chosen woods. Early 20th century pieces are often made of oak. The most expensive woods were used for the outside parts of the furniture (primary wood), while inferior woods (secondary woods) made up parts that were not seen, such as the inside of drawers and cabinets.

When you are looking at furniture with upholstery, consider the type of material it is. Just like woods, certain materials were in vogue during various time periods. You might see patterned brocades, satin, damasks, or wool. Patterns can provide a clue to the piece’s age. If you are unsure, you can consult reference books on furniture design. Again, you must take the whole piece into consideration before you decide its age.

Dating Furniture Hardware

The types of nails and screws that are used in modern furniture building were not available until mid-19th century. When you find a piece of furniture with manufactured screws, you are probably looking at a piece made after 1850 or so.

Older screws from the earlier 1800s have uniform threads made by machine; however, the heads were still made by hand, so they vary in appearance. Before this time, the whole screw was handmade and each one was different. When you observe old screws, look at the rest of the furniture construction to see if it matches the time period.

Look at any other hardware that the piece has. If the brass hardware has a grainy look on the back, you know that they were cast in sand. That is how furniture knobs and hinges were made in the 1700s. The parts that are visible were polished. There were periods of time that brass was not used. If you are not sure, you should consult a reference book.

What Is The Style Of The Piece?

There are numerous furniture styles that made their mark during certain time periods. You might be familiar with terms like Arts and Crafts style, Rococo, or the coveted Chippendale. These are just a few that you may discover. The furniture’s style can help you determine how old it is.

Be careful, because many styles have been reproduced. That is why you must consider hallmarks of age as well as style. It is important to do your research and talk to experienced antique furniture curators before you make an expensive purchase. Even if you find an older piece from a revival style, it may look beautiful in your home. That is the whole purpose of collecting furniture.

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