Furniture can be of several different styles with some distinguishing features. In the United States, you’ll mostly come across furniture that is limited to two styles. They are the American Colonial style and the Traditional English style.
You’ll also find many variations in them, ranging from ornate to functional and from massive to delicate ones. There’s no right or wrong style in furniture. If you like a particular piece of furniture, you know you’ve got the right style.
Age of antique furniture
An antique item of furniture holds a special value owing to its age. Those pieces that possess beautiful embellishments with fine artistry are highly valuable. Generally, the stores that deal in antique furniture classify 50-year-old items as antiques. For the fine antique dealers, antique furniture would be the ones that are over 150 years old.
In the eastern parts of the country, an antique is generally Queen Anne or earlier. Any item of furniture that came in a wagon across the mountains would be antique in the West. A southern antique would be a piece that has been made before the Civil War. You normally won’t find a genuine antique from the 16th or the 17th centuries. You may find reproductions of them though.
Identifying antique furniture
There are many ways of identifying antique furniture. Machine-cut furniture was not made anywhere until the mid-19th century. If you come across antique furniture with drawers, remove one and take a closer look. Check whether the back and front of the drawer are joined to the sides.
If a joint has dovetails that are precisely cut and closely spaced, the furniture was machine-cut. If it has handmade dovetails, you can be sure that the item was made before 1860. A careful look at the back, sides, and bottom of the drawer would reveal the nicks or cuts.
If they’re present, there’s a probability of it being cut with a plane, drawknife, or a spokeshave. Straight marks of the saw are an indicator that the item is quite old. If the wood has arc-shaped or circular marks, it has been cut by a circular saw. This type of saw was not used until the mid-19th century.
Machine-made furniture has an exact symmetry. In the case of handmade furniture, the spindles, slats, rockers and other components of small diameter are not uniform. Slight differences in shape or size are not easy to spot. Reproductions of antique furniture are perfectly cut owing to the use of machines.
Finish used on the wood
Shellac was the only clear surface finish used until the Victorian era. Varnish and lacquer were not in use until the mid-19th century. The finish used on a piece of furniture made before 1860 would be usually shellac. Very old furniture items may have oil, milk paint, or a wax finish. It is not always possible to test a finish while in a dealer’s showroom.
Nevertheless, you must make an attempt to identify the finish before buying the furniture. You can test the item in an inconspicuous spot using denatured alcohol. If shellac has been used, it would dissolve. Milk paint was usually used on very old pieces and it can be removed only with the use of ammonia.