Know Your Antique Furniture

An Overview of How to Identify Antique Furniture

If you are like thousands of people who love to pass their time in flea markets or visiting garage sales, you know that there are hidden treasures in those places.  But you may have never thought of yourself as an antique furniture expert.

But you don’t have to be a professional antique collector to know how to spot good antique furniture when you see it.  And it is a valuable skill to develop because you can find the most amazing pieces tucked away at an estate or garage sale, going otherwise unnoticed.

The first rule of thumb when you think you may have picked up a genuine antique for a bargain is that if you think it’s a hidden treasure, go with your instincts.  A lot of “garage salers” pick up old furniture on the theory that the things they have found are not worth that much so they can have fun refinishing that piece and then selling it for a little more.  But if you even suspect that a piece you have just acquired has antique value, have it appraised before you make any modifications.  Even if the piece has some damage, better to not touch it than change it in any way and diminish its antique value.

The styles of antiques you may find in greatest abundance are English and American Colonial.  It is a little tough to tell them apart because the styles use a lot of similar details.  But one big clue if you are looking at an antique is that furniture parts were not cut by machine before 1860. 

Start by looking at the drawers.  If the dovetails of the drawers are handmade, that is a sign it was made before 1860.  Also, look at the entire piece for signs of the scratches of planes or knives used to make drawers.  These little knicks that can show up on a piece of furniture may be signs that the piece was hand made.

Hand made furniture will not have that look of perfect alignment that furniture that comes from a factory assembly line with have.  Small flaws or lack of symmetry in matching pieces are signs that the furniture was not made in a factory.  Look at spindles or rungs to see if they are unique from one another in small ways.  If these details were made by machine, they would always turn out identical to each other.  Imperfection means perfection when it comes to antique furniture.

The finish is also a part of the furniture construction that can tell a story.  If the piece is finished with Shellac, it is probably not an antique.  But if it was finished with oil, milk paint or wax, these are materials that furniture craftsmen used before furniture started being mass-produced.  If you find lacquer or varnish as the finishing type, that dates the piece to the mid-1800s.

High quality pieces that are very well made always command a higher price on the antique market.  If you can begin to identify particular designers by how the piece was made or if the previous owner can help identify the designer of the piece, that will increase the value of antique furniture.  But in all cases, if the piece is quite original, that is worth more in the antique markets.  By learning how to identify these traits, you can know your antique furniture and pick it put from run of the mill pieces anywhere you might find them for sale.

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