Examining Bottoms, Insides and Backs
Looking at the bottom or back of a piece, or inside its doors and drawers, can provide important clues about whether or not a piece of old furniture was machine cut or crafted by hand. Most handmade pieces will show some irregularities to the surface such as minor nicks indicative of a hand plane being used to smooth out the wood, and this is sometimes even more evident on the back than on the finished front surfaces.
Most machine made pieces date after 1860, according to art historian Lori Verderame (also known as Dr. Lori) so if the piece you’re examining is perfectly finished without shallow cuts being evident, this clue points to it being made in the late 1800s or beyond.
Do All the Elements Match Exactly?
Smaller “matching” elements, such as wooden drawer knobs, chair spindles, or feet on a variety of objects, may have slight differences in the shape if they were hand crafted prior to 1860 or so. Machine made furniture made largely after 1860 will have components that match more perfectly than those made by hand. It’s almost impossible to make the same exact element over and over identically without the use of machinery.
What Types of Tools Were Used When the Piece was Constructed?
When hand planes were used to smooth woods, they more often than not left some sort of uneven surface. As discussed above, this is especially evident on the back or underside of applicable pieces. Cuts and nicks can also be present where hand chisels and other tools were used to shape woods.
When circular saws were used, and this wasn’t prevalent until the mid-19th century, a circular pattern is usually present. Manually operated hand saws left a straighter pattern in comparison. That’s not to say woodcrafters aren’t still hand making furniture today, and they were doing so in the late 1800s and early 1900s, too. Looking for other signs of age is also wise in addition for signs of hand craftsmanship.
Looking at Woods and Upholstery Fabrics
Many people have trouble distinguishing different types of woods and finishes, so if you fall into this category don’t feel alone. But yes, different types of wood were used during different furniture periods and if you’re good at recognizing them this can prove to be another clue that help determine the age of furniture.
For instance, oak was used in furniture made prior to 1700. After 1700, mahogany and walnut were very popular. Moving into the 1800s, maple and cherry showed up in fine furniture manufacture quite often. Many Victorian furniture manufacturers used mahogany and rosewood through the late 1800s. Then, around 1900, oak became very popular again.
Can you circa date solely on the type of wood used? No. But it can be an indicator of age when it fits in with the overall style and age of other components that make up the furniture you’re trying to date. The same goes with upholstery if it’s original, and that’s a key factor. Silk, wool and cotton have been spun and woven into a variety of damasks, satins and brocades with many different patterns. Consult a book with a upholstery guide like American Furniture: Tables, Chairs, Sofas & Beds by Marvin D. Schwartz for more clues about fabric designs used at different periods in furniture history.
Looking for Old Screws
Screws weren’t made completely by machine until 1848, according to an Antique Trader article by Fred Taylor. So if you find a furniture item using screws that have completely rounded shafts, pointed ends, and perfectly finished heads with matching cuts (much like a screw you would purchase today), the piece likely dates to the mid-19th century or later.
Screws made from about 1812 through the mid-1800s were partially machine made giving the threading a more even appearance, according to Taylor. But the heads were still finished with hacksaws to add the groove to fit a screwdriver like those made even earlier, so no two are exactly alike. The first screws were crafted in the 1700s by blacksmiths using square nail stock that was heated and pounded until it was somewhat round. The tips were blunt in these oldest screws, and each one was unique. If you find these hand finished screws in a piece, investigate other aspects of the piece to see if they match the screws in age.
Determining the Style of a Piece
The overall style – such as Chippendale , William and Mary, or Rococo Revival or a host of others – can help you determine when a piece was made. Keep in mind, however, that some styles have been reproduced over the years since that style was new, like both Chipppendale and Queen Anne, so it’s important to look for other signs of age beyond your first glance at a piece.