Things you should
know about antique
Of all the categories of antiques you can collect, furniture is
among the most popular and practical. Many pieces offer you the
alternative of using them either for their original purpose, or of
adapting them to modern-day living.
Furniture differs from other types of antique in that you
probably don't want to collect it by the type of object - nobody
wants a room full of only chests or tables - but you may have an
affinity for a particular wood or style of decoration. Whatever your
preference, you need to familiarise yourself with the styles,
methods of construction and types of material used.
At first furniture was
made from solid wood, but as cabinet-making improved, the technique
of decorating furniture by applying veneers (thin sheets of wood)
developed. This was an economical way of using expensive woods, and
allowed the maker to create decorative effects from the different
grains and patterns (called figuring) of the wood. Veneered
furniture has a carcass (solid body) made from a different (usually
less expensive) wood. This secondary wood, as it's known, is most
commonly pine or oak. Listed below are examples of the most
frequently seen types of woods used for antique furniture.
Amboyna. Richly coloured wood
with a tight grain. Used during the 18th century and Regency
periods, nearly always as a veneer.
Beech. Brownish-whitish wood used in the solid from the 17th
century for the frames of upholstered furniture, because it doesn't
split when tacked. Also popular during the 18th and 19th centuries
as a base for painted furniture.
Cherry. Orange-brown wood popular for American Queen Anne and
Chippendale furniture. Usually used in the solid.
Chestnut. Ranges in tone from light to dark brown, much used
during the 18th century for French provincial furniture made in the
Caoromandel. A dark, boldly figured wood, almost black in
parts, with pale striations, used mainly as a veneer for refined
furniture of the Regency period.
Ebony. Dense, heavy, almost black wood, often used as a
contrasting inlay in marquetry veneering.
Elm. Light brown wood, popular for Windsor chairs and
provincial English furniture.
Mahogany. Rich golden-brown or red-brown wood, which became
popular in England c.1730. There are several types of mahogany - San
Domingan, Cuban, Honduras and Spanish are most common.
Oak. Deep, rich, chocolate-brown or pale golden-brown
coarse-grained wood used predominantly in Britain from Middle Ages
to late 17th century. Also used as a secondary wood on good-quality
Pine. Soft, pale, honey-coloured wood used in England and
America as a secondary timber for drawer linings, and in the 19th
century for inexpensive furniture (which was often painted).
Rosewood. Highly figured dark red-brown wood with blackish
streaks. Popular during the Regency and Victorian periods in England
for high-quality furniture.
Satinwood. Light, yellow-coloured West Indian wood, favoured
during the late 18th century. Usually used in veneers as it was
expensive, and sometimes embellished with painted decoration.
Painted satinwood furniture was also popular in the Edwardian
Virginia walnut. Richly coloured wood resembling mahogany.
Used in the solid and as a veneer on English and American furniture
Walnut. Nutty- or honey-brown highly figured wood used in the
solid on English furniture from c.1660 to c.1690 and as veneers from
c.1690 to c.1735. Walnut was also popular in America and in the
Yew. Red-brown hardwood used both in veneers or in the solid
on the best English provincial furniture of the 17th and 18th
Colour and patina
A rich mellow colour is one of the most important features of any
piece of furniture. The patina is the glow the wood develops over
the years from an accumulation of wax polish and dirt.
Most furniture isn't the same colour all over - grooves and carving
will look darker, surfaces exposed to sunlight may be lighter.
The proportions are fundamental in assessing the quality of a piece
and deciding whether it's 'right'.
A piece which looks too heavy on top, or has legs which are too big
or small may well be a 'marriage'.
Small pieces are usually more desirable.
Early furniture was made using mortice-and-tenon joints held by pegs
or dowels instead of glue or screws. This method was used until the
late 17th century. Pegs were handmade and stand slightly proud of
Later machine-made pegs are perfectly symmetrical, and are either
flush with the surface or slightly recessed.
From the early 18th century, joints were dovetailed and glued.
Until the end of the 18th century, when the circular saw was
introduced, all wood was sawn by hand and has straight saw marks.
After c.1800 circular marks may be visible on the surface of
The earlier the screw, the cruder it will be.
The groove on old screws tends to be off-centre and the top
The thread is also irregular and open and, unlike modern screws,
runs the entire length of the shank.
Dovetails are the triangular joints which slot together on the
corners of drawers. They became progressively finer and can help
Drawers had channels in their sides and, until the 18th century, ran
on runners set into the carcass.
Some drawers ran on the dust boards and had no runners.
From the Queen Anne period the runners were placed under the drawer
at the sides and ran on bearers placed on the inside of the carcass.
Handles can provide a useful clue to dating, because styles changed
from period to period.
It's common to find pieces with replaced handles. This isn't serious
but it's preferable to have handles in keeping with the rest of the
From c.1960 handles were secured by pommels and nuts.
Antique pommels were hand cast in a single piece of brass. The
thread goes only half way up the shank, and the remainder of the
shank is square-shaped. Modern pommels are made from brass heads
with steel shanks and the thread runs the whole length of the shank.
The nuts used to attach handles in the 18th century were circular
and slightly irregular. Modern nuts are regular and hexagonal.
Feet can give a useful guide to dating. However, centuries of
standing on damp floors often causes feet to rot and many have been
Compare the wood of the feet with that of the rest of the body to
decide whether or not they're original.
Early locks are usually of wrought iron, held in place with iron
nails. From the 18th century, locks were steel or brass and secured
with steel screws.
Locks are often replaced. This isn't serious, though it's better to
have original ones.
Oak was relatively difficult to carve - but as walnut and mahogany
became popular, carving became finer and more intricate.
Original carved decoration adds to the desirability of a piece.
Some pieces were adorned with later carving. These are far less
desirable than those with original decoration.
The quality of veneering has an important bearing on price.
Many pieces have quarter-veneered tops, where four pieces of wood
create a pattern.
Banding - strips of veneers laid around the edges of drawers - was
also popular. Depending on the way in which the grain of the wood
runs, banding is referred to as straight banding, cross banding,
feather banding or herringbone banding.
Inlay - Marquetry
A pattern made from veneers of differently coloured woods. Inlaying
was popular on English and Continental furniture from the 17th
century and can add greatly to the value of a piece.
Furniture in original pristine condition commands the highest prices
and is always scarce.
Don't dismiss pieces with blemishes, as long as the wood itself has
not been damaged. Surface spots can often be treated by a good
restorer. The table may look rather scruffy but the wood itself is
undamaged and can easily be repolished.
Small round holes in old furniture are a common sight in old
furniture and show that the piece has at some stage been attacked by
These need not put you off, provided the infestation hasn't
structurally weakened the piece.
Active woodworm can be detected by pale-coloured powder in the
wormholes, or on adjacent surfaces, and should be treated with a
proprietary product as soon as possible.
Check periodically for signs of infestation.
A piece of furniture made up from separate items which did not
originally belong together is termed a 'marriage'.
The married parts may be of a similar period or one part may be
later, or even modern.
Marriages are nearly always much less desirable than pieces in
Examine furniture in the way described to make sure it isn't a
Furniture which has been altered is usually less desirable than that
in its original condition. Among the most common alterations are
large pieces which have been reduced in size. Freshly cut surfaces,
repositioned handles, and plugged holes are signs of alteration.
A piece of furniture can be described as fake if it deliberately
makes you think it's older than it really is. Fakes made from new
timber are usually easy to spot as the wood doesn't have the patina
of age you would expect. Some fakes are made from old wood and these
can be trickier to identify. Beware of any piece being sold as 18th
century or earlier if it has circular saw marks. These mean the wood
was cut after c.1800 when circular saws were first used.