If you are trying to determine the age of an antique American piece of furniture, it will take some investigative work. Look carefully at the various components that make up the furniture. Examine the level of work that went into the furniture from the joinery, to the finishing, to the knobs and more. Study the materials used from wood, fabric and screws. If you take all these factors into consideration, you may be able to determine for yourself whether you have an antique or mechanical reproduction.
Look beyond the style of a piece
When trying to determine the age of the piece, you can’t just look at the style of the furniture. Popular styles have been reproduced prolifically over the years and some of these classic styles are still made today.
The general style – such as Chippendale, William and Mary, Queen Anne, or the Rococo revival – can serve as a potential clue, but not a definitive one. Once you have determined a particular style, look for signs of age that would verify whether or not you have an antique.
Examine the bottom, interior and back
Take a look at the joinery (the places in the furniture where the pieces meet). Look at the bottom or back of a piece or inside its doors and drawers. This can provide important clues as to whether an old piece of furniture was cut by machine or made by hand.
Most handmade pieces will have irregularities on the surface such as minor nicks that have been made by a hand plane used to smooth the wood. These nicks are sometimes even more obvious on the back than on the finished front surface. If the work looks too uniform or perfect, it has probably been machine made or machine cut. Most machine-made pieces date from after the industrial revolution (after 1860).
Check for perfectly matched elements
Small matching items on furniture, such as wooden drawer knobs, chair pins or legs on a variety of objects, may have slight differences in shape. This may mean that they were made by hand before 1860.
Machine-made furniture will have components that match more perfectly than hand-made furniture. It is almost impossible to make the same exact piece of furniture over and over again in the same way without the use of machinery.
Try to understand what tools were used
When hand planes were used to smooth the wood, they usually left some sort of uneven surface. This is particularly evident on the back or underside of pieces made before the mid 1800s. Hand chisels and woodworking tools that were operated with elbow grease left cuts and nicks in the wood.
Where circular saws were used (this was not common until the mid-19th century), you can usually see a circular pattern that has been left as evidence. In comparison, hand saws with manual operation left a straighter pattern.
Handcrafted furniture does not place it in time as an antique. Furniture is still made by hand today. However, machine-made evidence gives you a better idea of when the furniture may not have come from.
Look at the wood and upholstery
It can be difficult to distinguish the type of wood or finish used on a piece of furniture, but these are important clues. Certain types of wood were favoured in different furniture periods.
For example, oak was mainly used in furniture made before 1700. After 1700, mahogany and walnut were very popular. In the early 1800s, maple and cherry appeared quite often in fine furniture. Many Victorian furniture makers used mahogany and rosewood until the late 1800s. Then, around 1900, oak became popular again.
The type of wood used is not an accurate indicator of age, but when you link other factors such as style and construction technique, you begin to get a better idea of the date of the piece.
Original upholstery materials such as silk, wool or cotton were spun and woven into a variety of damasks, satins and brocades with many different patterns. A wide variety of materials and fabric patterns were favoured for upholstery in different periods. Marvin D. Schwartz’s “American Furniture: Tables, Chairs, Sofas, and Beds” is a guide to upholstery that can help you decipher the styles that match the furniture periods.