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Furniture Rehab and Repair

What to Look for When Buying Old Furniture (page 1 of 2)

Learn how to evaluate the age and quality of your attic treasure or flea-market find.

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Antique Furniture

Courtesy of Fox Chapel Publishing

If you suspect your piece is pre-1850, like these early 1800s antiques, consult an expert — do not refinish.

If you have a worn old dresser or rickety heirloom chair on your hands, you may be thinking of refinishing it yourself. Older mass-produced pieces whose origins fall somewhere between 1850 and 1960 are ideal candidates for refinishing. With a few exceptions, they don’t have high value as antiques but are solidly made and can last for many years.

However, if you have questions about how old your piece is, consult an expert first, says Teri Masaschi, author of Foolproof Wood Finishing: For Those Who Love to Build & Hate to Finish. “The basic rule of thumb is, if the piece was made before 1850, you want to do some homework on whether it should be conserved rather than restored—meaning to preserve and stabilize the piece as it is now,” she says. “If it’s been in the family a while, it’s worth finding out before you do some damage.”

To muddy the waters a bit, there are some more recent pieces by prominent makers—for example, from the Art Deco and Arts and Crafts periods (shown in the photo below) — that command high prices and shouldn’t be touched. If you suspect there’s something unusual or distinctively well-made about your piece, go with your gut, Masaschi says, and ask someone who knows.

Gustav Stickley table

Here are some general guidelines to assessing the age and quality of your piece. But keep in mind that there are lots of exceptions to these rules, so err on the side of caution.

Look for dovetail joints

This construction detail is your first key to the piece’s age and quality of craftsmanship. Dovetail joints are strong and require skill to produce, so they’re generally a sign of a well-made piece. Hand-cut dovetails can date an older American piece to before 1890, although hobbyists and specialty makers still use them. “There’s no hard and fast rule, but hand dovetailing was really no longer done in factories after that date,” Masaschi says. Hand dovetails are slightly irregular and the pins are thin and tapered. Wider, uniform machine-cut dovetails were common in factory-made pieces from 1890 until the modern era.

If a piece has no dovetails, it can still be a candidate for refinishing if it’s sturdy and well-designed, but it’s not likely to be an old piece with antique value.

Hand dovetails (pictured below, top piece) are slightly irregular and the pins are thin and tapered. Wider, uniform machine-cut dovetails (pictured below, bottom piece) were common in factory-made pieces from 1890 until the modern era.

Courtesy of Fox Chapel Publishing

Look for solid wood or plywood backing

Look at the backside of your piece, including the insides and backs of drawers if applicable. Solid wood backing indicates a piece is likely pre-1880s; plywood came into vogue around the turn of the 20th century. Particleboard means you probably have something made in the 1960s or later—the era of “cutting corners,” as Masaschi says.

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