DIY Network

Furniture Rehab and Repair

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

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

More in Decorating

Look for any inscriptions or manufacturer’s stamps

If you’re lucky, a piece will have a marking on it indicating its origin. Early pieces that were handcrafted will sometimes bear an inscription from an individual furniture maker, a clue to its value that should be examined by a professional appraiser. “If they’re really old, it could be just a pencil signature on the inside of a drawer,” Masaschi says. “But by the time you hit the turn of the 20th century, makers were using paper labels (shown below), which then progressed into brass plaques tacked onto the insides of drawers or on the back of a piece. Then in the 1950s and 1960s they were using spray-on stencils.” Keep in mind that sometimes suites of furniture had only one piece marked, so if your piece got separated from its mates, you may have nothing to go by.

Stickley label

Mass-produced pieces from the turn of the 20th century on will often bear a label from the manufacturer, such as “Larkin Soap Co.” or “Cadillac Cabinet Company.” This is a nice little piece of history — but also tells you how common the piece is, which can help you determine whether you should refinish yourself. Generally, mass-produced pieces up until the 1950s and 1960s (when particleboard and cheaper, flimsier construction techniques became popular) are great candidates for refinishing.

Look for original hardware and other details

Does the piece have its original hardware? What style is it? Solid cast-brass or wooden pulls mean the piece is likely old; using a collectibles reference guide, you can identify their style and hence their age range. Common style examples are Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, Federal (shown below on a chest of drawers original to the period), Depression-era, Victorian, and Queen Anne.

Federal style dresser

According to Masaschi, a few other details can help you date a piece:

  • Marble-top dressers and what Masaschi calls “battleship” beds with giant headboards and footrests are almost exclusively from the Victorian era (late 1800s). If you feel comfortable with handling any ornate detailing on these pieces, they’re usually fine to refinish yourself.
  • Any piece on casters (wheels) is typically pre-1930s.
  • If you have a dresser with a mirror attached on a harp, your piece was made around the turn of the 20th century. If you have a set with a separate mirror that hangs on the wall above the dresser, you can date that to the 1940s or later.

Regardless of whether your piece has value as an antique, these clues to its age and history can help you research appropriate finishes and hardware before you dive into your project.

« Previous12Next »

Advertisement