What to Look for When Buying Old Furniture
Learn how to evaluate the age and quality of your attic treasure or flea-market find.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.