One hundred years ago, the market for antiques was populated by the wealthy. People like the Rothschilds were spending large sums of money on furniture and filling their New York apartments with them.
Now antiques are more accessible. Pieces sell for 80% less than they used to. It's easier for amateur enthusiasts to bolster their antique collections. But there are things to look for to ensure authenticity.
The basics are the same whether you're looking for an extendable antique dining table or a roll top secretary. Here's a guide to help you choose a piece of antique furniture or the right authentic antique reproduction.
Joinery refers to the way the elements of furniture join together. Antique methods of joinery are very different from modern techniques and are an immediate giveaway.
Antique joints are usually dovetailed or mortised. Because antiques were made by hand, the cuts won't be perfect. Inconsistencies authenticate age.
Hand-cut dovetail joints date a piece to earlier than the 1860s. A dovetail joint uses two pieces of wood with interlocking pieces that dovetail together. They look a bit like a pair of folded hands.
Dovetail joints are difficult to pull apart and used for building everything from drawers to log cabins.
A mortise and tenon joint connects a hollowed out piece of wood, the mortise, with one that has a stub on its end, the tenon. The tenon fits into the mortise like a square peg in a square hole.
Mortise and tenon joints are strong and less susceptible to expansion and contraction.
The treatment of the joint matters almost as much as the type of joint. Joints should have evidence of glue for extra durability. Evidence of caulking is a red flag.
You also want to check under the table for tool marks. Nicks and straight cut marks are signs of hand tools which used to be the standard. Circular marks come from circular saws which weren't common until the end of the 1800s.
Check the chairs of your antique dining room set for indications of age. Go rung by rung to determine if there are irregularities. A machine-made reproduction piece will be perfectly uniform, while a handmade original will not.
The wood used to build a table can also help reveal its age.
Modern furniture is often made of less-expensive materials like birch and even particle board. Antiques used solid woods like oak, mahogany, maple, and walnut. These woods are now considered prized or select because they're much scarcer now than they were in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Furniture from the 1700s is likely to be oak. Much of early American furniture is pine, as it was readily available to pioneers.
Wood veneer and inlay was often used to add visual interest to a piece. Veneer is a thin piece of real wood that's glued to tabletops or curved edges. Furniture makers used veneer made out of rare materials like burled wood to dress up a piece without the immense expense.
Table legs and feet provide solid clues to a dining table's era and country of origin. The legs were an easy place to experiment with changing trends.
Queen Anne legs from 18th century England were curvy, with minimal decoration. They morphed into the Chippendale style as designs became more intricate, with delicate carving. Clawfoot tables are often Queen Anne or Chippendale.
Legs became straighter as the Heppelwhite and Sheraton styles gained popularity. The upright legs tapered to a decorative ball and featured vertical carved lines.
Victorian legs from the 19th century were heavy and ornate. They were usually hewn from luxurious woods like mahogany or rosewood or even cast in iron.
Some early American antique table legs borrowed from the Queen Anne style. Others, like the Pennsylvania Dutch and Shaker styles, were plainer and less decorated. In the early 19th century, upright, tapered Federal legs became popular.
Antique furniture finishes made use of available materials like wood pulp and bug resin. They are not as durable as finishes made today and will show wear and oxidization.
Older, utilitarian pieces have oil or wax treatments. Older fine furnishings have a shellac finish. Lacquer and varnish came later.
You can test furniture to determine the material used for finishing. Shellac will dissolve in denatured alcohol. Antique milk paint is impervious to almost anything but ammonia.
Antique hardware was handmade or cast in sand. It often has a rough texture, flecked with impurities from sand picked up during the casting process.
Screws were finished with hacksaws until the mid-1800s and, as such, were only flat headed and irregular.
The most accurate way to determine your antique table's time period is to find and research shop marks or signatures. Check for them in unusual places, as labels were often hidden in joints and under chair arms.
Cabinetmakers, manufacturers, and retailers may all have stamped, burned, or affixed a label to a piece of furniture. The signature could have as much information as a company name, address and wood type. Or it could have as little to go on as a couple initials.
The extendable table seems like such a modern idea, but its history dates back to at least the 17th century.
Elizabethan England and, later, 1920s America utilized the draw leaf table. Leaves at each end stayed tucked under the tabletop until needed when they were drawn out and pushed flush into place.
Drop leaf tables similarly have their extensions at each end of the table. The hinged ends drop when not in use. A gateleg or swing leg supports the weight of the leaves.
The butterfly drop leaf table offers leaf support without sacrificing leg room. Tapered wing-shaped supports swing from a solid, framed base.
Tables with loose leaves came about in the late 18th century. Brackets called table forks secured the individual ends in the middle of the table. When the table ends were pulled apart, the leaf rested in the middle, held by the table forks.
Whether you find a draw leaf table or a table with removable leaves, evaluate your antique or reproduction dining table before making an investment.
Pay attention to the joinery and check for defining marks like cuts and signatures. Even a high-quality reproduction should have this attention to detail.
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