How To Inspect The Joints And Finish Of Antique Furniture

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How To Inspect The Joints And Finish Of Antique Furniture

8 October 2015
 Categories: , Articles


If you want a high-quality antique piece of furniture, then your best option is to consider the types of items that are sold by an antique dealer. The dealer will likely have items from a wide variety of different eras, and you can look at styles when making your choice. However, if you want to make an investment in an antique, then you will want to make sure that the item will increase in value over time. The most valuable antiques are the ones that are the oldest, rarest, and most aesthetically pleasing. If you want to invest in an older type of piece that is over 100 years old, then keep reading to learn about how the joints and veneers can give you clues to the age of the piece.

Joint Inspection

Miter Joints

One of the easiest ways to find out if a table is old is to look at the joints that keep the piece together. When furniture was first constructed before the early 1600s, open box pieces were seen with simple constructions. These pieces were formed with the use of miters, where two edge pieces of wood are cut at 45 degree angles and secured to create a 90 degree angle. If a closed trunk or other storage space was created, metal hinges were utilized. Tables were mostly flat plank constructions as well, with simple square legs.

The presence of miter joints along with oak woods, simple box constructions, hinges, and the lack of drawers are all signs that a furniture piece may be extremely old and date back to the 1500s or early 1600s. However, these Medieval, Renaissance, and Elizabethan pieces are more likely to sit in a museum or a serious collector's home than they are to be found in an antique shop.

Dovetail Joints

While hand formed miter joints and simple constructions can indicate an extremely old piece of furniture, you are much more likely to see antique pieces with joints called dovetail joints. Dovetail joints feature angled pins that fit into open tails along the corners of drawers, legs, and other joined areas. These kinds of joints were first used by the Egyptians, but they were not utilized to form European furniture until the early 1600s. These joints were used as a way to fit together pieces of intricate furniture with moving drawers.

The early dovetail joints were formed by hand with the use of chisels and other tools. This means that many of the dovetails that you will see joining furniture before the early to late 1800s will appear with tool marks and uneven shapes. By 1860, dovetail joints were created using machinery as furniture items started to be mass produced instead of hand-formed by expert furniture makers. While even dovetails will indicate a piece of furniture that may be dated back to the mid 1800s, uneven joints are a good sign of a piece that may be much older than this.

Finish Considerations

While the different joints of an antique piece of furniture can provide you with a general gauge of the age of the piece, it can sometimes be difficult to tell if dovetail joints are hand-created or machined. If this is the case for a piece of furniture you are looking at, then look at the finish across the piece. Finishes are a good indication of age, especially if you want to make sure the furniture item is dated before the mid to late 1800s. This was when varnishes and lacquers were introduced and utilized to finish furniture items. Before this, wax and shellac finishes were added to antique furniture. 

Wax finishes are sometimes called transparent finishes, because they polish the wood to a shine without changing the color of it. These types of finishes are seen when an antique appears natural with a high-gloss shine. Shellac, on the other hand, will make that antique wood appear stained with a yellow, orange, brown, or reddish tone. This shellac will likely appear rough and cracked. You will also likely see alligator cracks on the surface of the furniture. These cracks look similar to the scales of an alligator's skin, and they are one of the telltale signs of an aged shellac surface. Click for more information.