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Taken from How stuff works Identifying Antique wooden Furniture Technically, an antique is a piece of furniture with special value because of its age, particularly those pieces embellished with fine artistry. The age factor is subjective: general antique stores label objects 50 years or older as antiques. Fine antique dealers consider objects 150 years and older to be antique. In the East, an antique is Queen Anne or earlier; in the West, it's any piece of furniture that came across the mountains in a wagon. A southern antique is a piece made before the Civil War. Wherever you look, it's a sure bet that you won't find a genuine antique from 1500 or 1600. What you may find is a genuine reproduction, and these can be extremely valuable. There are several ways you can spot an antique. The first giveaway is the joinery; machine-cut furniture wasn't made until about 1860. If the piece has drawers, remove a drawer and look closely where the front and back of the drawer are fastened to the sides of the drawer. If a joint was dovetailed by hand, it has only a few dovetails, and they aren't exactly even; if it has closely spaced, precisely cut dovetails, it was machine-cut. Handmade dovetails almost always indicate a piece made before 1860. ©2006 Publications International, Ltd. It's easy to spot an antique by the drawers, because joints weren't machine-cut until about 1860. If it has only a few dovetail joints, with pins narrower than the dovetails, then the joint was made by hand. Look carefully at the bottom, sides, and back of the drawer; if the wood shows nicks or cuts, it was probably cut with a plane, a spokeshave, or a drawknife. Straight saw marks also indicate an old piece. If the wood shows circular or arc-shaped marks, it was cut by a circular saw, not in use until about 1860. Exact symmetry is another sign that the piece was machine-made. On handmade furniture, rungs, slats, spindles, rockers, and other small-diameter components are not uniform. Examine these parts carefully; slight differences in size or shape are not always easy to spot. A real antique is not perfectly cut; a reproduction with the same components is, because it was cut by machine. The finish on the wood can also date the piece. Until Victorian times, shellac was the only clear surface finish; lacquer and varnish were not developed until the mid- 1800s. The finish on a piece made before 1860 is usually shellac; if the piece is very old, it may be oil, wax, or milk paint. Fine old pieces are often French-polished, a variation of the shellac finish. A lacquer or varnish finish is a sure sign of later manufacture. Testing a finish isn't always possible in a dealer's showroom, but if you can manage it, identify the finish before you buy. Test the piece in an inconspicuous spot with denatured alcohol; if finish dissolves, it's shellac. If the piece is painted, test it with ammonia; very old pieces may be finished with milk paint, which can be removed only with ammonia. If the piece of furniture is very dirty or encrusted with wax, clean it first with a mixture of denatured alcohol, white vinegar, and kerosene, in equal parts. The wood itself is the final clue. Very early furniture -- before 1700 -- is mostly oak, but from 1700 on, mahogany and walnut were widely used. In America, pine has always been used because it's easy to find and easy to work; better furniture may be made with maple, oak, walnut, cherry, or mahogany. But because the same woods have always been favored for furniture, workmanship and finish are probably a better indicator of age than the wood itself. Older Furniture Styles Most old wooden furniture you will encounter, most likely, will be either traditional English or American Colonial styles. Let's review the special characteristics of both popular types. Basic English Furniture Styles The following criteria will help you determine if your old furniture is an English-made antique. Queen Anne Early 18th century Woods used: Walnut, also, cherry, mahogany, maple and oak. Description: Graceful curves, curved (cabriole) leg, with no rungs or stretchers; minimal decoration, very simple; scallop-shell mount. Georgian Chippendale Late 18th century Woods used: Mahogany Description: Elaboration of Queen Anne; ornate carvings, either delicate or bold; many themes, including rococo, English, Chinese, Greek classic; intricate chair backs. Georgian Adam Late 18th century Woods used: Mahogany Description: Straight, slender lines; heavy Greek classic influence; fluted columns; delicate low-relief carvings, especially draped garlands. Georgian Hepplewhite Late 18th century Woods used: Mahogany; satinwood inlay/veneer Desscription: Based on Adam; straight tapered legs; shield- oval-, or heart-shaped chair backs; less decoration; delicate carvings. Georgian Sheraton Late 18th century Woods used: Mahogany Description: Similar to Hepplewhite and other Georgian styles; straighter, more upright lines; Greek classic influence; lyre-shaped chair backs; inlays and thick veneers. Regency Early 19th century Woods used: Mahogany Description: Simple, bold curves; smaller scale; more functional, more intimate; colors used. Victorian Late 19th century Woods used: Mahogany, walnut, rosewood Description: heavy, massive, substantial; dark finish; clumsy dessign; ornate carvings and decorations; marble tops used. Basic American Furniture Styles The following criteria will help you determine if your old furniture is an American- made antique. Early Colonial 17th century Woods used: Pine; birch, maple, walnut Description: Hybrid of English styles; square lines; solid construction; heavy decoration and carving. Late Colonial 18th century Woods used: Pine; mahogany Description: Imported wood; interpretations of Queen Anne and Georgian styles; formal. Windsor chair. Federal Early 19th century Woods used: Mahogany, cherry Description: Interpretations of Georgian styles; Duncan Phyfe variations of Sheraton style; some French influence; heavier versions of English styles. Boston rocker, Hitchcock chair. Pennsylvania Dutch Late 17th to mid-19th century Woods used: Maple, pine, walnut, fruitwoods Description: Solid, plain; Germanic style; colorful painted Germanic decorations. Shaker Late 18th to mid-19th century Woods used: Pine; maple Description: Severely functional; no decoration; superior craftsmanship; excellent design.
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