When considering a furniture purchase, it is important to select pieces that resonate with your own particular tastes. Furniture design has evolved over the ages, accommodating the shifting changes and preferences of the population. Although these items may have changed over the centuries, the most classic pieces are still antiques, that have continued to maintain their timeless aesthetic for generations.
With any antique furniture purchase, it pays to be knowledgeable about what makes these pieces unique, and how to determine their quality. You can learn a great deal about furniture by looking past their exterior and exploring the back, underside or inside of drawers.
We have drawn on our own experience, specifically insights from our expert cabinetmaker, finisher and restorer from our United Kingdom office, Rob Skinner, to create this guide to understanding the clues furniture holds about their history and craftsmanship. Whether you're an interior designer or an antique enthusiast, our wide selection of antique furniture and decor offers a little something for everyone. Read on to learn what to look for when purchasing antique furniture.
As you will learn, a furnishing with drawers can contain a wealth of knowledge about a piece of furniture. If a piece you are looking at has drawers, your first step should be to pull them out and inspect their sides and interiors. “The ideal drawer interior is unstained, dry, and smooth,” says Skinner. More often than not, drawer interiors are made of quality materials such as oak.
You will sometimes come across a small split in the wood of the drawer base on antique furniture. Skinner assures us that this is completely normal and not a construction flaw; it is only a sign of the wood's age. Wood expands and contracts over time depending on temperature and weather changes, so splitting sometimes occurs. On some drawers, like in the example below, you might see where a minor repair has been done by covering the split with a thin strip of linen.
Drawers also hold clues about if the piece is handmade or factory-made and can indicate the quality of construction. One of the most telling drawer features is the presence of dovetails. A dovetail is a joint in woodworking formed by one or more tapered “pins” cut into the wood and interlocked with corresponding notches. Marked by their resistance to being pulled apart, dovetails are an indicator of fine craftsmanship and any handmade piece should have them. When they aren't present, that means it has been constructed using nails and glue, likely in a factory.
“They really are a keen feature,” Skinner says, “and the narrower and more uniform the joints, the finer and sturdier the construction.” You can see a textbook example of dovetails in this piece by master cabinetmaker, Thomas Chippendale. Notice how small the joints are and how fine of a point they come to. Also notice the uniformity of the joints from drawer to drawer.
Furniture styles change over time, so people will often change the hardware on their pieces to fit their current tastes. Of course, this means that antique furniture can have hardware not original to the piece, but there are signs to look for that point towards this. On the inside of the drawer where the hardware has been screwed in, look for any extra holes. If you find any, that likely means that a drawer pull of a different size or style was their previously, meaning the piece is not all-original. Our Chippendale chest on chest only has holes filled with the current screws, indicating the original pulls have not been changed out.
“Fabric deteriorates over time,” Skinner points out, “so it is not at all uncommon for antique upholstered furniture like chairs and couches to not have their original fabric.” Most antique pieces would have used “hessian” fabric - a kind of woven fabric like burlap - as a backing for upholstery and is rarely used for this purpose now. So when look at the underside of an upholstered piece and hessian is not present, it has almost certainly been reupholstered. M.S. Rau often lovingly restores antique upholstered items such as these rare Louis XV armchairs by Jean-René Nadal l'Ainé from 1760. Without new fabric, they would have remained worn and unusable, therefore, newer fabrics are extremely common with antique furniture pieces.
Some notable furniture makers and manufacturers were in the habit of signing or stamping their creations with their moniker. After we hit the 20th century, paper labels displaying the manufacturer become common, but earlier pieces could have more distinct markers. For example, leading Parisian cabinetmaker of the 19th century, Francois Linke, would include his signature stamp on a bronze detail of his furniture pieces.
We hope we have demystified the process of analyzing antique furnishings and that you are prepped with new tools on your search for your ideal piece. Click here to browse the rare antiques M.S. Rau has to offer.