Vintage Furniture Identification Basics

A basic look into the world of identifying old furniture versus new funiture.

The term vintage is different than the term antique. To be considered an antique, the item should be at least 100 years old. Anything less than 100 years old, but say 30 years or older, could be considered vintage.

On furniture, the older the piece is, the easier it can sometimes be to determine age. For example, take your average dresser. Some indications of age are the use of real wood on the drawer boxes. Also, dovetailed joints on the drawer boxes are something important to look for. Dovetailed joints are slightly wedge shaped cuts on the connecting sides of the wood that interlock. Dovetails are very easy to distinguish from any other type of joint. Another important thing is to look for nails""extremely old furniture will not have nails""the piece would have been constructed with mortis and tenon joinery (mortis and tennon refers to a hollow in one piece of wood and a longer, narrowed end on another piece of wood. The tennon fits into the mortis, and is secured inside the joint with glue) and dowel pins. Slightly newer furniture will still feature dovetailed joints on the drawer boxes, but may have hand made nails holding the piece together. The heads of these nails are often square, or an uneven shape. Only on contemporary (and some vintage) furniture will you find drawer boxes that do not necessarily possess any type of joinery; they may simply be connected with modern nails and glue. Furniture made in the 60's, for example, may have this type of construction, and furniture made during this time period often possesses some sort of melamine like material, and plastic, as opposed to being solid hardwood.

When it comes to actual antique furniture, the piece may be ornately carved, with stylized legs with carving and solid brass or old iron hardware. An important thing to consider is the condition of the piece""is all of the hardware present, matching and in working order? Are the drawer box joints tight? Are there any discernable signs of repair? All of these things affect the value of a piece of furniture and sometimes may give you a clue as to its age.

Another factor that impacts the value and age of a wooden piece of furniture is the finish, or patina, of the wood. Many pieces are stripped and refinished or even painted (sometimes with things like house paint!) over the years. Any of these factors can affect the value of the item. Ideally, even though it may look dirty to you, the piece should retain its original finish and patina. A professional can help determine the rough age of a piece of furniture by examining the patina, hardware, construction and decorative detail of the piece.

If you want to do a little research into the maker, oftentimes if you pull out the drawers and check the back and undersides of them, there will be a maker's mark or some identification from the manufacturer. There may be papers or documents stuck in the "guts" of a piece of furniture that will provide at least some information of the age of a piece because of the date of the document. While this information by no means gives any sort of exact date, it does give you a touchstone. If the letter was written in 1887, for example, it's a pretty good guess that the piece of furniture may be at least that old, unless the other tell tale signs are missing.

The best way to arm yourself to determine what is vintage and what is not, is to do your research. Many books specialize in providing identifiers, and dealers of vintage and antique pieces are often happy to have you listen as they chatter away about these things. Reading from books to learn maker's marks and styles prevalent to particular makers will go a long way toward helping you sort the roses from the lemons, but the best teachers are the ones who are in the trenches on a daily basis. Surprisingly, most of them are more than happy to share their knowledge. Just make sure you are not planning to buy a piece from the person you are learning from.

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