Understanding the Materials and the Construction of Fine Furniture

When a piece of furniture is made, definite features influence the original cost. The quality of construction materials, crafting techniques, and the number of decorated surfaces contribute to its original value, and have considerable influence on the current market price, as well.

Many furniture pieces are made of more than one type of lumber: the primary wood is usually selected for its beauty and decorative features, and the secondary lumber is chosen generally for its stability, ease of workability, and suitability to structural demands. Lower orders of furniture tend to use lower grades of lumber in the construction of the less-visible surfaces of the object. For example, the sides of a dresser may be a less expensive painted or stained softwood surrogate; whereas valuable Mahogany may be used for the front. For higher end pieces, the highly figural and rare lumber and veneers were combined with artistic prowess to create beautiful and highly sought-after furniture pieces.

Fine veneers are used to expose grain that would not be structurally suitable unless supported on a structurally sound secondary frame or core. These highly polished linings are seen on some of the most prized and sought-after furniture and decorative objects. Veneers also make it possible to mirror match or “book match” exotic patterns over large surfaces that would not be possible with a thicker solid material. Veneered furniture demonstrates sophistication and an advance in technology and building practice.

Specific construction techniques, including the types of joints, fasteners and methods of fabrication can provide clues to age. Hand-cut dovetails, for example, usually indicate a piece was made before the late 19th century, as machine-made joints did not come into common use until that time. This idea refers generally to production pieces; today’s traditional cabinetmakers still use time-honored joinery methods. Uneven saw marks on board backs or drawer bottoms may show hand-cut lumber; whereas uniform or parallel saw marks can indicate modern power feed sawing machines. These construction markers, when not faked, are often the most reliable clues to detect production pieces made prior to the industrial revolution.

As wooden furniture ages, the moving parts wear, and the surfaces that are exposed to the environment change their shape and color. Restoration of the wear surfaces does not detract from the value significantly, but compromising the time induced color (or “patina”) can have a negative influence on the value of an antique. A liquid stain or pigment will often be applied to an original piece of furniture to enhance this oxidation color, but this practice does not help the value. On raw wood, such as a drawer bottom or on the back of a cabinet, lightly dragging the back of a fingernail will easily dislodge the oxidation layer to reveal the un-oxidized shade of the lumber. It will not be so easy to dislodge an applied stain.

Stamps or labels on a piece of furniture can give clues as to the maker or studio of origin, but these labels alone are not entirely reliable, unless a collector is knowledgeable about the appearance and characteristics of an authentic mark.

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