This article was published in the February/March 2000 issue of AntiquePrime Magazine & Journal.
For What It's Worth ...
Q. How can you tell the age of a piece of furniture?
A. This is a big topic to tackle and it will not be possible to cover many details in this short column. I've included a brief list of references, if you want to begin studying on your own.
To determine age, consider the form and function, tool marks, construction techniques, and materials used in the furniture. Note the style. Check for evidence of age.
One thing to determine is the utility of the furniture you're trying to date. Is it a coffee table or king-size bed? They weren't around before the 20th Century. Murphy beds? They appeared in the 1870s. Windsor chairs were not around before the Queen Anne period. Game or card tables did not exist in great numbers until the end of the 17th Century. Oak joint stools, on the other hand, have been around for five hundred years.
If you can locate tool marks on a piece of exposed wood, you might have some clues to follow. Pit saws, used from roughly the 1600s to 1750, left irregular, slanted, deep rough marks. Up-and-down saws left vertical, crisp uniform marks and were used from 1700 to the 1860s. Probably the easiest to recognize are the curved marks left by the circular saw, circa 1840. Around 1860, band saws were introduced. The vertical, crisp, uniform marks left by the band saw are not very deep. Use your fingers on drawer bottoms or backboards of case furniture. If you can feel slight, parallel ridges and hollows, the piece was hand planed, probably prior to the mid-19th Century.
Construction techniques can assist you in dating furniture. A joint is where two pieces of wood come together. In the 17th Century, butt and rabbet joints were used. Hand-cut dovetails appeared late in that century and for the next 80 years or so, dovetails were wide, stubby, and crude. There were few (1-4) dovetails in each drawer. By the end of the 1700s, dovetails became thin and delicate. Mortise and tenon joints were also used in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. The use of square or oblong wooden pins that held in place by the shrinking of the wood was another joinery technique of that time. Scalloped dovetails can be dated to the 1890s and were only used for a short time. Machine cut dovetails were made from the middle of the 1800s onward.
What is the furniture made of? Don't be fooled by plywood! You might think it's a modern material, but the Egyptian Pharaohs used laminated wood in furniture and it was used in England in the 1740s. Three-ply plywood as we know it today was made in 1905. Chrome and Formica on your furniture? Mid-twentieth century. Plastic? 1960s. Look for age clues in the hardware used. If you find Phillips head screws throughout, you don't have an antique. On the other hand, hand forged nails and screws with off-center slots and uneven threads can be taken from older furniture and used in a piece made yesterday. Check for the thickness of veneers. Old veneer could not be cut thin. If it is 1/32nd of an inch thick, it is Victorian or newer, as compared to the 17th and 18th Century 1/16" to 1/8" veneers.
Learn to recognize the elements of different furniture styles. If you find a piece of furniture that seems to combine several styles, it is most probably not a period piece, but a later reproduction. Do the proportions and size appear to be correct? Are all the parts original, or have there been replacements and repairs? Date an object from its youngest feature.
Since wood is an organic material, it shrinks across the grain with age. You may not be able to see this with the naked eye, but if you measure a circular table top with the grain and then across the grain, there should be a difference if the table is an antique. On turned parts of furniture, such as chair legs, use calipers to take measurements to check for shrinkage. Antiques will show evidence of use and normal wear and tear. Wood will also show signs of oxidation and patination with prolonged exposure to air and light.
These tips will get you started, but I encourage you to read and study further. You might want to start with the references below.
Butler, Joseph. Field Guide to American Furniture, Henry Holt & Company. ISBN 0-8050-0124-7.
Jenkins, Emyl. Emyl Jenkins' Reproduction Furniture. Crown Publishers. ISBN 0-517-58527-8.
Kaye, Myrna. Fake, Fraud, or Genuine? Little Brown & Company. ISBN 0-8212-1825-5.
Weinhagen, Robert, Jr. Assume Nothing. Self-published. ISBN 0-918712-16-5.
Bivins, John. Authenticating Antique Furniture. Pilaster Productions, Charleston, NC.