First, the knowledge. Here’s a curriculum made to your specifications: It’s self-paced and self-graded. There’s no homework and there are no tests. Read and study the periods thoroughly. Visit museums to see the very best examples. Go to auctions and examine the items up for bid. Visit antique shops. And everywhere, ask a lot of questions. Do all this before buying anything.
Second, the mystery, each piece of furniture will reveal it's history if you can "read" the clues. Imagine that, while shopping , you find a chest described as “English, William and Mary, ( Ca. 1700 )“ with beautiful walnut veneer. You’ve already learned that, during that period, walnut was the predominant wood, and beautifully grained veneers were the main decorative element. So next, open the drawers and check for several clues:
- How thick is the veneer? Hand cut (or saw-cut) veneers were about 1/8" thick. After the industrial revolution (c. 1830), veneers were machine cut (knife-cut) and 1/16" thick.
- Which way do the boards on the drawer bottoms run? Before 1730 they ran front to back, but when mahogany came into use, drawer construction changed, and boards ran side to side.
- Are drawer handles and feet original? These are the parts most commonly replaced (handles because of fashion trends and wear, and feet because they rot sitting on cold, damp floors). How many sets of handles has this chest had during it's life? Check the holes on the drawers inside front. There should be evidence of matching holes on the outside. If there are no corresponding holes, be suspicious that this piece has been re-veneered, perhaps over a carcass from the period. Victorians often replaced pulls or brasses with a single knob, leaving holes to be filled. Typically, William and Mary drawers have one or two brad- type drop- pulls, each attached through a single hole with the brads bent back against the drawer front. The use of bail pulls attached with nut and bolts was a Georgian invention.
- Are there signs of natural aging on the secondary woods (those to which veneers are applied and the ones used for the drawer insides)? Because of the money, time and attention invested in the furniture‘s outsides, the insides could be of cheaper, more readily available woods and left unfinished. In 18th century England, the secondary woods were usually oak and, sometimes pine. The natural aging of woods is one of the most difficult qualities to imitate. Usually, dark, smudgy stains are used to camouflage a new, restored or re-made drawer interior. That is why re-veneering a period carcass with a naturally aged interior is so convincing.
- How thick are the drawer sides? Before the Industrial Revolution, drawer sides could be as thick as 1/2", afterwards, machinery enabled furniture makers to reduce the thickness by half.
- Check the dovetail construction. The English (and French) cabinetmakers were the best in Europe, and they took pride in the tightness and uniformity of their dovetails. In a chest on chest pull the drawers on the top and bottom. The dovetails on both sections should match.
Finally comes the passion. It balances the technical knowledge, because furniture should "speak" to the owner. Antiques bought as investments are more beautiful and tangible than stocks and bonds and they nourish the soul daily. Even heavily restored or less detailed pieces have a warmth, beauty, and patina that new, highly lacquered furniture lacks.
*Published in NFocus magazine July 1998