If you are trying to determine the age of a piece of American antique furniture, it will require investigative work. Look closely at the the different elements that make the piece of furniture. Examine the level of work that went into the furniture from the joinery, finishing, knobs, and more. Study the materials used from the wood, fabric, and screws. If you take all these factors into consideration, you may be able to figure out on your own if have an antique or a machine-made reproduction.
Look Past the Style of a Piece
When you are trying to determine the age of piece you cannot just look at furniture style. Popular styles have been prolifically reproduced over the years and some of these classic styles are still being made today.
The overall style—such as Chippendale, William and Mary, Queen Anne, or rococo revival—can serve as a potential clue, although, not a definitive one. Once you determine a particular style, look for the signs of aging that would verify if you have an antique or not.
Examine Bottoms, Insides, and Backs
Take a look at the joinery (the spots in furniture where the pieces come together). Look at the bottom or back of a piece or inside its doors and drawers. This can provide important clues about whether a piece of old furniture was machine cut or crafted by hand.
Most handmade pieces will have some irregularities on the surface like minor nicks that were made by a hand plane being used to smooth out the wood. These nicks are sometimes even more evident on the back than on the finished, front surface. If the work looks too even or perfect, it was likely machine-made or machine-cut. Most machine-made pieces date to after the Industrial Revolution (after 1860).
Check for Perfectly Matching Elements
Small matching elements on furniture, such as wooden drawer knobs, chair spindles, or feet on a variety of objects, may have slight differences in the shape. This can mean that they were handcrafted prior to 1860.
Machine-made furniture will have components that match more perfectly than those made by hand. It’s almost impossible to make the same exact furniture element over and over identically without the use of machinery.
Try to Figure Out What Tools Were Used
When hand planes were used to smooth woods, they usually left some sort of uneven surface. This is especially evident on the back or underside of pieces made prior to the mid-1800s. Hand chisels and wood-shaping tools operated with elbow grease left cuts and nicks in the wood.
When circular saws were used (this wasn’t prevalent until the mid-19th century), you can usually see a circular pattern that was left behind as evidence. In comparison, manually operated hand saws left a straighter pattern.
A handcrafted furniture piece does not set it in time as an antique. Furniture is still being crafted by hand today. However, machine-made evidence does give you a better picture of when the piece of furniture could not be from.
Look at the Wood and Upholstery Fabric
It can be difficult distinguishing the type of wood or finish used on a furniture piece, but these are important clues. Certain types of woods were favored during different furniture periods.
For example, oak was primarily used in furniture made prior to 1700. After 1700, mahogany and walnut were very popular. Moving into the 1800s, maple and cherry showed up in fine furniture manufacture quite often. Many Victorian furniture manufacturers used mahogany and rosewood through the late 1800s. Then, around 1900, oak became popular again.
The type of wood used is not an exact indicator of age, but when you tie in the other factors like style and construction technique, you start to get a better idea of the date of the piece.
Original upholstery materials like silk, wool, or cotton were spun and woven into a variety of damasks, satins, and brocades with many different patterns. A wide variety of materials and fabric designs were favored for upholstery during different periods. "American Furniture: Tables, Chairs, Sofas, and Beds" by Marvin D. Schwartz is an upholstery guide that can help you decipher the styles that align with furniture periods.
Investigate the Screws and Other Hardware
Closely review the screws. Screws were not made completely by machine until 1848. So if you find a furniture item using screws that have completely rounded shafts, pointed ends, and perfectly finished heads with matching cuts (much like a screw you would purchase today), the piece likely dates to the mid-19th century or later.
Screws made from about 1812 through the mid-1800s were partially machine-made giving the threading a more even appearance. But the heads were still finished with hacksaws to add the groove to fit a screwdriver, so no two are exactly alike.
The first screws were crafted during the 1700s by blacksmiths using square nail stock that was heated and pounded until it was somewhat round. The tips were blunt and each one was unique. If you find these hand-finished screws in furniture, investigate other aspects of the pieces to see if they appear to match the screws in age. One similarly-dated element is brass hardware.
Early 18th-century hardware was cast from molten brass using molds made of sand. This hardware often has inclusions or marks left behind by grains of sand or odd colors from impurities. The backs of the hardware were often left with these pockmarks, while the outward-facing surfaces were polished. Early 19th-century brass also has a rough texture, finish, and threading.
From the 1830s up until the Eastlake period during the 1880s, brass hardware fell out of favor in furniture manufacture and was sparsely used. If you have a piece with brass, it's most likely pre-1830s or a revival piece from the late 1800s on.