This blog is a bit over simplified but here is how to quickly Identify an antique piece of furniture made by a cabinet maker vs. a modern piece of manufactured furniture.
This guide should be helpful, but if you are looking at a very expensive antique, then you will need to know more information and possibly consult an expert. Some items have been handmade as reproductions that are wonderful pieces of furniture but not original to the period of the antique!
At first glance, you should be able to tell if the item is of a historical style which would coincide with its age. Furniture styles could be a subject of many blogs, but for now, I will just say historical styles help you identify a piece of furniture to a particular period. Many of these styles are named after a reigning monarch of the time and location such as Louis XV of France.
You should also be able to tell something about the age of furniture by the wear that has occurred on it. Refurbished antiques or refinished furniture can look great but still show age that only time and use could give. The older and more valuable antiques would ideally retain their original finish which makes them more expensive, but most older pieces that you find will have been retouched at some point because of wear. Wear occurs in contact locations where it is touched and moved, so drawers, feet, and tops are likely places for nicks, stains, and bruises. If an item is worn out or dirty, don’t assume that it is an antique because it might just have been neglected and abused.
The construction is the primary place you can see if an item was handmade or machine made.
Pull out the drawer to where you can see the drawer construction on the side. On the side, you should be able to see dovetails which are the primary method to hold a drawer front to the drawer side.
Handmade dovetails are more intricately cut than the standard size dove tails created from a machine. Handmade dovetails also have a scribe mark at the top or widest part of the cut to measure the depth before the cut is made. This is a slight indention at the top of the dovetail created by a tool to gauge the depth of a cut by the cabinet maker. Antique drawers typically sits on parting rails inside the case and do not run on a drawer slide whether it is metal or wood.
When looking at an antique handmade chest, look for wood construction that is either solid wood or veneer. You should not find particle board, MDF, or plywood in its construction.
Nails and screws are also quick giveaways for manufactured furniture. With nails, you have handmade rose head nails, then later in the 1800’s, cabinetmakers used cut nails and in the 1900’s until today we use modern wire nails and brads. Screws on antiques will be single slotted and never be a star/phillips head or similar screw.
Antique Cut Nails
Modern Wire Nails
Cabinetmakers worked in a “workman like” manner so in most cases the *unseen* part of the piece will be unfinished and be pretty rough. For example, the back panel will be mostly large rough planks of wood on antiques or some cases be framed out. Inside the chest, you will find parting rails that hold the drawer up, the bottom panel and the underside of the top will all be unfinished. Manufactured furniture will usually use plywood, Luan, or MDF back panels, bottom panels, and metal or wood drawer glide.
Antique Back Panel
Modern Back Panel
I recommend asking questions in the determining value section of the home forum! Include photos and questions about an item, and it’s likely someone will know about whether a manufacturer built your item or not and approximately when. I also recommend the book Fake Fraud or Genuine by Myrna Kaye for those who are interested a more in-depth knowledge about antiques. In my opinion, based on my 25 years in the furniture industry, the manufactured furniture made in America between 1900 and 1990 were some of the best-made furniture ever. There are a few companies that have carried on this tradition, but most have not. The understanding of furniture making techniques, use of materials, and wood technology was truly at a peak during this American-manufacturing period.
So, whether you are hunting for a one of a kind handmade antique or one of the jewels of the manufacturing era, I wish you good hunting.