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Dating antique furniture nails
Any technique or machine that was once used could still be used, and often is used, for example, by many readers of this magazine who build reproduction furniture.
So, for example, hand-cut dovetails alone can’t be used to date furniture before the machine age.
Also, clearly visible scribe marks and saw or chisel overcuts frequently remain on the wood.
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. 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. Are all the parts original, or have there been replacements and repairs? Since wood is an organic material, it shrinks across the grain with age.
Scalloped dovetails can be dated to the 1890s and were only used for a short time. 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. 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.
Machine cut dovetails were made from the middle of the 1800s onward. Three-ply plywood as we know it today was made in 1905. 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.
Because this construction is visible on the surface (unlike mortise-and-tenon and dowel joints, for example), it’s usually easy and quick to determine the rough age of furniture, and its authenticity as a true antique, using drawers.
Simply pull a drawer out a few inches, glance at the joinery on the side and feel the drawer bottom underneath – essentially a single motion.In addition, the wood used for the drawer sides and bottoms helps determine whether the furniture is American or European.How a drawer is constructed and the woods used is revealing, but there are two important caveats. Seldom does one clue provide confirmation of anything.Probably the easiest to recognize are the curved marks left by the circular saw, circa 1840. 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.Hand-cut dovetails are the oldest and are usually easy to identify.The size of the pins and tails is typically uneven, with the pins commonly narrower than the tails.On the other hand, machine-cut dovetails definitely establish that the furniture is no older than about 1895, when the dovetail-cutting machine was invented.Joinery Three clearly distinct drawer joints have been used on quality furniture: hand-cut dovetails, pin-and-scallop joints and machine-cut dovetails.By Bob Flexner Pages 54-56 A while back, my wife and I were visiting friends who wanted to show us their collection of antique furniture.At one point we went into their bedroom and I headed directly for a very old-looking chest-of-drawers.