Wooden It Be Lovely:
Tips on Wood and Identifying Quality Antique Furniture

By Steve Staples
 
Owner and Master Wood Craftsman
Staples Cabinet Makers

Whether you’re shopping for antique furniture to suit your home décor, because you collect antiques or as an investment, it helps to know what to look for in a piece to determine its quality and value. These tips will help you understand a little better what the pros look at when they judge a piece of antique furniture.

1. LUMBER AND HARDWARE - How to Tell the Age of Wood

The ability to discern the age of a piece of wood can help determine the age and value of a piece of furniture for one’s home.  Following are some elements to look for that will help you better judge the age of a piece of wood.

Saw Marks or Kerf Marks

Pit Saw
The marks left by this saw were irregular, uneven cuts made from strokes of the large saw used by two men. One man stood in a pit and the other man stood on top of the log above the pit sawing the log between them. The men changing hand and body positions caused the irregular cuts.

Gash Saw
This saw, which dates back to the Pilgrim days – mid-1600’s, was water powered with multiple up and down multiple, leaving marks that are regular and parallel.  It was large, cumbersome and often far away from the house lot, therefore it was easier to use the pit saw rather than haul the logs to the mill and then haul the sawn lumber home.

Circular Saw
This saw, invented by a Shaker woman named Sister Tabitha Babbit in 1813, but was not in general use until 1840 when steam engines came along.  The marks were circular, so it is a pretty sure bet that if you see circular saw marks, you know the board was sawn some time after 1860.

Nails

Hand Forged Nails before 1800
Were tapered on four sides and pointed.  The head of the nail was pined with 4 to 5 hammer blows into a flower petal shape, hence the name “rose head nail”.

1791 Cut Nails
Were sheared or cut from thin plates of metal.  Twenty-five cut nails could be made in the same amount of time as one hand forged nail.

1900 Nails
Were made of wire like they are today.

Wood Screws

Wood Screws 1720
This was the earliest that wood screws were used.  They were rarely greater than ½” long and had hand-cut threads and an off-centered slot cut on the face.  The end of the screw was flat.  Due to the shortness of these screws, they usually only appear as hinge screws on drop leaf tables.  These handmade screws are individual in the pitch and size of the threads.  If they ever must be removed, be sure to replace them back into the hole whence they came, each having their own unique screw hole.

Wood Screws 1860
Screws go from square end to pointed with a mechanically cut slot in the center.

 

2.  OVERALL QUALITY OF THE WOOD - How to Determine the Quality When Buying a Piece of Old “Antique” Furniture

Not all reclaimed wood is the same.  One should be very familiar with the varying factors that deal with the woods quality and worth.

Sight the Wood
When considering buying an old door or old board, step back and sight the piece – “roll your eye down the board” - meaning look down the edge to check if it is twisted or cupped.  If it is, do not buy this piece.

 

Quality
Look for dry-rot.
Dry rot is wood that is soft and punky from getting wet and drying too many times.  Insects are an issue; quite often Powder Post Beetles leave piles of sawdust called frass.  They can be exterminated by putting the piece in an oven until the wood reaches a core temperature of 135 degrees for 30 minutes or the boards can be chemically treated.

Room to Move
Wood must be allowed to move so check to make sure the panels of furniture can still move and tops are secured in a way that they can expand and contract with the seasons or they will crack. Very often, during deconstruction, mishandling a board can cause it to split so much that it doesn’t warrant gluing. 

Clean It to See Tones
The first thing one should do after buying reclaimed wood is to wash and disinfect it.  While the wood is wet, one can see whether it will have light or dark tones.  A good way to get a final idea of the natural tones is to coat the piece with a diluted coat of shellac, known as a spit coat.

Learn about Patinas
 As wood ages, it will turn various shades of brown to black depending on how much the wood was exposed to air and light.  Some of my most beautiful tables have been where the back (bottom) side of the floor boards was once the ceiling of the room below where the air was complemented with the smoke from the fireplace.  The color is rich and dark and runs deeply into the wood.  In this case, it’s bottoms up for these boards.  The painted surface on the floor above is scrapped and used as the underside of the table top. 
KNOWING YOUR WOODS

Specific woods were used for their strength and durability.  Below is a listing of common types of wood used in furniture making, their characteristics, and typical uses:

Wood

Description

Maple

Commonly used in furniture making because of its hardness, but not often found in old buildings except perhaps for flooring in mill buildings and stair treads in early homes

Poplar

A medium hardwood that is often found in furniture and sometimes used as wainscoting in homes.  Very often poplar wood will have a natural dark green color.

Cherry

A hardwood that was revered as a furniture wood and was too expensive for use in buildings. 

White pine

A soft wood and very prolific in New England, therefore, it was widely used. 

Longleaf Yellow Pine

Also known as heart pine, is a very dense, hard pine often used for factory beams.  These beams are now re-sawn for furniture and flooring.

American Sweet Chestnut

A strong, beautiful wood that grew to huge proportions in the eastern forests.  It was used to build much of colonial America and can be found today in old barns that were framed in chestnut.  Unfortunately, in 1904, a Japanese freighter brought in a blight that wiped out every chestnut tree within a few years.  After the trees died, they were inhabited by wood borers leaving holes, hence the name “wormy chestnut”.  Trees sawn into lumber after the blight will have the worm holes cut on a cross section which is a giveaway that the trees were dead when cut.  This is another clue to establish the age of a building or furniture.   American Sweet Chestnut is considered an extinct wood.

 


UNDERSTANDING HOW WOOD IS MEASURED

There are different way people selling wood measure it. A buyer needs to have a complete understanding of these measuring terms so that they know exactly how much wood they’re actually buying:

Measurement

Description

Board Foot

The method used when measuring lumber by taking the width in inches x thickness in inches x length in inches divided by 144.

Linear Foot

Often used when selling molding or other machined millwork.  The wood has a dollar value per foot no matter what the width or thickness.

Square Foot

Used when the thickness of the wood is irrelevant.

 

 

3.  KEY FEATURES OF RECLAIMED WOOD - Knowing Features of Varying Types of Reclaimed Wood

There are many variations within a species of reclaimed wood and each one carries a different price tag. It would be a difficult task indeed to put a dollar value on reclaimed material.  Below is a scaled value the different material from 1 to 10, 1 being the least desirable and 10 being the most desirable.  The dollar value of reclaimed wood, like any other product, depends on supply and demand in the marketplace:

Wood

Rating

Description

Wide Pine

10

Pine that runs in the 20” wide range.

Well-Walked Pine

10

Smooth, worn boards from foot traffic leaving the hard knots slightly raised because they are not as easily worn.

Grainery Pine

8

Pine that comes from grain old bins worn smooth by the constant rubbing of the grain.  The wood also has a talc-y feel from the grain.

Unpainted Pine

8

Floors that have been spared painting for 250 years.

Dutch Pine

8

Comes from the Pennsylvania Dutch area. Dutch Pine flooring is usually a strong 1/14” thick.

Attic Pine

8

Most often not nailed down therefore there are no nail holes in the boards.

Hemlock

7

Used as flooring and thick barn floors.  Hemlock has a nice patina.

Painted Pine

5

Floors that have been painted once to several times.

Wall Board Pine

3

Nailed to the beams making the walls of a room.  Often time wooden laths were nailed on the wallboards and plaster was added leaving stripes on the board as the plaster would bleach the wood.

Nailed-Over Pine

2

Another floor or two would be nailed over the original floor leaving lots of nail holes.

Fir

2

Beams and later bead board was usually made from fir.

Sub-Flooring Pine

1

Thin boards that were put down before the main floor.  Sub-flooring pine is too thin for tabletops but can be used for backs of cupboards.

Spruce

1

Often used as beams or thick barn flooring.  Spruce does not patina well and after planning is very white.

Roofers Pine

1

Full of nails from shingles.