Buying and Restoring Antique Furniture

Some antique collectors are thrilled by the idea of unearthing pieces of antiques hidden away in plain view. If you want to buy antique furniture and are not the kind of person who can afford to bid at Sothebys or other upscale auction houses, your best option is to look for antiques that you can buy at bargain prices, or even for free.

This type of furniture can be found in your attic, at garage sales, pawn shops, junkyards, and antique stores. With a little effort, you can sometimes stumble upon precious items that you can buy at cheap prices and restore to their original glory. However, you need to have some basic knowledge about antique furniture in order to spot the right kind of furniture.

How Old Should the Furniture be to Qualify as Antique?

Speaking of antique furniture, one man’s junk can be another man’s treasure. But, not every piece of furniture that looks old and dated is worth buying. The furniture that you want has to have the following qualities:

  • It should really be an antique, and not merely look like one or be a replica
  • It should be solid, meaning by that it can be restored with a little effort and put to the use that it was manufactured for
  • It should go with your taste and the setting of your interiors

The word “antique” can have many different connotations and meanings depending upon the situation and culture. Among collectors, antique generally means an item dating back by 150 years or more. However, for the average buyer and seller, any item that is 50 years or older usually qualifies as an antique. When looking for antiques at garage sales, you’ll rarely come across furniture older than 100 years. In fact, you’ll be lucky to get anything older than 50 years in a good shape. At antique stores, you can find items from the 1800s, but the prices tend to be steep, usually in 5 figures.

If you like a piece of furniture when you see it for the first time, it’s probably right for you. However, you need to make sure is that it is actually an antique, and is not too dilapidated to repair and restore cost effectively.

How to Tell if the Furniture You are Buying is Really Antique?

Whether you are buying antique furniture at a garage sale or an antique store, it is important that you know what differentiates antique furniture from furniture that is built to look antique. At times, a seller may like to overstate the age of the piece, and most often, it may not be possible to determine if the item is really 60 years old, or half that age. However, if you are buying really old furniture that was made before 1860, there are ways to determine whether the furniture really belongs to that age.

  • To begin with, you should examine the non-visible surfaces of the item—the bottoms of drawers, the underside of a table, the inner surfaces of an almirah, etc. if you find that the surfaces are finely finished, the item probably belongs to a time after 1860. On older pieces, you’ll find uneven finishing, scratch marks, and signs of manual leveling done with a plane or a spokeshave. If you find that the inner surfaces are finished to perfection with no nicks or cuts, this is most definitely not an antique from Louis XV era or before.
  • The next clue can be found in the joints. Unevenly cut dovetail joints indicate the piece is from before 1860, because the joints have been cut manually.
  • Circular or arc-shaped sawing was invented after 1860. Furniture older than that would have only straight-cut wood.
  • Exact symmetry is not to be found on furniture that was manufactured before 1860. Examine the drawer handles, the legs, and the veneer closely. If you see that their shapes are identical, suspect machine cutting.
  • Make sure that the wood has not been stained to look like a more precious wood. For instance, ordinary wood can be made to look like oak or rosewood. You can find out by observing the underside and joints. If the color at the bottom is pale, it means that the wood has been stained to look expensive.
  • Look for natural patina at the hinges, locks, and other metallic fixtures. The metals should have darkened naturally. The nails and screws should not be looking new. You’ll not find many nails on the older, classic antiques.
  • Books have been written about veneers, shapes, and types of wood that have been in use through the ages. It will help if you build up your knowledge about these areas before you go shopping for antique furniture.

How to Tell If a Piece of Antique Furniture is Worth Buying?

After you have estimated the approximate age of the piece of furniture that you discovered in your grandma’s attic, a garage sale, or an antique store, the next thing is to ascertain its quality. Is it worth saving? Old furniture is usually built tough, but it has also been used extensively. You should check whether it’s sturdy. Does it wobble? Is it broken or has parts missing?

  • Dry rot and insect damage are the first things you should check for. Termite damage and dry rot consume the wood from inside, leaving the surface intact until it’s too late. You can find out knocking at different surfaces or poking hard at them with a blunt knife (although an antique dealer may not allow you to do the latter). Observe for signs of powdered wood and insect marks. Remember, that dry rot cannot be repaired, but insect damage can be stopped if it’s not bad, and the piece can be saved.
  • If the piece of furniture you are looking to buy and/or restore has a major component missing, such as a leg or an armrest, getting a custom part made might cost you more than the price of the furniture. Such jobs require manual work, which is hard to find and expensive.
  • For veneered items, make sure that no part of the veneer is missing, as it might not be possible to find a replacement without spending a considerable amount of money.
  • Dilapidated upholstery can be replaced, but the cost is likely to be steep.

Buying antique furniture is sometimes worth the effort. If you are lucky, you may be able to buy a piece worth thousands of dollars for a few hundred. At other times, people are sold antiques at much higher prices than their actual value. If you have a passion for antique furniture, or are looking to buy a few odd pieces to adorn different parts of your home, you should have adequate knowledge to assess what you are buying. A little bit of research will help a lot.

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