Each element in a piece of furniture can reveal something about its origin but a close examination of the legs is all that is needed by some experts to verify its age. The determination of age begins by identifying the material the legs are made of. Metal legs began their history during the Industrial era----the mid 1800s----and have a well-documented use. Verifying the age of a piece of furniture by its wooden legs, however, presents a challenge, due to their long history of use.
- Skill level:
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Things you need
- Digital camera (optional)
- Access to a library or bookstore
- Outside calipers
Identify the style of the legs. Take photos of the legs for easy comparison while researching. Check the leg design against pictorial guidelines found in many furniture books outlining history, styles and eras of furniture design. Note the time period the leg style fits into---for example, original Arts and Crafts furniture was created between 1837 and 1901, Queen Anne styled furniture originated around 1700 and continued to be made until 1714 in England, but was made for a longer period in the United States, until around 1727.
Look for the details in the leg that support the identification or support that the furniture was made as a copy at a later date. Examine the legs carefully and note the following: how the legs are attached to the rest of the furniture (pins, nails, screws, metal, wood), any tool marks that may be present, the size and shape of the wood leg and the condition of the leg's wood.
Screws with flat and un-tapered heads were used prior to 1840. Screws with even threads and sharp points are modern fasteners. Wooden pegs that are flat against the surface of the wood are probably new---pegs push their way out of the wood over time due to the wood shrinking. Staples, large or small, are a recent addition to furniture making and were not used until the twentieth century.
Look at the shape of the legs and check for uniformity within the leg and in comparison to the other legs. Legs will change shape due to the shrinkage of the wood over time. Shrinkage does not happen in a uniform manner. Legs that do not match and, in particular, turned legs that show signs of warping indicate naturally aged wood. Use outside calipers to verify visual warping. Calipers are tools designed to measure distances between opposing sides of an object. Used on a carved wood leg, the calipers can verify changes and warping of the wood.
Check the overall condition of the leg's wood. Wood contains a visual history that cannot be faked due to its natural ageing over time. When furniture sits for long periods facing a wall in one direction and sunlight in the other, the wood will discolour and fade accordingly. Therefore, the finish on the legs may vary from side to side. Older pieces will also show signs of use that are not uniform---scuffing at the legs from kicking or banging against another piece, possible water damage from flooding or a patina from worn paints or stains.
Check the condition of the edges around the top of the leg (if possible) to verify how the wood was cut. Wood prior to the introduction of the circular saw was cut by hand and will show straight saw marks and possibly some splintering while circular saw marks show a circular cut and tend to be smooth. Much debate surrounds the invention of the circular saw. Its use can be placed from the 1770s in Europe to roughly 1813 in the U.S.
Note a build up of dirt, dust and grime where the leg meets the rest of the furniture structure. This is something that is difficult to duplicate or remove and indicates an older piece as opposed to a fake or copy.
Tips and warnings
- Some furniture styles are rediscovered during later periods and may not be as old as they first appear to be. For example, at the turn of the 18th century the French began building a furniture style referred to as Empire. Empire furniture is actually a revival of earlier (many thousands of years earlier) Egyptian styles of furniture. The 18th century furniture is an antique. The original Egyptian furniture would be considered an artefact and an archaeological treasure.
- Study the history of construction techniques to obtain a higher degree of skill. Keep handy a time line of general history and of furniture eras and styles.
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