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Furniture Specific: The second question

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Monday, 08 December 2014 15:16

The finish on this Federal period drawer is original and untouched. Is it attractive?

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – The second most frequently asked question in the antique furniture trade, after “What’s it worth?” has to be “Won’t I destroy the value by refinishing it?”

The answer to that is an unequivocal “maybe, maybe not.” This might be at odds with what you have probably heard from many of the self-styled experts found lurking on Internet bulletin boards and on local radio call-in shows whose mantra sometime appears to be “Don’t touch that original finish!” Even some of the nationally recognized genuine experts on the subject occasionally answer in the affirmative, but the answer to the second question depends a great deal on the answer to the first question. And the answer to the first question requires accurate identification and attribution of the piece at hand. You have to know what the piece is before you can answer either of the dollar sign questions.

If you are in doubt about the pedigree of a piece, ask someone who knows. Don’t ask your brother-in-law, who knows everything. Ask someone who really knows – someone who is in the trade or who has the credentials to make an accurate assessment. In some cases it may even be worth your while to get it professionally appraised. But however you do it, make sure you know what it is before making any further decisions. Once you are comfortable with the result, proceed with your debate about the finish.

The difference in value between a $2.5 million 18th century mahogany game table in pristine original condition and the identical table that was refinished 20 years ago is more than many of us will see in a lifetime. But the difference in value between a set of late Victorian chairs in original black crackle shellac with rotting upholstery and the same set that has been professionally refinished, repaired and upholstered could be far enough in the other direction to warrant your attention. An even easier case is the Depression-era dining set acquired at auction for $300 that has a scratched top, a broken pedestal and mismatched chairs. Anything done to it will improve its value.

So what makes an original finish so desirable and valuable? That largely depends on the original finish, what it is and when it was applied.

It has only been in the last few thousand years that we have applied some sort of dressing to our wooden artifacts. Before then wood just rotted away in its own timing. But wood lasts longer with some sort of protection from its mortal enemy – moisture. Preserving the wood was the primary motivation for applying oil or fat or grease to wood in the first place. An improved, pleasing appearance was a secondary, unintended consequence that later became an important part of the finishing matrix. When people began to live inside fixed structures rather than outside in tents, appearance of the wood achieved higher status. Grain patterns were enhanced and colors deepened and became richer as finishing techniques improved from smeared fat to multiple coats of rubbed linseed oil or wax.

Surface coatings such as varnish, shellac and lacquer are all ancient developments but are relatively recent additions to furniture finishing. Varnish, made of cedar oil and amber, which produced a resin, was used by ancient Egyptians in the mummification process. The Romans used a type of varnish made of natural resin dissolved in vegetable oil but the art appears to have been lost by medieval craftsmen, resurfacing only in the 19th century with the advent of the petroleum industry. According to The Encyclopedia of Furniture by Joseph Aronson, no reliable records indicate the production of modern varnish prior to 1848. Currently most modern varnish is made of linseed oil and phenolic resins, which were introduced in 1909.

Shellac is derived from an excretion of the Laccifer lacca insect, native to Thailand and India. Produced first for the effect of its dye, the use of shellac can be traced to A.D. 250. However, its use as a furniture finish did not catch on in the West until the early 1800s according to the Shellac Export Promotion Council. However, a type of “spirit varnish,” a gum dissolved in alcohol. which greatly resembled shellac, was used as early as the 17th century in Europe for “padding” finishes, according to Aronson. Shellac was the principal furniture finish until the early 20th century when nitrocellulose lacquer was introduced.

Modern lacquer has no relation to the ancient Chinese art of lacquering. The original form of lacquer was derived from the lacquer tree of the Orient and was applied in numerous thin coats to wood and other objects. Nitrocellulose lacquer is made cellulose fiber, principally cotton, dissolved in butyl acetate.

So there is nothing ancient or mysterious about most old finishes. In fact the chemistry behind even the oldest of Western finishes is fairly recent. The value of an old finish lies in its undisturbed link to the past and the appearance it has attained over its lifetime. But while many 300-year-old, carefully preserved finishes are outstandingly beautiful, those less well preserved and cared for are much, much less pleasing. And in a significantly shorter period than 300 years some finishes get to be absolutely disgusting, or at least much less attractive. Should they be preserved simply because they are original?

As a general rule a less than attractive finish on an item will result in a lower value than a comparable item with a pleasing finish. The exception to this very general rule is the certifiable treasure, the piece of antiquity whose value is derived from its rarity and its very existence rather than its role as functional art, the duty normally ascribed to pieces of furniture. The truth is there just aren’t that many treasures made by our recognized master cabinetmakers from which to choose. Most of these craftsmen were a one-man band or at the very best had a few apprentices. Their output was not that great. Even in the early 19th century with the advent of factories and very large shops in multistory buildings, output was nothing like the late 19th century or the 20th century. So these items are indeed rare and deserve all the preservation we can afford them.

But the same attention is not necessarily lavished on mass-production items, even if they are a hundred years old – or more. Most items produced after the Civil War were made on a production line in a factory setting and there just isn’t that cachet of personal craftsmanship and direct connection to the distant past that we attach to older, rarer pieces. Of course there are the exceptions including some of the works of Gustav Stickley and Louis Majorelle but these are rare.

The whole subject boils down to the condition of the existing finish on the piece in question after we are sure it is not a national treasure. Several issues must then be dealt with.

Is the existing finish doing its original job? Remember that the first function of a finish is to protect the wood from moisture. If the finish is not intact enough to provide that protection then it must be augmented by conservation techniques, which may include additional finish or be replaced with another finish. This is required for the long-term preservation of the piece. If the finish is intact and is protecting the wood from the world, then all other questions become those of aesthetics and economics.

Will the piece look better if the finish is adjusted in some radical manner like resurfacing or refinishing? That is entirely up to the owner of piece. If they find the old, crackled shellac or varnish attractive, so be it. If not there, are the other options.

And at long last the real question. Will refinishing destroy the value of the piece? Assuming that all precautions have been observed and all the facts have been correctly assembled and duly noted and further assuming that the refinishing or resurfacing will be done in a competent professional manner, the answer is a resounding “probably not.” In fact the value will most likely be enhanced. A beautiful, honestly restored, fully functioning piece of furniture will always be more attractive, more desirable and more valuable than its run-down, grubby-looking cousin except in rare circumstances.

 

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format. His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.

 



ADDITIONAL IMAGES OF NOTE

The finish on this Federal period drawer is original and untouched. Is it attractive? 

The finish on this Empire sideboard is almost the same age as that on the Federal drawer and is original but it has been 'polished.' Is it more attractive than the drawer?

Last Updated on Monday, 08 December 2014 15:35
 

Furniture Specific: The first question

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Wednesday, 05 November 2014 17:11
A West Indies carved mahogany and caned rocking chair, 19th century. Reference: Conners, Michael. 'Caribbean Elegance,' 2002. p. 46, fig. 34. A pair of these rockers sold at auction in New Orleans last year for $4,305. Image courtesy of Neal Auction Co.

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – In the past I wrote a column concerning the second most frequently asked question about older and antique furniture. That question has to do with retaining, enhancing or destroying the value of a piece if it is repaired, refinished etc. The column conveniently sidestepped the first question, the one that everyone REALLY wants to know: What’s it worth?

Sometimes it seems a shame that in most cases today the overriding emphasis placed on an antique is the market value. Too often antiques are regarded as just trade goods. There was a time when antiques were prized for their historical value – their link to the past and what that past stood for. This was the underlying motivation for the Colonial Revival – at least in the beginning. Antiques also have been highly prized for their workmanship or artistry – you know the old saw “A thing of beauty is ….”

But, alas, in today’s environment when someone inherits great-great-grandma’s chair, more often than not the first thing they do is write to someone like me to ask what it’s worth. Not how it was made or what it was made from. Not how to care for it or how to use it. Not how to research its history or appreciate its heritage. Just “How many dollars is it worth and what do I do to get the best price for it?” Whatever.

While idle curiosity or simple greed seems to motivate most inquiries about value there are more legitimate and justifiable reasons for needing to determine the value of an antique. Those reasons frequently have to do with acquiring and maintaining proper levels of insurance, establishing a value for claims purposes or for use in tax preparation or defense.

So how do you find out what something is worth? The ultimate answer appears only after you sell it and the check clears the bank. THAT is what that piece was worth on THAT day, in THAT place to THAT buyer. Anything else is just guesswork. Granted some guesses will be better than others but until the actual sale they are still just guesses.

There are people who represent themselves as professional guessers. They are called appraisers and most have some degree of knowledge greater than the average bear about given subjects and have a pool of resources from which to gather facts to support their guesses.

One place to find appraisers is on the vicarious television shows that offer on-the-spot price information. Granted these appraisers often have a lifetime of experience and do have reference material at their beckoning. However, they often tend to quote prices based on the part of the country or the market with which they are most familiar and that may not always play well in Poughkeepsie. What a chair sells for in New York or Boston may be a far cry from what it brings at auction in LA (Lower Alabama). So celebrity or event appraisals should be taken with a grain of salt and enjoyed for the entertainment value they provide.

When you get serious about wanting to know what something is worth you must then decide what kind of appraisal you need. “What’s it worth?” is not enough for a good appraiser to go on. They need to know for what purpose the appraisal will be used. There are two basic types of appraisals, the “fair market value,” also known as a “selling” appraisal and a “replacement value” appraisal.

A fair market value appraisal is the amount you would expect to realize from the sale of an item to a reputable dealer in the field or what you could reasonably expect to receive, before seller costs and premiums, through an auction service that deals in that particular type of item. For example, you wouldn’t expect to do well selling 20th century art pottery at a service that specializes in Federal furniture. The market is more specific than that. This fair market value approach is the one used by the IRS in assigning value to items donated to charitable causes and is often used in establishing the value of an estate. This is essentially a “wholesale” appraisal. Unless specifically otherwise noted, most insurance companies will also use this type of valuation method in settling claims.

The “otherwise noted” reference is to the other kind of appraisal known as the replacement value method. A value assigned by this type of appraisal is what you would expect to pay for the item if you purchased it on a retail basis from a dealer or gallery in an arm’s length transaction. This is also the amount for which you would insure a specific piece, the replacement cost.

The most important thing to know about these two kinds of appraisals is the fact that they will produce markedly different values for the same item at the same time in the same place. A fair market value appraisal value will generally be 40 to 60 percent below a replacement cost value. When you read that a major dealer has purchased a period American antique at Sotheby’s for $1million, you may rest assured that when you visit their showroom in New York or Philadelphia, the current retail price will greatly exceed the auction price (wholesale). Fair market is what they paid at auction. Replacement is what you will pay them for it (retail).

So how do you obtain an appraisal, either fair market or replacement? As it turns out, appraisals are like so many other things – you get what you pay for.

You can get a free or nominal cost verbal “appraisal” at many antiques shows or fairs. They are generally worth what they cost if you are just curious. You can also visit a dealer and ask what the item is worth. But there may be a conflict here because the dealer may want to buy your piece and pay less than fair market value for it. Not always but it does happen.

There is a new electronic version of the appraisal being done on the Internet. Many of these sites are legitimate and will in fact give you a fairly decent “educated guess” of the market value of your property for a reasonable fee, $10 to $50 generally. But be aware that each individual appraiser for these services is limited by your description of the article and by your skill or lack thereof as a photographer. They will never be able to physically see or touch your item. While many of the online appraisers are certified by one or more of the major associations, their cut of the already fairly low fee is so small that they probably can’t devote too much time to researching your particular item and to writing a comprehensive valuation. Like the verbal version, this type of valuation is more for curiosity’s sake than for legal or insurance purposes.

There are several main accrediting bodies for personal property appraisers in the U.S. including the Appraisers Association of America, the International Society of Appraisers, American Society of Appraisers and National Appraisal Consultants. Each has a website and a searchable database of certified members listed by area of specialization. These people are prepared to work for you in person with no other agenda and will often provide a written statement that they are a disinterested third party.

But be prepared to pay for their research. A thorough written appraisal of personal property will contain such items as the type of valuation method used, identification of the market for which the item is valued, a general market analysis of similar items or categories with possible projections of the direction of that market, an accurate physical description of the object including measurements and photos where applicable, sales results of similar items in that market, provenance if available and a firm statement of value based on the research. There are other items that may be included for your particular need based on what you and the appraiser agree upon.

In short, what you get from a licensed, accredited, knowledgeable appraiser is their best professional estimate of the value of your item. That signed written estimate is backed up by their experience, education and research and in most cases is acceptable for insurance and legal purposes. That’s where you go if you REALLY want to know what its worth.


Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format. His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.



ADDITIONAL IMAGE OF NOTE
A West Indies carved mahogany and caned rocking chair, 19th century. Reference: Conners, Michael. 'Caribbean Elegance,' 2002. p. 46, fig. 34. A pair of these rockers sold at auction in New Orleans last year for $4,305. Image courtesy of Neal Auction Co.
Last Updated on Monday, 08 December 2014 15:24
 

Furniture Specific: Using your head, not your back

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Thursday, 04 September 2014 14:11

Besides your brain, here are few of the tools to help you have a successful move.

CRYSTAL RIVEER, Fla. – Unless you are one of those folks who lives in a sterile condo furnished with every anonymous artifact your decorator thinks you should have, the prospect of moving can be one of the most traumatic occurrences of your life. The sterile set just calls a mover and goes to South Beach for the season. The rest of us have to struggle with sorting out the flotsam and jetsam of our ordinary, disorganized lives.

The last time I moved it was from a house where my best friend Gail and I had lived for the better part of 30 years. We began our lives together there, we raised our children there and at long last it was time to go. But what about all that “stuff” we had accumulated? Not to mention all the stuff our children refused to take with them when they went to college and later into the real world.

Naturally we did it the hard way – mostly by ourselves over a period of nine months (come to think of it that sounds awfully familiar). After an interminable series of yard sales, each resulting in a trip to a local charity with the DNS load (Did Not Sell in auction terminology), we were left with the hard core of our prized, semi-prized and “just can’t leave” possessions. This remaining haul we sorted into two categories, the articles that we could leave to the mover and his euphemistically called “helper” and the really good things we wanted to move ourselves, including most of our antique furniture. Having been in the furniture restoration business for more than 20 years we were pretty good at loading and unloading trucks.

One thing you may or may not have noticed, if you have ever paid attention to real professional moving people, the folks who haul concert grands up the side of a building and can handle an egg with more finesse than a mother hen, is that these people do not employ large amounts of brute strength. Of course a certain amount of muscle is a basic requirement but that’s not what gets the piano up the wall. Brainpower does that.

So start by doing some mental exercise. Survey the pieces you need to move. Study how the pieces are assembled. Make sure you understand how the top is attached to the frame of the dining table. Take a look at the bottom rail of the chest. Is it sturdy enough to carry the weight of the chest? Note what appear to be any weaknesses in the design or construction of a piece. Are the legs at risk? Poorly blocked or loose already? Are the arms fragile or the bed rickety? Is the finish strong enough to withstand handling and packing or does it need special attention. When you understand the work to be done you are ready to proceed.

Next, acknowledge that most moving jobs are two-person tasks. Few articles can be safely moved by one person. And that requires a level of understanding and trust between two movers that few people rarely accomplish in other parts of their lives. You must know your partner’s strengths and weaknesses. You also must both agree on what “up a little” means and how far is “just a tad.” You need to know who is nimble enough to walk backwards and who can do stairs without looking. And if you say “go the right” is that your right or their right? Communication is the key. Lay out your intended plan to your accomplice. Walk the route out to the truck or out of the truck into the house. Visualize yourself carrying the piece down the hall, around the corner, up the stairs and through the door. Make sure your partner has the same vision. Count the number of steps up a stairway. That way when you actually carry something up you can count the steps out loud and everyone knows the current position.

Then check the route. Make sure it is free of obstacles and most of all make sure the piece will actually fit through the door at the top of the stairs. It’s easier than backing back down the stairs fully loaded. That’s what they make tape measures for. Make sure each person involved in the move has one.

There are a few major basic rules about moving furniture. The first is that the most obvious way to carry something usually is not the right way. That is true for virtually all armchairs, especially upholstered wing chairs and overstuffed club chairs. The temptation is to grab the arms and take off but that seldom produces satisfactory results because the arms of chairs are made to resist downward pressure, not upward pressure, even those on upholstered chairs. Carry large chairs from the bottom if at all possible or at least by the seat frame if you have height or visibility restrictions.

A corollary to the “no arm” rule is the “attached element” rule. Nothing should ever be grabbed or carried by anything added to a piece as a decorative element. That includes finials, gallery rails, crowns, splashboards, applied molding or carving, hardware or even handles, as tempting as that may be.

Another corollary is the “grocery cart” rule. Some furniture has wheels on it but don’t be fooled by that. Usually those wheels are just a stylistic element used to lift the piece off the floor so it doesn’t get mopped or vacuumed. And like most grocery carts, those wheels really aren’t made to roll the piece around on. That’s a good way to break the leg from a nice old table, chest or bed. In spite of the presence of wheels, just pick the piece up. But watch for wheels that may drop out of loose sockets as you pick it up. That’s a good way to lose a wheel, useless as it is.

The most prominent category of antique furniture is case goods. Before you start to move a chest of drawers or a desk, take a minute and step back. What exactly are you moving? In most cases you are moving a box, the case. It may have drawers or doors or a combination of both but it basically is a box. So move a box, not a desk or a chest. Start by removing the drawers but be sure to number them in order, even if they are different sizes. I know, I know, but humor me – Murphy has not repealed his law. Don’t forget the interior drawers of a desk or bachelor’s chest. Then remove and label any loose objects like shelves, shelf supports and drawer dividers that may want to go AWOL or break free and damage the interior. Finally secure doors and drop fronts by locking them if possible. If they can’t be locked don’t tape them shut. Tape has a tendency to pull finish and leave nasty residue. Wrap a good packing blanket around the piece and secure it in place with a rope or elastic strap to keep doors from swinging open.

If the cabinet has glass panels or glass doors of course you need to be extra careful, not just for the piece but for yourself. Old glass can be very brittle and temperamental – and very sharp when it shatters. If possible stuff the inside of the cabinet with blankets and pads to support the old glass so it doesn’t vibrate too much on its trip, especially if the piece is being transported on its back.

Finally bear in mind that you actually have two objectives in moving a piece of furniture – one is to safely move the piece from here to there and the other is for you to arrive in an undamaged condition also. In fact the latter has a higher priority in my opinion. Use all of the standard precautions about lifting with your legs and not your back, etc. but the most important thing you can do is use your head.

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format. His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.



ADDITIONAL IMAGE OF NOTE

 Besides your brain, here are few of the tools to help you have a successful move.

Last Updated on Thursday, 04 September 2014 14:36
 

Furniture Specific: Is that really mahogany?

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Written by FRED TAYLOR   
Thursday, 31 July 2014 14:08

This Empire drop-leaf table, circa 8130, has as solid mahogany top and base with crotch cut mahogany veneer on the drawer front and skirt.

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – All that glitters is not that expensive stuff and all that is red in antique furniture is not mahogany. In fact not even the mahogany is red most of the time and half of what you think is mahogany is not.

The wood most often called mahogany in modern times, since the mid 18th century or so, is commonly known as Honduran mahogany, Swietnia macrophylla, the large leaf version, named after the Dutch physician who described the genus in 1760. Although harvested primarily for convenience along coastal Honduras, this variety also grows in Jamaica, Florida and South America. But this is not the “true” mahogany that started the ball rolling for New World woods. The real stuff is Swietnia mahogani, the so-called Cuban mahogany, which has a higher specific gravity and darker color than its large leafed cousin.

This is the wood originally identified in the 16th century as a type of cedar tree, used by Cortez to build ships and by Raleigh to repair them. It was widely used in royal residences in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries but was far too exotic and expensive for ordinary cabinetmaking. It was not until the beginning of the 18th century that the Honduran variety, known in England as Jamaican mahogany to avoid the heavy import duty, became readily available in commercial quantities.

The common name for the tree was bestowed upon it by workers from Nigeria, enslaved on the early plantations of Jamaica. They identified a tree that appeared to be identical to one from their homeland, Khaya sengalenisi, and gave it the same tribal name they used in Africa: M’Oganwo. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how that became “mahogany,” although at different times and in different places it was known as mohogony, mohogani, mehogeny, etc., etc. You get the drift. Except in France of course, where it was called “Acajou.”

No matter what it was called, it became a standard for English furniture after 1715. It was particularly favored for tabletops because of the immense size of the available planks. It was not unknown for a single plank to be 6 feet wide and 20 feet long – or more in some cases – something that no European source could match.

And mahogany had several other things going for it. Even though it had been around for 200 years, the new availability opened opportunities for cabinetmakers who had not been given the chance to work with it. Not only was it something new and novel, it was easy to work with, a trait not found in the indigenous walnut and oak of the English Isle. Its close grain, smooth texture and softer surface were much more amenable to intricate carving and not nearly so hard on the tools of the period as the native resources. It also polished up nicely to a warm glow and the almost infinite variety of grain patterns was a delight to designers. But the crowning impetus for the beginning of the “Age of Mahogany” was the loss of the nearest competitor. The standing stock of European walnut was virtually eradicated by the Walnut Blight of the winter of 1709. Since it takes 10 to 20 years to slow dry a walnut log, after the existing stocks of cured wood were exhausted there was no more furniture grade walnut available in commercial quantities until late in the century. (The same thing, to a lesser degree, occurred in the United States during World War II. The hardwood stands of America were denuded since nearly every G.I., whether stateside or overseas, carried an M1 Garand or M1 carbine with a walnut stock. The forests did not recover commercially until the early 1960s.

Mahogany really came into its own in the mid 18th century with the designs of Thomas Chippendale and the Georgian explosion that lasted for decades. The first real slowdown in the mahogany rage came as the result of Napoleon’s blockade in 1806 to close the Continent to British trade. Since English ships carried the most mahogany from the Caribbean, it did hurt the overall industry but English cabinetmakers still had plenty of good stock, while French artisans had to make do with coloring domestic woods “in the fashion of mahogany.”

This initial imitation of mahogany eventually launched a major commercial change in direction for the furniture industry. The search for a cheaper, more readily available substitute for the expensive rain forest import took on new importance in the Victorian era. In America newly built furniture factories were in full operation by mid century and it took an enormous quantity of wood to keep them operating seven days a week. All manner of techniques were employed to disguise various woods, mostly maple and birch, as mahogany. Cherry was used liberally in Empire and Restauration furniture because of the base color. Other domestic woods were stained, painted, glazed or grained in an effort to create a faux Swietnia.

But the ultimate answer came quite accidentally and was not immediately recognized for what it was. In 1856 an English chemist by the name of William H. Perkin, had an accident while trying to produce quinine from coal tar. What he ended up with was the first aniline dye, mauve. Aniline itself is a colorless, highly toxic liquid produced from chlorobenzene and is used in the manufacture of explosives. The new dye, based on this potentially lethal base, became the foundation for the process that produced the vividly colored fabrics of the late 19th century.

By the time the furniture industry caught on to this new coloring agent it was almost 1900. The effect was dramatic. Structural members made of mahogany became almost unheard of in the retail furniture trade. Mahogany was relegated to strictly a decorative role in the form of veneer for the most part. And the manufacturers and dealers of the early 20th century made no secret of the substitutes. Sears, Roebuck & Co., in its 1902 wish book, took great pains to explain and promote its use of other than mahogany. In the description of a five piece parlor set, its "$17.90 SWELL SUITE", the text points out "The frames are substantially made of the best selected birch with a fine mahogany finish. ... It gives the same general effect as genuine mahogany and is very much less expensive ... and you have the same strength as you would have in genuine mahogany furniture.” Elsewhere the catalog describes the finish as "simulated mahogany" or "imitation mahogany.” Thus the cat was out of the bag in a big way.

And it was not just Sears. It was the entire industry for the most part. The great Colonial Revival movement of the 20th century owes it very existence to the use of dyes used to simulate mahogany and walnut in furniture that would not have been produced during the Depression years had the real thing been employed. That revelation and the development of a curing process that allowed the commercial use of red gum as a secondary wood in the 1920s were the cornerstones of 20th century American furniture until the introduction of particleboard in the late 1950s, which ended the history of furniture as far as I am concerned.

Is it still possible to find furniture made of mahogany? Of course. Go to any real antique store, auction or show and most of what you see will be mahogany of some type or another. But be prepared to be just skeptical enough to not believe that every dark red piece of wood is mahogany.

Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to me at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Visit Fred's newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable "Common Sense Antiques" columns in .pdf format. His book How To Be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL, 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from his website.



ADDITIONAL IMAGES OF NOTE

This Empire drop-leaf table, circa 8130, has as solid mahogany top and base with crotch cut mahogany veneer on the drawer front and skirt. 

This late 18th century table is made of very wide single boards of solid mahogany with satinwood edge banding. 

This settee from a parlor set, circa 1900, is made entirely of birch with a mahogany finish as described in the Sears catalog. A similar five-piece upholstered set was shown in the 1902 catalog for $12.45.

This lamp table from the late 1940s has a crotch cut mahogany veneer top and a red gum edge. Crotch cut veneer is cut from the intersection of a large branch with the trunk or the intersection of two large branches. That creates the

The turned and carved pedestal, legs and feet of the lamp table, like the edge of the top, are  made of gum, colored to look like mahogany.

Last Updated on Thursday, 31 July 2014 14:50
 

Furniture Specific: $#%& Locks

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Written by Fred Taylor   
Thursday, 03 July 2014 13:55

A full mortise lock is completely enclosed in the wood with only the selvage visible.

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. - Most of us in the real world (at least as we perceive it and ourselves) are considered to be hardworking, easy to get along with and above all, honest individuals. For the most part we are not politicians or lawyers so that description is fairly universal and fairly accurate. But there must be people out there who do not share the same set of values as you and I. Otherwise why would there be the need for those inevitably cranky, non-functional, generally aggravating locks on what are otherwise very nice pieces of older and antique furniture?

When I first became interested in older furniture my attitude was that if a lock worked and the key was there, fine. If it didn’t or it wasn’t, that was fine too. It just wasn’t that important. Until we had children. Then the ability to restrict access to certain areas and private articles became of interest to me so I took the time to study the blasted things and it turns out that they are not really all that complicated. In fact, with a few exceptions, most locking devices found on older furniture are childishly (there’s that word again) and scarily simple.

Furniture locks are classified by how they are fitted to the piece. The basic categories are full mortise, half mortise and surface mount. This describes the way the lock is mounted into the door, drawer or frame. A full mortise lock is totally concealed within a space below the surface. Only the top edge, called the selvage is visible. No part of the lock body is accessible without removing the entire lock from the wood, a trick but not impossible. A half mortise lock, the most common on 19th century American furniture, is concealed from the outside of the door or drawer but the back plate of the lock is visible from inside. The body of the lock is fitted into a mortise in the wood and mounted so that the backplate is flush with the interior surface. The backplate is screwed or nailed to the interior surface. A surface mounted lock is usually a cheap 20th century innovation that requires no cutting of the surface to mount. It screws directly onto the interior surface and protrudes into the interior of the cabinet or drawer. These are often used as “quickie” fixes by some restorers who are not familiar with the inner workings of locks.

Since most people are frustrated by a door or drawer that is apparently locked and since most of us are conditioned to accept locked spaces as “off limits”, furniture locks actually don’t have to be that secure and almost any determined interloper can gain access.

The most frequently encountered problem with old locks is neglect and abuse. Quickly inspect the lock to determine if all the pieces appear to be present – the bolt, the interior center pin, the selvage. If everything looks OK and you seem to have a key that should fit, your new best friend is WD-40. A couple of shots will have the same effect as whiskey on a barfly – it will loosen right up. Use a stout steel key to work the lock back into order. If the piece has previously been stripped but the worker doing it was too lazy or too ignorant to remove the locks first, you may have to pull the locks and clean out the old finish and stripper residue before there is any hope of making the lock work. If that doesn’t work or if you don’t have a key at all, then its time to get serious.

The operating heart of most furniture locks, excluding “grab” type locks used on chest lids, is a metal bolt that slides across the lock and fits into a mortise cut in the frame that surrounds a door or drawer. This prevents the door or drawer from moving. The bolt is activated by a bladed key. The blade fits into a semi-circular slot in the body of the bolt and as the key is rotated the bolt slides either horizontally or vertically, into and out of the locking mortise. Very clever. To make sure the bolt doesn’t just flop out of place again once it is locked (or unlocked) an internal leaf spring keeps tension on the bolt, holding it into a notch in normally two pre-determined positions, locked and unlocked. Only the action of the key, slightly lifting and sliding the bolt can overcome the spring tension.

So all you have to have is a key – that fits. First, the blade must actually fit into the opening in the lock itself. Then it must the right length to a) engage the bolt, b) compress the spring exactly enough and c) move the bolt through the entire range of motion. Then the shaft has to be the right size. Unlike most old interior house door locks which use “skeleton” keys with a solid shaft, furniture locks use barrel keys which are partly hollow on the business end. That is so the key can fit over a pin, which is installed in the center of the lock. The key uses this pin as a fulcrum to apply the required force to activate the bolt. So far so good. We’ve got a key with the right size blade and the right size hole in the barrel. But its not always that simple. Sometimes there are some primitive anti-intruder devices that must be defeated.

The most common of these is a raised semi-circular ring, concentric to the pin mounted onto the plate of the lock. This ring keeps a key from entering the lock far enough to engage the bolt – unless it has a slot cut to the right depth, located in the right place on the face of the blade. Since it is usually too difficult to look inside the lock and determine the depth and placement of the ring (or rings – some locks have more than one) the easiest way is to let the lock mark them for you. Use a new brass blank key (from Van Dykes or one of the supply houses) that otherwise seems to fit the lock. You can easily alter the brass blank by filing the blade to fit and drilling the barrel to fit the pin. Press it into the lock as far as it will go and, while applying as much pressure as you can, move the key from side to side. When you pull out the key there are the marks on the brass key made by the steel security ring that shows you exactly where to cut the notch with a hack saw! It may take two three tries to get the depth right but you can do it.

The most devilish of the security devices is a set of internal, randomly spaced, spring held levers that be must aligned into a predetermined position to allow the bolt to pass. Apparently the English of the 19th century had a much greater need for security than did the Americans to be forced to come up with this idea. It is almost impossible to create a key for an English lever lock. Fortunately, most of them are conveniently labeled as “Lever” locks so you don’t have to waste a lot of time on them. Just ignore them.

The other common problems with locks are missing center pins and broken or missing springs. Both can easily be remedied but they generally require disassembly of the lock itself. Center pins were pressed into position into the back plates. When they work loose and fall out they can be replaced by a metal screw that fits the hole. It may have to be held in place with some epoxy glue to reinforce it. Missing or broken springs are recognized by the loose action of the bolt, falling freely into or out of the body of the lock. Spring replacement requires the removal of the bolt. At the rear of the bolt is a tiny slot where the leaf spring was installed. If it is broken off in the slot remove the stub with a tiny chisel or screwdriver. Then hammer the appropriate length of a modern bobby pin into the slot. The bobby pin is a natural spring and will allow the lock to work again.

That wasn’t so hard. Practice with locks is the key -- that and collecting as many types and sizes of keys as you can from the local flea market, lock shop and antiques show. Soon you will be breaking into old cabinets at will. Just don’t let the kids see how you do it.

#   #   #

Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to me at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Visit Fred’s newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable “Common Sense Antiques” columns in .pdf format. His book “HOW TO BE A FURNITURE DETECTIVE” is now available for $18.95 plus $3.00 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor's DVD, "IDENTIFICATION OF OLDER & ANTIQUE FURNITURE," ($17.00 + $3.00 S&H), is also available at the same address. For more information call (800) 387-6377 (9AM-4PM Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All items are also available directly from the website, www.furnituredetective.com.



ADDITIONAL IMAGE OF NOTE

A full mortise lock is completely enclosed in the wood with only the selvage visible.

A half mortise lock is implanted part way in the wood but leaves the back plate visible from the inside.

A surface mount lock is simply nailed or screwed to the interior surface.

This diagram show the parts of a half mortise lock.

These keys are all “notch” keys with cuts in the face of the blade.

This illustration shows how a notch key works over the internal security ring of a lock plate.

Last Updated on Thursday, 31 July 2014 14:06
 
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