If it looks like oak furniture is it oak? No, not necessarily. This blog entry is in response to a question and photograph (shown below) sent to me by Jean. She wanted to know if the pieces she bought were old and how to refinish them.
From the late 1890’s until the early 1900’s manufacturers offered this style of furniture as a budget friendly option to furniture made of straight grain oak or quarter-sawn oak. Typically it was made of a secondary softwood that had no grain to speak of. The wood was sawed into planks and sanded smooth. The artificial grain was created with a large roller that was part of the manufacturing process. Once the ink/paint was dry the wood was ready to be made into furniture.
So how can you tell if you have real oak or as they called it then “fumed oak”? (By the way, fumed oak is something totally different but the name stuck.) First you have to take out a drawer. Look at the wood grain in the front of the drawer. Now look inside. Does it match? If not you probably have “fumed oak”. In some cases a thin oak wood veneer might cover the drawer but this is not usually the case with this type of furniture.Now look inside of the body of the piece. Quite often you can see graining on some of the structural boards inside. This wood is grained but not varnished which is another clue. The furniture was varnished only at the end. The rest of the boards inside usually have no graining at all.A final clue: If the colour has been worn away look to see if you can see the grain. If it is very light as in the photo shown below what you have is fumed oak. The oak “grain” has disappeared with the finish.
So now what do you do? Is it worth refinishing?
If the finish is still good it can be touched up using felt pens that match the colours of the wood finish. You simply paint it in according to the surrounding grain. It does take an artistic hand to do this successfully but it can be done. This is what I did in the pieces in the photograph above. If the finish is still reasonable (varnish often cracks or “alligators”) you can seal in the top with a coat of oil based varnish.
If the finish is too far gone you have two choices: You can paint it or you can strip the remaining finish and apply a dark semi opaque stain to the piece. The furniture of this period has very attractive “bones” or shapes. A painted base followed by some sanding creates a wonderful shabby chic, French style look.
If you choose to strip and stain the pieces then be prepared to find mismatched woods underneath. This is why I recommend semi transparent stains. I have seen some pieces that were very poorly refinished. Forget about spending the money to have these pieces professionally stripped and refinished. It’s just not worth the money.
So, what if you have some of these pieces in good condition? Well the good news is that so many pieces have suffered serious damage that few pieces survive overall. The tops were especially prone to damage . Rarity is one of the components of the value of antiques and although these pieces will never be in the realm of high priced antiques they have begun to be regarded as “folk furniture”. They are worth taking care of.