Instant Antique Expert- Tip #2 : Wood

Drawer front showing Oak - but is it solid?

Drawer front showing Oak – but is it solid?

How can you tell if the furniture you’re looking at is made of solid wood? That’s what this blog post is about.

Furniture is often advertised as being made of solid wood. Today the law allows manufacturers to call all combinations of wood and wood by-products to be called solid wood, even if it means sawdust and glue is included in the piece. Some pieces have solid wood elements combined with plywood or MDF.

Antique furniture is generally made of:  1. wood veneer over a secondary, less expensive wood, or 2. faux-painted wood grain on a solid but cheaper type of secondary wood or 3. true solid wood. So how can you tell the difference? Look at the photos below:

This is on the inside of the drawer that has a veneer front of golden oak.

This is on the inside of the drawer that has a veneer front of golden oak.(photo above)

Compare the photo at the beginning of the blog post with this one directly above. Note how there is nothing that connects the wood on the front of the drawer to the grain found on the back of the drawer. Both are real wood but the drawer front is veneer. You can usually see the slice of veneer but contemporary veneer is so thin (1/64th of an inch) that it’s sometimes difficult to see it. It’s easier to see on antique furniture because the veneer is thicker.

Now let’s look at a different example:

This drawer front appears to be oak based on its grain. Look again - it's not really oak at all!

This drawer front appears to be oak based on its grain. Look again – it’s not really oak at all!

At the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century furniture manufacturers developed a method of printing artificial oak grain on cheaper cuts of wood. Varnish was applied over the top to seal in the design and over the years the varnish has yellowed thus giving this furniture a nice golden patina. Many would-be furniture refinishers have learned of this the hard way – they stripped the top coat (varnish) only to see the wood pattern dissolve before their very eyes!  Let’s look at the back of this drawer front:

Two less expensive cuts of wood are used to build the furniture carcass.

Two less expensive cuts of wood are used to build the furniture carcass.

There is absolutely nothing on the drawer back in the photograph above that connects it to the oak graining found on the drawer front. The way to ‘repair’ this type of furniture is to use felt pens and touch up the graining where it’s missing. Interestingly, this type of furniture has become collectible because there are few pieces that have stood the test of time or that haven’t been ruined by over-zealous refinishers.

So now for the finale: This is a photo of the top on a C1910 parlour table – it looks like oak but is it?

This is the top of a parlour table - is it made of solid oak?

This is the top of a parlour table – is it made of solid oak?

Look at the grain. In order for this top to be made of solid slabs of oak we would need to see a close facsimile of the grain on top (allowing for the variation of grain under different thicknesses). Let’s look under the table.

There it is - note the same pattern of grain as the top of the table. It's solid oak.

There it is – note the same pattern of grain as the top of the table. It’s solid oak.

The fuzzy image above shows that the grain on the top of the table and the grain on the bottom of the table match – hence, solid wood. So now you’ve learned your second expert tip!

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