This article has been re-published. Original date of publication: Dec 7th, 2014.
We pulled one out of the archives this week to show several methods to identify a piece of furniture, even if there’s no decal or visible shopmark. Hope you enjoy it and have fun playing furniture detective!
I was in an auction gallery, previewing several pieces of Arts and Crafts furniture on display. It’s not that we need any more Arts and Crafts furniture in our house or my office, but I never tire of playing furniture detective.
I knew from across the room that three of the pieces stood out from all the rest. These three immediately displayed eye-pleasing proportions and design, especially compared to a nearby cabinet that looked as awkward as a teenage boy at his first prom. Not very scientific, I know, but your eyes may tell you more than your brain.
Once I stood beside each of them, I did what comes natural to me (and what has gotten me in trouble in museums) — I let my fingertips run ever so lightly over the surface. Again, I have no science to back it up, but an original finish sometimes just feels different from a new finish. Ironically, a little roughness is a good sign. Not rough as in a poorly applied finish, but as in a slightly raised grain, one not recently belt-sanded perfectly smooth.
I then put on my reading glasses and began inspecting the hardware. On this day I liked what I did not find: no sandpaper or steel wool scratches along the edges of the hardware, no over-brushing of finish on them, and no evidence of damaged screw heads to indicate the hardware had been removed for refinishing, then put back on. They looked intact and unscarred: both good signs.
I also began my search for the shopmarks used by Gustav Stickley and L. & J.G. Stickley. From experience I knew where to expect to find them: on lower parts of legs, on stretchers where they meet the legs, on backs of case pieces, inside top drawers, and on the underside of tables. If a piece has been heavily refinished, the shopmark may have been destroyed. Sometimes a light refinishing or a heavy cleaning with denatured alcohol will still leave behind a faint residue of a shopmark, which is as good as a perfectly-intact decal or brand.
The shopmark may also reveal if a piece has been heavily cleaned, or “skinned” as some call it, with a solvent such as denatured alcohol or lacquer thinner. These solvents applied with a rag or steel wool will remove the darkened top layer of original finish, but leave some of the old finish next to the wood. The best way to tell is by examining an intact decal: if there is a dark outline around the shopmark, then the rest of the piece may have been heavily cleaned. If the finish around the decal looks the same as the rest, then the piece may well have its original finish.
If there is no decal for comparison, inspect joints where one board meets another to see if there is a difference in color between the hard-to-reach corner and the rest of the wood. It should all look the same.
Next step: pull out and turn over the drawers and/or (with permission) lay the piece gently on its back. If it has been refinished, you will find evidence in the form of drips of stripper, stain, or new finish, as most refinishers would never think anyone in the future would be looking for tiny drips on the underside. While you’ve got it on its back, look, too, for spider eggs, cobwebs, and other signs of age. If it’s perfectly clean, be suspicious.
Finally, let your nose get in on the act. Open a drawer or door, stick your nose deep inside, and inhale like it’s a fine merlot and you’re trying to impress everyone at the dinner table. You should smell mustiness, age, dust, or even mildew. In time you will recognize the odor of century-old shellac. What you should not smell is modern lacquer or varnish, or recently applied oil.
If you practice, with time your nose, your eyes, your fingertips, and your brain will come to recognize these clues automatically, enabling you to step back and know exactly what you are seeing before you start bidding — or buying.
– Bruce Johnson