Tips for Spotting Refinished Furniture
Original Date of publication January 19th, 2016
Ask any serious Arts and Crafts furniture collector, dealer or expert what is the rarest of the Arts and Crafts antiques, and the most savvy will have the same answer: any piece in its original, unrestored finish, with its original, unpolished hardware, without any repairs or replaced parts, and, if applicable, with its original upholstery — all in great condition.
Sounds pretty rare to me.
Such pieces will always command a higher price in shows and at auction, for collectors will pay a premium for those pieces which come the closest to looking like they did the day they left the workshop.
Naturally, the vast majority of pieces in a typical home collection will not meet those high standards, nor should we worry if they don’t, especially if we live in homes that are not as regulated as museums. Our key concern, however, has to be determining if a piece is being honestly represented by the seller, for the price we pay for a restored, refinished or repaired piece should always be less than for the same form in pristine condition.
How, then, should you inspect a piece of Arts and Crafts furniture, and what should you be looking for?
1.) For starters, take the drawers out completely and turn them over. Look for runs or drips of new stain or finish, or stripper scars left by a chemical remover.
2.) On smaller forms, turn the piece upside down. Check the underside of the top, the frame and the rungs for the same signs of a refinishing: runs, drips and stripper scars.
3.) On larger forms, pull it out from the wall and inspect the back. In addition to looking for runs, drips and scars, look also for the signs of age you should expect to find: cobwebs, dirt, dust, insect egg sacks, etc.
4.) Use your nose. One hundred year old shellac has a distinct smell, as does fresh lacquer and linseed oil. Learn the difference in the scents and let your nose tell you if a piece has been recently sprayed.
5.) Inspect the feet. When heavy pieces of furniture get moved, the edges around their feet get dinged, damaged, even chipped and splintered. A fresh, sharp edge may be a sign that a rotted foot was recently cut off.
6.) Inspect the joints. An original craftsman would not leave cross-grain sanding scratches at the intersection of two boards. A lazy refinisher would.
7.) Inspect the shopmark. Even a lazy refinisher knows the value of a shopmark, but if the area around the decal or label is darker than the rest, he might have refinished around the shopmark.
8). Inspect the hardware. Again, look for a darker area around hinges and pulls. Also, look for sanding scratches on the hardware or new stain or finish brushed over the edge of it.
9.) Dried glue. Old hide glue dries to a distinct reddish hue, whereas modern glues are more apt to be clear or whitish.
10.) Too good to be true? Even in pristine condition, an antique should show normal signs of wear on obvious places: front chair rungs, edges of arms and drawers, corners of tables, foot rests on tables. If the piece is totally uniform, then it may have been refinished. Look closer.
Finally, just as there is no such thing as a perfect crime, there is no such thing as a perfect refinishing. Look closely and the clues, if there, will soon become visible to you.
Top photo: The top of this Roycroft Grove Park Inn chair looks too good: no wear, accumulated grime or dark finish. Definitely refinished.