Furniture Trim:By JJ (Jake) DuPre
carved wood or molded plastic?
As my old pal Bill wrote many years ago, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But does that mean if plastic can pass for wood should we accept plastic? I don't know about you, but when I pay for wood, I want to smell sawdust. Plastic is for making garbage bags, not furniture.
But apparently enough other people think otherwise to make the production of plastic furniture trim profitable. This article will review some of the plastic products currently on the market, how they are made and how to separate genuine wood trim from mold-cast plastics.
Of course the folks who make these new pieces never use the word plastic. Their advertisements and brochures use terms like "miracle resins," "space age compounds" and "Molded Wood". But it's still plastic; you get it from a test tube, not a saw mill.
The new plastic trim includes just about every style, type of wood and purpose imaginable. From Gothic Revival oak legs to Classical medallions in cherry; from 1/8" flat appliques to full three dimensional statues. And all the new pieces are exact copies of old originals.
You cannot detect the new pieces by touch. If you touch the new pieces you will feel the identical grain pattern of the old. You can see how closely copies resemble originals by looking at the details in Figs. 5, 12, 15 and 17. The grain, surface texture, small cracks, puddles of old varnish and tool marks on the originals are all reproduced in the copies.
Most new plastic pieces come already finished. Golden oak is the most common color followed by Victorian black walnut, English oak and natural cherry. Solvent based stains can damage the plastic but water based stains can easily be used to match new pieces to an old finish.
Detecting the new
The many different shapes of new plastic trim available make all carvings potentially suspect. New pieces are not just found on furniture but on shelves, mirrors, picture frames, pedestals, doors and interior woodwork such as fireplace mantels. Begin your examination by trying to look at the back side. Nearly all new backs are smooth plastic (Fig. 6) with no grain pattern or texture. As a general rule, an authentic piece of carved wood trim would show the same pattern of grain on the back as the front. If the front and back surfaces of a piece are different, be suspicious.
Inspecting the back side is not always possible so you have to use other tests. Some other tests, however, may possibly leave some marks on the piece and should NEVER be performed without the seller's permission. If the seller refuses to allow the tests, take that fact into account when making buying decisions. These tests in most cases will affect less than 1/8 to 1/4 of a square inch. And they can almost always be done in hidden areas that will never show.
The simplest test is to press your thumb nail into the suspected surface. In virtually all woods used in furniture making-oak, walnut, cherry, mahogany-your thumb nail will produce a dent. Most new plastic trim cannot be dented with a thumb nail. The advantage of this test is that you can perform the test quickly and inconspicuously. The disadvantage is that some people don't have the necessary strength. Your thumb nail also needs to be short or you will split it. Do NOT use pointed metal objects such as keys, nails, knife, etc., because they can slip and scratch the finish.
The next best test, which requires permission, is to scrape an exposed edge with a sharp blade. Real wood usually cuts off in a curl or single sliver, will have a uniformly dull look under the finish and will have the same grain pattern as the top surface. When the brittle plastic is cut, it chips off in random bits and chunks. Under the surface, there is no grain pattern in plastic trim. Exposed plastic will also usually have random spots of shiny dimples (the dimples are broken air bubbles). The raw plastic has an off-white, ivory color.
A third test is to swab acetone on the suspected piece. (CAUTION: acetone is flammable; use extreme caution). Use a cotton swab and 100 acetone; fingernail polish remover that includes acetone will work but takes much longer. Acetone rapidly removes the finish color on most all of the new pieces and exposes the light colored plastic below. (Fig. 8)
Keep in mind that the tests discussed in this article are for helping separate cast plastic trim from carved wood trim. Not all old trim is carved wood, though. Some genuinely old trim is made by molding a mixture of sawdust with glue. As a general rule, vintage glue and sawdust pieces assume the color of the sawdust. Pieces made with walnut sawdust, for example, are dark brown before a finish is applied.
It also follows that glue and sawdust trim pieces are almost always made from the same species of wood as the pieces to which they are applied. That is to say pieces of trim on walnut furniture would logically be made from walnut sawdust. If the surface of any suspect trim is scratched and reveals any other color than dark brown, that could be a clue that a cast plastic substiture has been used.
One final test for glue and sawdust pieces is whether the suspect piece is solid or hollow. Plastic is cast in twopiece molds and is almost always solid in cross section. Larges pieces of vintage glue and sawdust trim were generally made in one piece press molds and are hollow in cross section, not solid.