Painted furnitureBy Mark Chervenka
reproductions in folk art and country styles
For years, the majority of reproduction American antique furniture was made of traditional stained hardwoods. There have been trends towards ever increasing amounts of reproduction painted furniture decorated in country and folk art styles. Most of these painted reproductions are imported from India, Indonesia and Mexico. The low wages paid in those countries allow manufacturers to apply extensive hand painting that can be confused with hand work found on antique painted furniture. In this article we'll look at how to separate the new from old painted furniture based on paint, construction details and determining if wear is natural or artificial. This article will focus on the country and folk style painted furniture originally made at home or in very small rural furniture shops up till the last quarter of the 19th century. The formally painted furniture from master cabinet makers in large cities is not included.
Examining the paint
Original furniture was painted for very practical reasons. Paint protected and sealed the wood's surface and covered up flaws such as knots and streaks in the grain. Paint also hid that several types of wood were used.
These practical minded furniture makers--small shop owners or country do-it-yourselfers--did not waste time painting or decorating areas that are not visible. You should not find original paint on the insides of drawers, for instance, or the bottoms of tables. Why waste your time, effort or paint? Painting these hidden areas may make sense though, if you're "creating" an antique. About half of all the painted reproductions ACRN examined have paint in hidden areas.
Every piece of reproduction painted furniture reviewed for this article had a heavily crazed (antiqued) surface. This finish is created by applying a crackle top coat to a base coat of a contrasting color (Figs. 3-5). As the top coat crackles, or splits, the base coat below shows through as dark lines. Such crazing or crackling may or may not be present in original painted surfaces and crazing by itself is never a guarantee of age.
There are two types of surface crazing that may occur in old original painted surfaces: 1) crazing of varnish applied to protect the paint; and 2) crazing within the paint itself. Varnish gets brittle as it ages. As the wood expands and contracts, the hardened varnish can split, "bubble" and develop fine networks of lines (Fig. 7). Most crazed varnish has a definite texture and is easily to feel.
True crazing in paint is more properly called "alligatoring". In this condition, the paint surface develops cracks as it ages. Over time, these cracks fill in with dirt and appear as dark lines or veins (Fig. 8). Whereas most dark lines in genuinely old paint are actually dirt, dark lines in new "antiqued" paint are simply a contrasting color of paint. In some original surfaces, you may see two layers of crazing, one in the varnish and another in the paint. So far, we have not seen any crazed varnish in the painted reproductions, only the crazed paint.
The entire surface of original painted furniture is rarely all alligatored or crazed. Such conditions in original paint are usually the result of three factors: 1) environmental effects such as heat, humidity, ultraviolet (sun light) exposure; 2) accidents like spills, water, fire or smoke damage, and 3) defects in the paint or wood or problems in initial drying and curing. By contrast, the entire surface of virtually all the painted reproductions is crazed.
Here are some guidelines to help you judge the age of paint. First, old paint is generally very, very hard. It is brittle and breaks or shatters into irregularly shaped chips or powders when scraped with a knife. Old paint is almost impossible to dent with a fingernail. New paint comes off in curls with a knife and dents with a fingernail. Newly painted pieces very often have a strong new paint odor especially in confined spaces like drawers. Don't be afraid to put your nose to the surface and take a whiff.
Original paint used on country and folk pieces varied widely from oil bases to milk. Virtually without exception all the new painted furniture is decorated with water based acrylic paint. Acrylics weren't invented until the 1940s and not generally available until the early 1950s.
Natural or artificial wear?
The absence of normal wear or the presence of artificial wear are among the most important clues to age. Authentic paint wear is always logical and consistent with the original function of the piece examined. In other words, does the paint wear match how the piece was supposedly used? Put your hand on a drawer pull, open a cupboard door, sit in a chair. Do the natural movements of using a piece match the pattern of paint wear?
Look, for example, at the new shelf in Fig. 14. Note that the paint is completely "worn" from the edges (arrow) but the top of the shelf shows virtually no paint wear. This is illogical; what wore away the paint on the edges? There is only slight contact along the edge in daily use. The main wear should be on the shelf where objects were constantly placed and removed. Metal and glass kitchen utensils wear paint far faster than an occasional arm rubbing against the edge. Wear on the new drawer handles and new pegs is logical since those points are natural points of contact. But the illogical wear on the shelf top is your clue that this piece is not old.
You also need to pay particular attention to how the paint and surface is worn. Gouges and dents, for example, should generally expose bare wood (Fig. 13). If there is paint in or over a dent or gouge, that means the paint has been applied after the gouges and dents were made. This could mean a genuinely old piece has been repainted but is much more likely to indicate a new piece has been "distressed" before the new paint was applied. Likewise be suspicious of paint in cracks. Cracks that develop through an original finish will not have any paint in them; dirt maybe, but no paint. If paint is down inside a crack, it means the paint was applied after the crack occurred. Again, this might mean an old piece has been repainted but far more often paint inside a crack means an "antiqued" reproduction.
Be particularly suspicious of any paint wear that appears in a regular pattern. In Fig. 12, you see a close up of a wood surface where the soft grain has been removed with a powered wire brush. The wire brush has left a series of fine parallel valleys and ridges which was then painted over. Parallel lines, concentric circles and most other repeating or regular patterns are almost always the result of artificial wear produced by modern power tools. Natural wear, produced one scratch or dent at a time, occurs over many years and should generally appear in random widths, directions and depths.
Certain construction techniques and fasteners virtually eliminate the possibility of a piece being old. Finding staples and philips head screws under the same paint as the finish coat of paint, for example, is an obvious sign of new manufacture. Fiberboard is another no-no commonly found in new pieces as drawer bottoms and the backs of cupboards and chests of drawers. Machine cut dovetail joints are another sign of modern construction. Another good test is to look at boards used in large surface areas such as table tops, solid backs of large cupboards, trunks and the sides of chests of drawers (Fig. 16). Boards used in new painted furniture tend to be the same width and divide the surface equally. Boards in old country style construction, pre-1875, are generally much wider and tend to be irregular in width.
The wood used in most authentic American country style painted furniture is white pine but can be almost any native American species. The majority of new painted furniture is made of foreign species of which the most common is the so-called "Philippine" mahogany. Although pine construction is not conclusive proof of age, the use of mahogany in painted country styled furniture is a virtual guarantee of a reproduction. No species of mahogany was ever used in original American country painted furniture.
Repaints/repairs to originals
Genuinely old pieces are frequently repaired and repainted to increase the selling price. You can generally catch most of these alterations with a simple checklist of questions.
1) Does the entire surface feel the same to the touch? If the painted surface is all original, the finish should feel the same all over. If one area or one color feels different, investigate further. 2) If there is crazing, does all the crazing look the same? Mismatched crazing is a warning sign that different materials from the original have been used. 3) Does the surface look the same under black light? New materials rarely fluoresce the same as old materials. Any differences would indicate a disturbance in the original surface. Be particularly cautious of dates and names which are probably the most common enhancements made to genuinely old pieces. Also look for paint in cracks, dents and gouges as discussed with "Normal or Artificial Wear" above.
Never rely on one test alone to determine age. Study as many factors as possible before making a conclusion. Never scrape paint, remove drawers or extensively handle a piece of painted furniture without first obtaining the seller's permission. If in doubt about age, insist on a written guarantee from the seller that specifically states the date of construction and the seller's return policy.
For further reading
Cescinsky, H. Gentle Art of Faking Furniture, Dover, 1967.
Hayward, Chas. Antique or Fake? Evans, London 1973.
Hirschl & Adler Folk April Fool-Folk Art Fakes & Forgeries, exhibition catalog, 1985, NY.
Kaye, M. Fake, Fraud, or Genuine?. Bullfinch Press1987.
Kettell RS Pine Furniture of Early New England, Dover, 1956.
Knott, P. Fake Your Own Antiques North Light, 1996.
Smith, Nancy A. Old Furniture, Little Brown Co., 1975.
Watson, Aldren Country Furniture, Crowell, 1974. NY.
Williams, HL Country Furniture of Early America Barnes, 1969