Wear and Hardware Shadows - Inspecting Drawers for Clues to Age
There are many pieces of new unpainted furniture in the antiques market today. From new Arts and Crafts oak made in America, to the flood of Indonesian mahogany in 19th century styles, many of these new pieces are virtually indistinguishable in shape from the originals. Add new hardware cast from vintage originals and you have the potential for confusion.
One of the clues furniture experts look for to authenticate age of furniture is the presence of appropriate "shadows." When discussing antique furniture the term "shadow" refers to differences in finish and color produced by natural aging. Shadow in this sense does not necessarily mean dark or black, but refers to a relative difference. In many cases, a furniture shadow is lighter, not darker, than a surrounding surface but is still referred to as a shadow.
Wood covered by a drawer pull, for example, would not be exposed to the wood smoke, grime and abrasion as the surrounding wood not covered by the pull. If the original hardware has been on the furniture for 100 years and the piece has not been refinished, the protected surface under the hardware should logically look different than surrounding unprotected surfaces. Similarly, areas subject to normal movement over many years also show shadows caused by continuous wear.
Drawers are one of the best places to check for shadows because they include both hardware (pulls) and movement (sliding in and out). Whether inspecting an entire chest of drawers or a single drawer in a desk, drawers can often tip you off as to whether the entire piece is right or wrong.
The material of which draw hardware is made – metal, wood, glass, ceramic – has little effect on the creation of the shadow. Any reasonably solid material will create a shadow. The exact time it takes to produce a shadow depends on the original finish, how the piece has been used or stored and the conditions to which a piece is exposed such as coal or wood smoke, cooking fumes, sunlight, humidity, etc. Generally, drawers in the original finish made before ca. 1930 should show at least some evidence of hardware shadows. Usually, but not always, the older a piece, the more obvious the shadows.
Of course genuinely old pieces can be refinished and original hardware may be replaced with identically shaped new hardware. Shadows should be only one part of your examination. Always use a variety of tests to determine age and authenticity.
Fig. 1 Reproductions of antique furniture in oak and other woods are almost exact copies of vintage originals. Dating new pieces like the new oak commode above can be especially difficult when old-appearing reproduction hardware is used.
Fig. 2-A Reproduction drawer hardware is widely available. Many new drawer pulls, like those shown in the catalog page above, are cast directly from old originals.
Fig. 2-B Genuinely old ca. 1880 brass drawer pull. When the pull is removed from the plate, the protected areas under the posts (black arrows) are lighter in color. The parts of the posts passing through the drawer were also protected and are a lighter color.
Fig. 3 A close up view of the genuinely old brass pull from Fig. 2-B. The overall pull has developed a natural dark patina as shown in Fig. 3-A. However, the part of the pull that touched by the hand to open the drawer is a lighter color. Patina does not have a chance to develop where hands are continually touching the pull to open the drawer. This is the correct and logical pattern of a proper wear shadow.
Fig. 4 Inside of vintage chest frame with drawer removed. As a drawer moves in and out of the frame, it produces wear in at least two places: along the vertical edge (A); and the horizontal edge (B) of the frame. In authentic vintage pieces subject to normal use, wear in the drawer frame should have matching areas of wear in the drawer, A1-B1. (Figs. 5-6)
Fig. 5 The drawer removed from the vintage chest frame in Fig. 4. This lighter colored band of wear on the vertical surface of the drawer correctly matches the source of wear (A) in the drawer frame. Even if multiple drawers from the same chest are identical sizes, slight differences in wear patterns will match each drawer to its correct opening.
Fig. 6 Bottom edge of the drawer removed from the chest in Fig. 4. The lighter colored area of wear along the bottom edge exactly matches the wear shadow at (B) in the frame.
Fig. 7 Authentic brass pull on vintage American oak chest, ca. 1890-1920s with original finish, Fig. 7. The pull is removed in Fig. 8.
Fig. 8 The original finish protected under the pull is much lighter than the unprotected surrounding original finish. This natural difference in protected and unprotected surfaces is very hard to fake. Note also that the holes which have been in contact with the brass pull posts are darkened.
Fig. 9 Authentic cast brass pull on vintage American Eastlake chest, ca. 1880-1900. The original finish surrounding the pull is so darkened the wood species is almost unrecognizable.
Fig. 10 The pull removed from Fig. 9 to show the original finish underneath. A dramatic difference between the protected and unprotected original surfaces.
Fig. 11 Yes, this maple drawer is genuinely old. The surrounding wood has oxidized to a much darker color than the area protected under the pull. But is this the original walnut pull? Compare the base of the pull to the shape of the shadow in Fig. 12.
Fig. 12 Obviously not the original pull that created the shadow. This pull is distinctly smaller than the shadow in the finish. Comparing shadows can help you catch genuinely old, but not original, replacement hardware.