While not as useful alone, considered within the context of style and construction, the materials used in a piece of furniture provide yet another clue about the age of a piece of antique furniture. Certain woods, fabrics, and inlays are often associated with a particular geographical region or period in history and allows an experienced eye to further narrow down the exact origins of a particular item.
Wood is without a doubt the most fundamental element in antique furniture construction and learning to identify the different species and types is an important skill to add to your array of appraisal techniques. Oak is probably the most prevalent wood used in furniture and can be identified by its coarse grain. It comes in a variety of colors ranging from dark brown or reddish brown to lighter, golden hues. European furniture made earlier than the 18th century was almost exclusively oak, although it also saw a resurgence in popularity in the late 1800’s when many earlier styles experienced revivals.
After 1700, mahogany and walnut became very popular among cabinetmakers. These woods are both very dense and are easily told apart from oak by their tighter grain. They are not as easily distinguished from each other, however, as both can appear very similar. As a rule, however, mahogany tends to be more reddish in color while walnut is more brown. Another form of walnut popular in fine veneer work is known as burled walnut, or sometimes simply burlewood. It is made from irregular tree growths known as burls which, when sliced thin, display a striking pattern of small knots.
In the beginning of the 1800’s, cabinet makers began to use cherry and maple. These also look very similar, with a tight grain that tends to be very evenly spaced. They are also much lighter in color than other hardwoods like walnut or oak. While both cherry and maple can express wavy or curly patterns, this tends to be much more pronounced in the latter and is often referred to as “flamed maple”.
Finally, pine is typically a signature of American furniture where it was abundant and easily available, even during the winter. Pine typically displays a white or yellow color and is much softer and less dense than hardwoods like oak or walnut. Because of its softness, older pine furniture usually shows more signs of wear and tear like small scratches and depressions than the more resilient woods favored in European furniture. Plywood, invented in 1865 and made of laminated sheets of pine is a dead giveaway that a piece of furniture is no older than the latter half of the 19th century.
While all of the woods mentioned here can and have made appearances in more recent furniture, a knowledge of what materials were favored in a particular period can serve as an important piece of the greater puzzle when trying to determine the authenticity and age antique furniture.