Every trade has abbreviated language to make conversations pass more quickly. Undoubtedly you will often stumble upon a curious word and probably ignore it or decide the context it is used will provide meaning. Our hope is to provide a guide to terms you are likely to see as you read descriptions of pieces.
ANTIQUE: When I started a piece had to be made before 1840 to be considered an antique. This date roughly represents the beginning of mass produced machine made objects. Later an antique was anything over 100 years old. Now the term is used very broadly to include very nearly anything with some age. The challenge of the moment is to get people to realize that there is a difference between tidy refuse and handmade unique quality pieces.
CIRCA or C.: This term is used to indicate about when an object was made in the dealers opinion. This term allows for 20 years on either side of the stated circa date. Ie. Circa 1790 covers a period from 1770 to 1810. Furniture is dated by construction techniques and design or style. Styles changed relatively quickly with one caveat. Provincial pieces continued using earlier designs longer than pieces made in large Cities. This helps explain some of the confusing dating of French pieces. Louis XVI reign lasted from 1774 til 1792. Many beautiful pieces were made in these designs until about 1820. The taste changed becoming less obviously elaborate. The reign of Louis Philippe saw designs that were elegant and restrained. Napoleon III’s reign brought revivals of some earlier ornate designs even if they were modified.
HAND CUT VENEERS. Fairly thick about ⅛ of an inch and a likely indication that the piece you are looking at was made before 1840.
INDUSTRIAL AGE VENEERS. Technology and automation allowed veneers to become very near the thickness of paper. These pieces are still beautiful and often are made in much earlier styles. The problem is that they can not stand much repair or refinishing as it is so easy to sand the veneer completely off.
LEATHER & FUNNY BUSINESS. The description of leather is problematic. Bonded leather is a mixture of scraps, glue and plastic. Split leather hides are even more iffy. A hide is sliced into something like veneer then backed with canvas and some material to create the proper appearance / feel. Unfortunately this cleverness ages so rapidly it is unusable in a few years. Leather furniture made from whole hides is expensive. Hides cost about $600 each and a club chair can take four or five hides to upholster. It is better to buy a piece upholstered in good fabric than one covered in one of these odd leather concoctions.
PERIOD: This indicates the object was made during the period it was first designed. It is purported to be an original and in theory more valuable than a later copy.
STYLE: This indicates the dealer believes the object was made after the original period ended. These pieces can still be antique but are generally less valuable than an original.
WOOD & FUNNY BUSINESS: To say a piece is wood might not mean much. Pressed wood or particle board is wooden sawdust glued together. With the application veneer to the surface a representation of solid wood might be made even if the piece is particle board. Solid wood in an older piece will be literally intact boards. A high quality piece can have very thick hand cut veneers that should stand up well to use over time.
The very best reason to get professional advice. The wrong choice will not hold up or is likely to be out of fashion before you are ready to spend the money again.
Linen: A very popular choice that does seem to hold up pretty well. If you have children and or pets you might consider another option that can be cleaned easily. Generally applied as neutral color with pillows and smaller pieces chosen for pops of color.
Leather: Real whole hide leather is wonderful and wears beautifully. It is expensive. See above for cautions. Usually applied in richer colors that will not feature any stain or dirt.
Cotton Velvet: This fabric feels good and usually wear well. Generally applied in richer tones.
Cotton: Usually a good choice if it is a good weight and has enough pattern to mask the inevitable wear.
Mohair: Luxurious and very long lasting. I believe fairly expensive and usually a luxury purchase.
Silk: Raw silk surprisingly sturdy other printed and finished silks require a backing. I had a 25 year old raw silk sofa that looked great until I moved it into the window. SILK WILL NOT TAKE BRIGHT LIGHT. It seems to almost melt.
Suede: Wide range of colors and relatively inexpensive. Not as sturdy as leather or as stain resistant. Limited application as the hides are generally not too large.
Synthetics: Completely above my pay grade. Evidently a number of our clients use Sunbrella literally everywhere. A fairly wide range of colors sturdy and easily cleaned. I am certain there are many other good choices that I am unaware of.
Probably a million more good choices.
We strongly recommend that you get professional advice to avoid poor choices and fabrics that are not appropriate for how you will used them. If I my sofa had stayed out of the direct sunlight it would probably still look great. Since my mistake a small fortune has been badly spent trying to restore it and I am not done yet.
In most pieces metal plays a role. Whether it is simple fastening of parts or specific metals used to achieve colors in paints and glazes. No surprise that bronze furniture with rich patinas survives from antiquity. Ancient Egyptian furniture made of wood miraculously survives and is sometimes gilt and painted. The fasteners are typically iron nails. On older pieces the nails are handmade and are square. On later pieces they are often more typical nails or screws. Pre-machine made screws are irregular. The simplest way to see if it is an older screw is that the slot for screwdrivers is not centered. Brass hardware is tricky for the following reasons. Often brass handles were donated for military campaigns to make bullets. An incomplete set of handles was completely changed to make a good impression. Original hardware is rare on a 200 year old piece. Some more formal furniture has gilt bronze decoration and hardware. The 18th and 19th century saw a wide range metal garden decoration for their homes.
EPNS or electroplated nickel silver. This process developed around 1840. This allowed a wide variety of silver plated objects to be sold at lower prices. These pieces are often very elaborate and beautiful but have no real value as silver. Valued for their age, rarity and quality. It is worth mentioning that solid gold and gold plated objects where made. Ormolu was an object made of bronze and plated with gold. Mercury was used to facilitate the process where it was mixed with gold, applied to the object and “cooked”. The Mercury vaporized during heating causing very toxic fumes. Later with electroplating the gilding was without health risk.
Silver. Prized from antiquity in Europe and the Americas. Sterling indicates purity of 925/1000. Plated silver seen in 18th century Europe where a sheet of copper was fused to two sheets of silver. This is often referred to as “Sheffield Plate” probably the center of production.
STYLES OF FURNITURE
BAROQUE. Formal and elaborate. Usually earlier than Rococo. Sometimes asymetrical. Literally taken from the description of natural pearls with their eccentric shapes.
BIEDERMEIER. The New Modern. These clean uncomplicated designs appeared all over Europe about the same time. These designs roughly emerge about the time mass production took place. With new prosperity came clients for designs that reflected the way they lived.
NEOCLASSICAL. These designs were inspired by designs popular in antiquity. The discovery of Pompeii and the influence of the “Grand Tour” caused demand for design based on ancient originals. All of these styles can be ornate or restrained. At this point it is worth noting that some of our favorite designs where found in Northern Europe where practical restraints resulted in very pleasing sophisticated designs.
ROCOCO. Elaborate shapes with matching detail. This is what you will likely see in some historic homes.
In England Regency styles emerge that are more sleek but retain rich detail. What is remarkable is the smaller scale adopted for urban living.
In America by 1840 styles are rapidly adopting and exceeding English Victorian taste
Louis Philippe French design is elegant and mostly fairly straight forward. The quality of wood / marble and the restraint of design keeps this style much in demand.
Napoleon III saw a revival of earlier designs mostly inspired by Louis XVI styles. Various revival styles dominated European design most of the last part of the 19th century.
American taste was dominated by variations of English Victorian design with unexpected flashes of modernism. Form and function. I wonder what will be written about the disposable furniture.
For practical reasons this will be limited to woods you probably see in Western Pieces. As woods were traded into western markets. You will find rosewoods from India and the Americas. Mahogany at first was mostly exported from the Caribbean. Some more exotic hardwoods were used to make furniture for Western Sailors and officers. Furniture made for the Dutch East Indies Company is a favorite.
Hardwoods were often imported and because of the age and quality of the trees were usually exceptionally beautiful. About 1850 most of the old growth had been harvested leaving younger & smaller trees with less dense grain. This meant the woods where for the most part less beautiful. At the moment export bans are applied to much of this hardwood even if it was harvested 250 years ago.
Amboyna wood. a luxury hardwood that comes from Borneo and SE Asia. Beautiful tight grain with a swirling pattern. Rare and used sparingly.
Ash wood. Good strong wood with some pattern. Sometimes stained green for decorative inlay. Sometimes seen in provincial furniture where it has the advantage of being more decorative than oak. At times called olive wood.
Birch. Used in Northern Europe birch has tight grain and is usually straight grained. Tiger birch has pronounced striping and is very decorative.
Boxwood relatively common. A hardwood used primarily in decorative inlays.
Chestnut wood is found in provincial furniture and is beautifully figured. Some of the nicest provincial pieces are Chestnut. There was a blight in America about 120 years ago. I do not believe this occurred in Europe.
Elm available as soft and hardwood, probably based on the age of the tree. Often mistaken for oak. Elm has more complex patterns in the grain. Oak is generally straight grained.
Fruitwoods, Cherry, Pear, Lemon etc. All available in various amounts. Generally nice hardwoods. If the fruit trees are generally smaller they were not used to make boards.
Mahogany was an important part of trade with the Americas. Wealthy Europeans prized mahogany as it literally reflected light. It is first written about in England in the first part of the 18th century. I love the way mahogany ages. Occasionally a piece will fade to a wonderful honey color.
Oak. Commonly used for 17th and 18th century furniture. Widely available in UK and Continental Europe. Generally used for provincial furniture and as secondary wood for more formal veneered pieces.
Pine is probably the most used wood. For more formal pieces pine or oak is used to build the case before the veneer and inlay is applied. For rustic and provincial pieces pine is commonly used. This wood is light and sturdy enough but considered to be soft. The trees grow quickly. In furniture it is often a warm honey color or pale and the color of straw.
Pollard Oak. Generally finished in warm golden tones. A burl wood from an oak tree with abnormal bumps and growths. Very Beautiful. Favored by designer / maker George Bullock.
Rosewood was harvested in South America and India. Several names are used for different species. Calamander has broad lighter bands. Kingwood as known as Goncalo alves is richly patterned and very rare. Seen used in English and the very best French furniture. Found in Brazil.
Walnut. Available in decorative figured wood that is often veneered. Basic walnut has rich brownish tones and is used in more substantial early pieces. From dark brown to honey toned wood. Used in the best English from the early 18th century and some of the most attractive rustic early furniture.