Antique Furniture Finishes: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Antique furniture enthusiasts quickly learn how to spot the technology markers that allow them to date their finds: how to discern between hand-cut and machine-cut dovetails and carving; what hand-wrought nails and screws look like; and the difference between float, roller, and flat glass. Not so easy to spot, though, is an original antique finish.

Most antique furniture is in what I call the "public domain"; that is, in homes rather than museum collections. For most of the 20th Century, public domain antique furniture was bought to be used, not displayed. Hence, if it was broken and ugly it got fixed and refinished so it would add to the aesthetic of one's home. Until "Antiques Roadshow" became popular on TV, the public gave little thought to how repair and refinishing might affect the value of an antique. Complicating matters is that there is no clear definition of what constitutes an "antique". Opinions differ, and arguments rage over whether antique furniture should be refinished at all.

No one seems to give a second thought as to whether an antique sofa should be reupholstered: if the fabric is tattered and worn it gets replaced or the sofa doesn't get used. All the fuss about refinishing antique wooden furniture is misplaced. The brouhaha created by Antiques Roadshow was addressed back in 2002, when Peter Cook, then Executive Producer of the program, wrote in a letter to Professional Refinishing Magazine: "Well-conceived and well executed refinishing and restoration usually enhances the value of just about any piece of old furniture. Exceptions are those rare (often museum-quality) pieces that have somehow survived in great original condition". Unfortunately, many people didn’t get Mr. Cook’s message.

These days collectors might encounter a genuine antique with an original finish, or with a duplication of an original finish (using authentic techniques and materials), or a modern finish. Knowing how to spot these three finish variations will aid collectors in determining the age of a piece and whether it is 100% original.

Furniture finishing materials and methods of application have progressed considerably over the past four hundred years. Finishes have been used to protect wood from dirt and moisture, to make cheap wood look like expensive wood, and to hide mis-matched woods used in the same piece.

Primitive furniture may have been finished with paint or rubbed with oil or wax; these finishes can usually be identified by visual inspection alone.

It's easy to spot paint, because the pigments in paint obscure wood grain. On very old pieces, paint is worn away in areas that have had a lot of body contact: wooden chair arms, for example. Clever furniture restorers will sometimes re-paint antique furniture and fake these "wear areas" to give the appearance of age. Many such restorers aren't quite clever enough, though, when it comes to faking age wear: most simply sand through edges. When original antique finishes wear away, the furniture is generally still in use and the worn areas will accumulate body oil and dirt, giving the unprotected wood in the worn areas a dingy but shiny look. "Newly aged" antiques will have been sanded through the paint but the exposed wood will appear bright and new looking.

Early clear varnish formulas were very similar to paint, but without the opacity provided by pigments. Varnishes were a combination of plant resins and a solvent (usually turpentine). Varnish wears in the same way that paint wears, and offers the same clues to authenticity. Paint and varnish finishes were usually applied with a brush. Consequently, antique furniture finished with those products will show brush marks.

Shellac is a type of varnish that uses a resin called lac, which is the resinous secretion of several species of lac bugs. Shellac is applied by French polishing (done with a rubbing pad not a brush) which imparts a high-gloss, streak-free finish to furniture. Shellac is very sensitive to alcohol and moisture, though. French polished finishes often have water rings and cloudiness from high humidity.

Lacquer finishes came in to general use by the 20th Century. They use the same resin as shellac (lac) but use a formula that results in a hard, brittle surface that is more moisture and heat-resistant than other antique finishes. Lacquer finishes are so hard, in fact, that the wood under the finish expands and contracts more than the lacquer. Over time, this will cause a lacquer finish to check (alligator). One sign that a finish is lacquer is if it is chipped; antique oil and shellac finishes wear off rather than chip.

Penetrating oil finishes are absorbed by wood cells and provide some moisture protection. Wax lightly coats a wooden surface. Over time, the oil and wax solvents evaporate and the products must be re-applied. Also, oil and wax finishes never completely harden as modern lacquers do. On hot days, these soft finishes may become sticky and attract dirt. Original penetrating oil finishes will have "shadowy", darkened areas where a sticky finish would have come into contact with a person's clothing or skin and attracted dirt. Absence of such darkened areas in an oil finish would likely indicate that a piece has been refinished or restored.

Lacquer, varnish, and shellac finishes can be difficult to identify because they have a similar physical appearance. Identifying such finishes can be done in four steps (each step is progressively more aggressive):

  1. 1. Locate an inconspicuous spot on the piece that has finish on it (the back of a leg or underneath, for example).
  2. 2. Place a white cotton cloth over your index finger, and moisten the tip with alcohol. Rub the cloth on the spot you have chosen. If finish comes off, then the finish is shellac. Repeat this step several times, to make sure you're not simply removing dirt. Removing the finish will cause the spot to appear dull and raw.
  3. 3. If the spot remains shiny after the alcohol has dried (a few seconds) then the item has been finished with something other than shellac. Repeat the procedure outlined in "2" above, only this time use lacquer thinner instead of alcohol. If the finish on your spot comes off, then the finish is nitrocellulose lacquer.
  4. 4. If both alcohol and lacquer thinner have not removed any finish, then the item is likely finished with a type of varnish and removal may require a strong furniture stripper (if the item is to be completely refinished).

Once you have identified the finish, match your results to the other technology markers you found to determine if they are consistent. Does the piece show hand-cut joinery and hand-wrought fasteners, but has a lacquer finish? If so, the piece is likely not 100% original. Is the finish a clear varnish, but the wood grain appears to be mis-matched, or the face woods are of different species? Then this piece may be an antique that was originally painted to hide the mis-matched woods. Somewhere along the line, an owner decided that they wanted a "natural wood" look and had the paint stripped off and the piece varnished.

Often, the finish on a piece of antique furniture can provide a more definitive assessment of an item's authenticity; you just have to know what to look for. Having knowledge of finishes is just one more tool in a collector's toolbox.

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