Identifying Rustic French Canadian Furniture

Identifying Rustic French Canadian Furniture

In 1963, writer Jean Palardy told of the mayhem visited upon 18th and 19th Century French-Canadian furniture:

"I saw a family dancing in a circle around a large bonfire in the farmyard...through the flames I could still make out poster beds, armoires, chests and early chairs piled high in a blazing mass."

Palardy had been travelling the Quebec countryside researching his book The Early Furniture of French Canada when he discovered the above scene. It was not, he says, an isolated incident. It is estimated that nearly eighty percent of Quebec's historic furniture was cast aside in the 20th Century in favor of widely-distributed, stylish manufactured furniture. Some of the old, not-so-stylish homestead furniture was destroyed; much of it was simply abandoned. Palardy found unused rustic furniture in barns, henhouses, attics, and sheds. Some of the remaining furniture found its way into the hands of antique dealers and collectors.

Prior to the migration of Scots, English, and New Englanders to Canada in the late 18th Century, French-Canadian furniture was made by carpenters rather than cabinetmakers. The furniture they produced was sturdy, but limited by their memories of traditional furniture styling and a lack of specialized cabinetmaker's tools. Although their furniture followed traditional functions (chairs, tables, chests, armoires, and so on) the resulting products were usually slightly "clunky" and a mashup of styles.

These carpenter-furniture makers made their pieces in the tradition of good carpentry rather than fine cabinetmaking, using mortise-and-tenon joints secured by wooden pins, tongue-and-groove joints and splines for table tops. Without lathes, marquetry planes, and such, "fancy" elements like turned legs were not possible, though rudimentary carving was sometimes attempted. Exotic woods were not available; instead local woods like white pine, yellow birch, and butternut were used.

Such softwoods have drab grain patterns that are punctuated by knots and imperfections, and do not possess the look needed for "fine furniture". Consequently, rustic furniture was often painted to give it more visual appeal. Today, the great appeal of rustic French-Canadian furniture is the painted surface. Collectors can find an excellent survey of this furniture in The Painted Furniture of French Canada 1700-1840 by John Fleming

In the 21st Century, interest in rustic French-Canadian furniture continues unabated. The combination of not-so-sophisticated crafting, native softwoods, and brightly colored home-made paints cause this furniture to stand out among its mass-produced modern counterparts. Collectors scramble to find it, and will pay top dollar for it when they do.

Because this furniture is bringing top dollar, fakes and frauds abound. Some of what is being offered is mis-represented by dealers and auctioneers as being genuine. Rarely are these deceptions deliberate; in most cases buyers and sellers have no clear idea of how to evaluate rustic French-Canadian furniture. So, here are a few tips on how to proceed if you find a likely candidate:

Begin by examining the paint. Old paint will likely be crackled (aka alligatored or crazed), and sometimes a coat of clear varnish will have been applied over a coat of paint to adjust gloss and add protection. Crackling itself is not a sign of age; modern "antiquing" paints deliberately produce a crackling effect to give the impression of age. It's fairly easy to differentiate an artificially "antiqued" item from the real thing, if you know why finishes crackle in the first place.

There are four primary reasons that painted finishes naturally crackle:

  1. Wood expands and contracts with changes in heat and moisture
  2. Paint/varnish lose elasticity and become brittle and hard
  3. Exposure to sunlight: ultraviolet light breaks down finishes
  4. Defects in the paint or in the wood

As wood expands and contracts under a brittle finish, it begins to pull apart and crack. Eventually, dirt settles into the cracks and gives the appearance of "veins" or dark lines.

As you inspect a piece, ask yourself the following questions. We'll begin with an examination of the paint, and then move on to construction elements.

  • How was the item used? Is the crackling and wear consistent with the use of the item? For example, a buffet is made as a serving station and for storage. Is most of the wear on the top, the drawer pulls and the door edges, which were the most frequently touched areas? Shelves, too, should be worn mostly on top, with only minor rub-through on the edges. Chairs will be worn mostly on the arms, inside back spindles, and seats, with little wear on outside backs and stretchers. Crackling will most often occur in damaged or worn areas.
  • How hard is the paint? Old paint cannot be dented with a fingernail; new paint is easily dented. Old paint chips off; new paint peels off in strips.
  • Is the finished crazed/crackled all over? If so, it's a sure sign that the piece was newly "antiqued". Natural crazing occurs only in spots
  • Is there paint in the chips, dents, and cracks? Wood is painted only on the surface, and when damage occurs it usually exposes the raw wood under the paint.
  • Does the piece smell like paint? It takes months for paint to cure, and as it does it gives off an odor. Check the inside of drawers and cabinets, where a paint smell is likely to linger.
  • Does the paint "fluoresce" in the same way? For this test you will need a black light, like the ones used by art appraisers. Shining a black light onto a surface will reveal areas that have been touched-up or repainted, since new paint and old paint fluoresce differently.

Examining the physical construction of a piece is complicated by the fact that it's covered in paint. If it's not covered in paint (if the dealer says "it has been restored to its original condition") then be suspicious and don't pay a premium price. A genuine piece with its original paint has value, and anything stripped of its paint isn't worth much. Here are clues you should look for:

  1. Step back and look at the lines of the piece. Is it symmetrical? Handmade furniture usually exhibits minor differences between the right side and the left side. Are there smooth, sinuous curves? If so, it's likely a reproduction. As I mentioned above, genuine pieces appear a little "clunky".
  2. Are there any new or exotic woods? Open the drawers and doors and inspect the raw wood. If interior wood has been painted, that's a sure sign of a fake. Boards will be random-sized (generally) and placed edge-to-edge. Manufactured wood products like Masonite (fiberboard) and particle board will not be used, even for repairs. Woods will be pine, poplar, butternut, and/or other local woods. If there is mahogany it's a fake (mahogany is often used in cheap imports)
  3. Check the joinery of drawers. Dovetail joints would have been hand-cut; if they are symmetrical and even they are machine cut, and not genuine.
  4. Boards used for tops and backs will be random-widths. Mass-produced furniture will use boards of identical width.
  5. An item's hardware is the least reliable key to aging a piece; reproduction hardware is common. Obvious mistakes would be out-of-period screws and fasteners, such as Phillips-head screws or staples.

Don't make a decision based on one test alone; it is cumulative evidence that tells the story. Some examination methods won't be able to be used at all. It is unlikely that an owner will allow you to scrape or peel paint. If you are still in doubt after your examination, get a written guarantee as to the items age, construction, and seller's return policy.

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