I was channel surfing one day and came across a program on one of the Do-It-Yourself channels.
What caught my eye was the double-barrel shotgun broken open over the host’s arm. Being a firearms enthusiast I paused to see what the show was about.
The host was discussing current trends in antique furniture, and the DIY project was to “antique” a piece of furniture to make it more trendy. At this point I’m still not clear what a shotgun has to do with this process, and the gent is still standing calmly pontificating on how to select a varnish that will give a period-correct finish.
I’m about to switch channels again when the expert moves on to the topic of wood damage from rodents and insects.
He specifically emphasizes the growing popularity of furniture with worm holes.
At this point he reaches into his pocket and extracts two shotgun shell which he drops into the gun.
Without another word, the expert closes the shotgun and turns casually away from the camera. Shouldering the piece he lets go both barrels into the front of an innocent armoire that had been off screen.
After the smoke clears and the wood splinters stop falling, the host says, “Instant worm and rodent damage!”
He then proceeds to explain how to complete the finishing work on the piece to achieve that perfect trendy look.
So, the next time you are at the antique dealer, and love breaks out, stop! Before you put down your money on that Gen-U-wine Early American china cabinet that would look so cool in the dining room, you might want to check to make sure it didn’t die of lead poisoning.
Detecting fake antiques can be difficult depending on the skill level of the forger. The easiest way to detect fake worm and insect damage is to study the disruption to the structure of the wood for clues.
Insects remove material from the wood in the same manner as a drill shaves away the wood when boring a hole. The difference is insects seldom go in straight lines. Wood has different density throughout the material, and the boring insect will usually choose the path of lease resistance. This results in wandering paths through the material.
Mechanical damage from tools or the shotgun pellets described above will cause the fibers of the wood to separate slightly, and the edges of the damaged area will appear torn, slightly, leaving small fibers of the wood visible around the damaged area.
An easy way to become familiar with how this looks is to get a piece of soft pine and drive in a few nails to see the fiber separation. Drill a couple of holes and study how the wood looks after the tool is withdrawn. Take photos of these marks and compare them to the piece of furniture being considered. Straight lines and separated wood fibers indicate mechanical damage rather than insects.
Rodents gnaw anything and everything. This is required because their primary incisor teeth never stop growing. Look for rodent damage in places that would offer cover to the rodent while it chews.
Damage to the front of a piece of furniture that has not been in storage would be suspect. The damaged area will be worn away is a semi-circular pattern with a tapered edged. Due to the risks from Hanta Virus found in rodent droppings, I would avoid furniture with evidence of rodent damage or habitation.
Look at the edges and crevices of the furniture piece for other clues.
Various styles of furniture have either rounded or sharp edges in the wood carving. Wearing away of sharp edges occurs over many years of use, and by unskilled refinishing. If worn edges are encountered, look to see if the rounded edges are uniform over the entire piece, or only present in areas of high use like those on the edges of doors, drawers, handles, & etc. Worn down edges along the top of a wardrobe would not be characteristic of a high traffic area and could be an indicator of poor refinishing or a fake.
Accumulations of wax in corners and crevices occurs over time. A piece with a lot of heavily carved decoration may have significant build up. Does this build up exist? Does the residue feel oily or waxy? If not, the piece may be a fake.
Lastly, become familiar with the most common finishes used on furniture in various periods. Hand-rubbed oil finishes are beautiful, but they do not have a glossy shine. Varnishes do. Hand-rubbed oil finishes do not have drips and runs. Varnishes do.
Paying attention to a few simple details can make a world of difference between the satisfaction of acquiring a piece you are proud to display, and a serious case of buyer’s remorse over a white elephant you can’t unload.
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