How to Date Furniture

Using Hardware and Tool Marks to Tell if That Chair Is Old or Antique

Ever wonder if you're sitting on a goldmine, literally? Is that old wooden bench or antique chair really worth something, or is it just junk? You might think that only an expert can tell. But there are some tricks of the trade on how to date furniture that even an amateur can use to determine the age of potentially valuable wood furniture.

The following tips on how to date furniture using hardware and tool marks come to us from Staples Cabinet Makers, a company that hand crafts original furniture from salvaged wood:

Saw Marks or Kerf Marks

  • Pit Saw: The marks left by this saw were irregular, uneven cuts made from strokes of the large saw used by two men. One man stood in a pit and the other man stood on the ground above, and the log was sawn between them. The men changing positions caused the irregular cuts.
  • How to Date FurnitureGash Saw: This saw, which dates back to the Pilgrim days - mid-1600's, was water powered with multiple up and down blades, leaving marks that are regular and parallel. It was large, cumbersome and often far away from the house lot, therefore it was easier to use the pit saw rather than haul the logs to the mill and then haul the sawn lumber home.
  • Circular Saw: This saw was invented by a woman circa 1820, but was not in general use until 1840 when steam engines came along. The marks were circular, so it is a pretty sure bet that if you see circular saw marks, you know the board was sawn some time after 1860.

Nails.  Hand forged nails before 1800 were tapered on four sides and pointed. 1791 cut nails were sheared or cut from thin plates of metal. Twenty-five cut nails could be made in the same amount of time as one hand forged nail. 1900 Nails were made of wire like they are today.

Wood Screws.  The earliest that wood screws were used was 1720. They were rarely greater than ½" long and had hand-cut threads and an off-centered slot cut on the face. The end of the screw was flat. Due to the shortness of these screws, they usually only appear as hinge screws on drop leaf tables. These handmade screws are individual in the pitch and size of the threads. If they ever must be removed, be sure to replace them in their unique screw holes. After 1860, screws went from square end to pointed with a mechanically cut slot in the center.

Learning how to date furniture using hardware and tool marks isn't a technique you will learn overnight, but the above tips will give you some clues to getting you started on your quest to find cash in your attic.