Ask Antique Trader: Color of faux mahogany hard to change

Q I have what I think to be an early 1900s, heavily carved rocking chair with curved arms and a wide low seat. Although the finish was almost black I could see a very light wood in places where the finish was worn on the arms. A lighter color would work better in my house so I decided to refinish it back to its natural light color but when I stripped it the chair turned out to be almost bright pink! What kind of wood is that and now what do I do?

A You are the latest victim of the “simulated mahogany” phase that began in the late 1800s and continues today. Around the turn of the century the use of a new product called aniline dye was introduced into the furniture industry for use in coloring woods that were too hard and dense to accept the traditional oil based wiping stains. The new penetrating dyes, usually water based, could be used to turn a piece of hard birch into a mahogany look-alike at a substantially lower cost than using real mahogany for the structural members of a chair. As you found out, the color does not leave in a uniform fashion when you strip the chair. Since the dye is water based, careful rinsing with warm water may remove more of the color but be very careful. The general rule is that water and furniture don’t mix. You can bleach it to your heart’s content but that’s dangerous to you and can get expensive. The best thing you can do is decide what color of darker mahogany you would like the chair to be and finish it that color using another new product called “gel” stain available at most paint supply stores and home centers. If the chair won’t work in your house in that color then you have the wrong chair.

Q My ornately carved, gold leaf antique mirror frame got scratched in a recent move. There appears to be something white under the gold leaf that is not wood although the back of the frame is clearly wood. The white almost seems like plastic or plaster. What is it and does it mean my “antique” mirror is a reproduction or a fake?

A The white under your gold is called “gesso,” a mixture of plaster of  Paris, glue and water. This mixture is used to smooth rough spots in wood and to provide a nice underlayment for gold leaf or paint. In some cases the gesso is even cast in molds with a wooden frame inserted while it is still wet. This gives the illusion of a delicately carved piece with a fraction of the work. Just because your piece has gesso in it does not mean it is a reproduction. Gesso was first used on furniture and frames in Italy in the Middle Ages and has been in use almost continuously since then in some form or another. Look for other clues of age and authenticity on your frame such as patina of the back, signs of hand tool work, hide glue and small rose head nails.

Q In an antique shop I saw an unusual chair with a tag which identified it as a “Savonarola Chair.” Who or what is a “Savonarola”?

A The term is used to designate a chair fashioned after those favored by residents of 16th century Venice. The chairs usually have a curved, crossing or “X” base instead of legs and feature a deeply contoured seat. They are often heavily adorned with inlay or intricate carvings.

Some examples of Savonarola chairs also fold flat for storage, an early innovation in furniture. The name itself comes from Girolamo Savonarola, an Italian friar who defied the Church with his reform ideas and was ultimately executed for his efforts in 1498. The chairs are also sometimes referred to as “Dante” chairs or curule chairs. This type of chair was previously used extensively by the Romans and was known as the “sella curule.”

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