Furniture Detective: Making obsolete furniture work in the 21st century

Owning an antique, whether it be a piece of jewelry, a vintage automobile or a dining table from the early 19th century, is a rewarding and fulfilling proposition. Pride of ownership is apparent in most people lucky enough to possess such treasures and that pride is displayed as often as the piece.

Owning a piece of the past, however, is often an expensive proposition — even a luxury in some cases, and most of us cannot afford to own something of significant size or extreme value if it does not contribute something concrete to our lives — something more substantial than the esoteric “feel good” things we often associate with the ownership of antiques. This is especially true of older and antique furniture.

Furniture in its barest form is functional sculpture. The key word here is “functional.” Furniture is made for a specific purpose to fit in our daily lives. It may be no more than a box to put our clothes in or frame upon which to rest our frame. But whatever it is, it was first built to fill a physical need. The beauty and art must come later.

This is especially true when the piece of furniture is not a Federal Pembroke table from New York, circa 1800, worth many thousands of dollars but is a second or third generation, machine-made, factory produced, American Empire drop leaf lamp table, circa 1900, worth only a few hundred dollars at best. You may really like the dark rich mahogany veneer on the lamp table and admire the solid feel of the thick brass lock in the top drawer but that broken base that makes the whole table tipsy is starting to bother you, not to mention putting the $500 lamp in jeopardy. And as nice as the lamp table is and as much as you admire the style and historic references incorporated into it (Duncan Phyfe, Honoré Lannuier, et. al.), you can acquire a brand new, very nice looking and most important of all, stable, new lamp table at the mall for about what you paid for the Empire piece — or less. In other words the Empire piece is no longer fulfilling its prime function, that of providing a stable platform and is being tolerated merely for its form.

Don’t do it. If you like the lamp table, for whatever reason, invest less than the cost of the new table in getting the old one properly repaired and get it done before you break both the table and the lamp beyond repair. If you don’t want to invest more money in the old piece then sell it, at a bargain, to someone who will. They aren’t making those old tables anymore and when they are broken beyond repair that’s one less there will ever be.

The same especially holds true for chests of drawers. Most of us confront a chest at least once daily to retrieve clothes and other personal items. Is it one of those transparent events in your life that you barely notice or is it a struggle to be dreaded with drawers either stuck shut or falling out? Older chests are notorious for recalcitrant drawers and drawers that have problems like this are creating other problems for the older or antique chest. Prominent among the secondary problems is the chipping of veneer on the lower rail, the horizontal piece below the drawer. If the drawer sides are worn and allow the front of the drawer to hit the rail each time it closes, it damages the veneer or at least the finish on the rail. It probably is also wearing a notch in the rail at the corners. Tugging at stuck drawers eventually will weaken the case structure and sooner or later will cause the pull or hardware to break. Don’t continue to frustrate yourself and cause further harm to the chest. If you like the piece have it repaired so that it is functional as well as old and pretty.

The last category of chronic disrepair is chairs. Probably more than 50 percent of all older and antique chairs you will ever see are loose and in need of repair and most of them not for the first time. Virtually all chairs that have legs entering the seat bottom, especially Windsors, are loose somewhere as are most turn-of-the-century oak press backs. The longer you wait to have them repaired the less likely you are of getting a good repair. Eventually they are not repairable at all or not worth the cost of making the broken pieces from scratch. Upholstered chairs and sofas are almost as bad. When a spring goes or webbing starts to poke out the bottom, it’s way past the time to visit an upholstery shop. Continued use with broken springs and rotten webbing places undue strain on the frame of the chair, and the longer you wait to fix the upholstery the more likely you will need to fix the frame too.

In other words: Make your antiques work for you and pay their way as functional pieces. It usually costs less to repair an antique than it does to buy a new piece and the satisfaction of owning an older piece that actually functions well generally exceeds the cost of repair.

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or Visit Fred’s Web site:

His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques by Fred Taylor” ($25 + $3 S&H). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or


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