Skip to main content

Dovetails and nails offer clues to chest’s origin

Furniture Detective Fred Taylor tackles reader's questions about handmade dovetails on a tiger maple chest and a non-antique coffee table in his latest column.

QI have a dresser, and wondered if you can help us date it, and tell us about what it is worth. This is from my grandmother’s estate but we do not know where it came from. It has the original back and inlaid eagles with bow in feet, and inlaid fans style motif in corners of drawers.

The drawers have a thin “pinstripe” around the edge. They graduate bottom to top. There are cracks in wood on side panels. The drawers and slides, with older dovetailing, are original. There seems to be square nails throughout, and here and there, round headed nails. The bottoms of drawers are one piece of wood, rougher on the underside -- Castors included – do not know if original.
The pulls have been changed and a hole inside the ones on it are filled but visible. No markings of the maker. The corners of front are rounded, and it is solid tiger/curly maple, not veneer. Thank you so much.

— N.B.

AYour tiger maple chest of drawers has some of the basic elements of Hepplewhite, the string inlay outlining the drawers and the quarter fan inlay in the corners and the eagle is a typical symbol of the Federal or Classical period of the early 19th century.

The chest is certainly handmade evidenced by the handmade dovetails. You can even see the jack plane marks on the rear panels showing the wood was hand dimensioned by the maker in the shop as opposed to the field cuts of the mill saw faintly visible on the drawer bottoms. The large single piece drawer bottoms and the width of the boards making up the back attest to its age.

The original hardware almost certainly would have been what is generally referred to as “Hepplewhite” pulls with the oval stamped or cast backplate attached with handmade screws and supporting a hanging bail. The casters have been added at a later date for convenience.

The chest, while exhibiting some of the formal Federal elements, appears to be more of a country styling with the rounded front corners and the stylized, simplified eagle inlay. The square headed nails point to a slightly later origin in the period rather than earlier. The square or rectangular flat head on cut nails was produced by a stamping process in use at the end of the first quarter of the 19th century and was in continuous use for the next 60 years until the introduction of the round wire nail in the 1880s. The round nails in this chest are much later additions.

The chest appears to be from southern New England to the mid-Atlantic, circa 1830. Without lots more information I would not hazard a guess of its value. I suggest you have it appraised by a licensed appraiser familiar with this period.


QI have an antique coffee table which has a great deal of inlay in the top. It has gotten scratched in several places and the finish is generally bad.

Will I ruin the inlay if I refinish the top?
— D.M.
Williamsport, Pennsylvania

AYour coffee table is not antique. There are no antique coffee tables, but that’s another story. Now the question becomes – what is the composition of the inlay in your table top?

If the inlay is clearly made of wood then you will not ruin it by refinishing the top as long as you are careful about the concentration of the stripper and observe the precaution of the total avoidance of water in the project. If some of the inlay does come loose and lifts, just reglue using a syringe to inject under the piece and clamp it back down with a board and a brick.

On the other hand, if your inlay is not wood you need to carefully consider the project. One possibility for the inlay might be brass, such as in Regency style articles and in some Middle Eastern or Indian pieces. Stripping won’t bother this type of inlay. Another type of inlay could be mother of pearl, which won’t be affected drastically, or it could be a synthetic substance. I have seen many inlaid pieces from the 1930s and later that appeared to have ivory or mother of pearl inlay only to find out (to my chagrin) that it actually was a type of plastic which melts at the mere thought of stripper.

If you have any doubt about the make-up of the inlay and if it is anything other than easily identifiable as wood or metal, perhaps you should consider just cleaning and recoating rather than stripping and refinishing. Any of the scratches and flaws that remain will just have to be attributed to “character.”

For more information: Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email Visit and check out the new downloadable “Common Sense Antiques” columns in .pdf format. Fred’s book, “How To Be A Furniture Detective,” is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17+$3 S&H) is also available. Send checks or money orders to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423. For more information call (800) 387-6377 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail All items are also available directly from

Weekly Showcase



Over 100 YEARS of Chinese History - Our pristine Jade Collection is extensive and beautiful!  Please visit our web site to get an idea of how beautiful this collection is.