Today’s Friday Five is another answer to an awesome reader question. Reader Cathy asked:
“A great find at the thrift store is thrilling to me, and I really like the gems you’ve found. I’m not sure I know how to recognize well made, real wood furniture. Would you be able to educate me (and possibly others) by posting pics of dovetail joints, wood vs. veneer, antique casters, etc.?”
Great question! For today’s Friday Five: five things to look for when shopping for vintage furniture at thrift stores, yard sales, and estate sales!
(1) Real Wood v. Veneer
Real wood is solid wood (obviously); wood veneer is a thin layer of wood that is glued over a piece of either lesser quality wood (like plywood), MDF, or particle board. This picture shows where wood veneer has broken off the wood:
You’ll know a piece has wood veneer often by checking the back of the piece: you can see the layer of veneer over the wood on the back, where it’s unfinished. Also, often wood veneer peels or breaks off, and has to be repaired.
Mid-century modern pieces and Danish pieces often are made with wood veneer. Furniture and pieces are made with wood veneer because it’s less expensive than using solid wood.
Older pieces usually have a thicker veneer than newer pieces. Also, because the older pieces’ veneer was usually hand-cut, they can vary in thickness, whereas newer veneers are very thin and more uniform. (Source)
Wood veneer is still real wood, so it can be sanded, stained, or painted. Just be careful when sanding because it’s thin and can be damaged if you sand too vigorously or too much.
(2) Dovetail Joints v. Other Fasteners
Dovetail joints are often how wood drawers are constructed. You’ll find them on desk, dresser, or cabinet drawers. Drawers also are constructed using miter joints. Fasteners used to construct drawers include staples, screws, or cam-lock nuts and screws.
From Fine Woodworking:
“Dovetails are probably the strongest method for joining two pieces of wood, surface to surface, with the grain running in the same direction.”
Dovetail joints look like this:
The tell-tale sign of dovetail joints are those triangular-shaped cuts in wood, fit together with another piece of wood.
Dovetail joints are considered stronger because they prevent twisting and don’t come apart easily because of how they are fit together. They are often hand-cut. Thus, you usually find them on better-quality and more expensive pieces.
(3) Antique Casters
I asked my friend Larissa from Prodigal Pieces about vintage or antique casters. She refinishes old furniture (and is amazing!) and knows her vintage stuff! Here’s what she said:
“Rust, and wear are the tell-tale signs [that casters are vintage]. There are also some that have stamps for production dates, etc. To find replacements, the best thing would be Etsy or eBay.”
Remember this vintage chest?
It came with casters for three of the legs. I know they’re vintage casters because the wheels are wood, rather than plastic, and the metal parts are a bit rusty.
If the casters are plastic, you know that they’re more modern, not vintage.
(4) Don’t Turn Up Your Nose at Funky Smells
(5) Brand of Furniture
One of the best ways to tell if you’ve got a quality piece of furniture is to check the brand. Thanks to smart phones and Google, you can find information about any brand any time. Some better antique furniture brands include Drexel, Stickley, and Bernhardt – which are more traditional – and Eames and Saarinen for mid-century modern furniture. There are others, so if you find a piece of furniture you love, check inside one of the drawers or on the underside of the piece and Google the name of the manufacturer or seller.
The most important point, though, when buying vintage furniture is that you love the piece. Whether veneer or solid wood, antique or not – if you love it, that’s what matters. Your home should reflect your style and be filled with what you love, whatever the brand or age.
Keep those questions coming! If you have a question about DIY or repurposing or thrifty decorating, email me or leave a comment below! I’d love to answer it.