Study the piece carefully. Can you see if the wood is solid or veneered?
A veneer is a thin slice of hardwood that is glued to a base wood of pine, oak, chipboard, ply-wood or MDF. It gives the impression that the piece is made of a more expensive wood. The usual wood used to make veneers is oak, mahogany, yew and rosewood.
If there are veneers, do they look quite thick or are they paper-thin? Thin veneers would be dated from about 1900 onwards. With earlier furniture, wider solid boards and thicker veneers were used. Later pieces have thinner solid boards, as wood became much more expensive in the last century.
When you open the drawers, can you see whether the insides are polished or dry and dusty? Early furniture would never have been polished on the inside. Modern drawers are usually made from plywood, whereas earlier ones were made from solid pine, oak and more rarely mahogany.
Look at the dovetail joints on drawers, are they bulky or fine? Modern joints look machine cut. These will look bulky and too regular. If the joints are fine, they often reflect the craftsmanship of an earlier period.
Look under the piece. If the underside of a table looks clean and shiny, then it is most likely to be modern. Look at the screws, if they are slightly irregular in shape they are handmade. This means it is an early piece. Crosshead screws will only be found on modern furniture or on modern repairs.
The biggest giveaway is the distressing and patina – the marks and scratches on the surfaces. Reproduction furniture tends to be artificially “distressed” and will have regular dents and scratches all over the piece. With earlier pieces the distressing will be more evident around the base and feet and where years of wear would normally have occurred. In the life of an antique, many layers of polish, wax, grease and dust build up the surfaces. This is known as patination. Patination is hard to fake, so look at the under side of handles, carvings and the chair arms to see if these areas are darker. Heavy stain waxes can be applied to areas to fake patination.
On modern lacquered finishes, a dent will appear white. On Victorian and Edwardian items with a shellac varnish, dents show up pale yellow.
It is always good to see a little bit of rot and woodworm in a piece, as this shows age, although faking woodworm holes is easy!
Modern mass-produced furniture is inevitably machine-made and lacks character. Old furniture has been handcrafted using hand planes, saws and chisels, giving its lines and surfaces slight unevenness and feel.