Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Surface and Glaze: Part 2

        And now let's talk about what real patina looks like. To start, 18th and 19th century houses were filthy. Even the fine and expensive houses were not nearly as clean as we might expect. Coal and wood burning stoves were in constant use year-round both for heating and cooking purposes. These put a tremendous amount of soot into the air. After time this and all other environmental factors will dull a finished (painted or varnished) surface, giving it a softer sheen. That dull glow is precisely what collectors and antiques dealers hope to see on a piece of furniture. Honest wear on an early surface is highly desirable. A refinished piece of furniture can hold its value to a degree, but will never be able to compete with a comparable object with a pure surface.
         Here's an 18th century highboy with a very sad surface. In the field we'd call this "scraped" because late 19th and early 20th century cabinet makers, generally the refinishing culprits, would use pieces of broken glass to literally scrape the early finish off before applying a new shiny one. A piece of 18th century furniture should never be this absurd honey color.

We shudder now but at the time this was perfectly acceptable, and all the wealthiest families would have their furniture regularly refinished.  We have a saying in the business "poverty is the best preservative". The late 19th and early 20th century families that did not have the means to refinish their pieces of furniture now have very lucky descendants who have much more valuable objects with untouched surfaces. It's a funny world.

For comparison here is an absolutely wonderful 18th century curly maple highboy that we currently have in the shop. It was likely made in Lebanon, Connecticut around 1760-1785. It retains a very early, possibly original surface, and the color is just to die for.

via LiverantAntiques.com

This surface rule holds true for a painted piece of furniture as well. Below is a superb 18th century tavern table that we just brought to the Winter Antiques Show. That is the original red paint surface on the base- which is phenomenal. Over 250 years, the color has softened and dulled and is just delicious.

via LiverantAntiques.com

And here is a reproduction table. Though the form is quite handsome, you can see how the modern paint surface is jarring in comparison to the 18th century one above.

         And now on to unfinished surfaces. As we evaluate a piece of furniture we spend as much time looking at the unfinished wood surfaces (secondary wood) as we do the exterior. There's a lot secondary wood can tell us as we examine a piece. Secondary wood is more likely to be locally sourced by the cabinet maker- so it can tell us where the piece was made e.g; Chestnut is usually from Eastern Connecticut or Rhode Island while Elm would indicate an English origin, and yellow pine would indicate Southern US origin. But I digress.

          In terms of surface, secondary wood is unfinished, unless something suspicious has occurred. Unfinished wood is much more susceptible to the aging process than finished wood. The wood will oxidize, just like metal rusts. It's a surface reaction that occurs when the wood is exposed to oxygen over an extended (decades) period of time. Because it's a surface reaction, you should be able to remove the oxidation with a fingernail. We call this "the scratch test". It's the first step to determining if a piece is old or not. Here's an example from the backboard of a c.1750 Queen Anne courting mirror.

You can see the soft warm color that oxidation has created on the pine board over so many years.

For the majority of the last two centuries there was a glue block on the back of the mirror supporting the crest. Because that glue block, which is now gone, protected that portion of the pine from oxidation it did not acquire the same patina as the rest of the wood. Can you see the difference in color?

And here's a successful scratch test. I lightly ran my fingernail along the backboard, and as you can see, the scratch is clear as day. That means this is real oxidation, not faked with stain. 

There are unscrupulous individuals who will attempt to fake this soft color with stain. You can't scratch off stain though, it sinks into the wood- so scratch away! Another indicator of age on secondary wood is teeny raised black bumps, about the size of a pin head, that you'll find scattered across the wood surface. On my very first day on the job my boss, a third generation Antiques Dealer who's been in the business for 45 years, showed me these black spots, had me run my fingers across them, and asked me what I thought they were. I'm a clever young lady so I (very logically) stated that as the wood aged it shrank, this must be sap that was forced out of the grain during this shrinking process.

         I was wrong. My boss and co-worker had themselves a delightful bout of laughter at my expense. No, those little black spots are piles of, well, fly poop. Apparently flies leave these little spots as they crawl around. It basically fossilizes over time and leaves these telltale bumps.  I've only ever seen them on pieces that were at least 150 years old. Now again, naughty people who fake antiques will mimic this effect by putting a dark stain or black paint on a stiff brush, sometimes a tooth brush, and lightly splattering the wood. The trick in telling real from fake on fly specks is that the real ones are raised up, and if you run your finger along the surface (there's no room to be squeamish in this field) you can feel the texture.

Can you spot the fly specks?
Here they are!

          One final thought on secondary wood patina, there are fakers who will assemble furniture from salvaged pieces of genuine 18th century furniture. These pieces will have both the real oxidation, and sometimes the fly specks that would indicate authenticity. At these times you must allow the furniture to tell you a story- do all the bits and pieces make sense? Often in assembled pieces something will be off. When in doubt, walk away.

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