"Elementary" Clues to
Solving the Mysteries of Furniture


Fred Taylor, columnist of the Nationally Syndicated "Common Sense Antiques"

 

 

Paperback: 182 pages, A. D. Publishing

(October 2, 2003)

 ISBN: 0970337825

 

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The original, How to be a Furniture Detective (NOT TO BE CONFUSED with the Warman's book by the same title and same author last name) is written by Fred Taylor, one of America's leading authorities on older and antique American furniture.

How to be a Furniture Detective will help you discover the following:

  • How to determine the basic style of a piece
  • How old it is
  • How to identify the wood
  • How to examine a piece of furniture before you purchase
  • How to determine its condition
  • Clues that tool marks leave
  • How drawer joinery tells the tale of its origins
  • How to detect shrinkage of the wood and what it means
  • What screws, nails and joints reveal
  • Color and black & white photos and illustrations
  • And much, much more

Table of Contents Book Excerpts Book Reviews

Nationally known antiques columnist Fred Taylor's new book, "HOW TO BE A FURNITURE DETECTIVE", is couched in the Sherlock Holmes method of finding and evaluating clues. At a quick read of 182 pages, it is a concise but thorough adventure in the questioning of the "suspect" with the objective of revealing the age, origin, style, wood and condition of a piece of older or antique furniture.


Early chapters cover the tools a good detective will need to track down clues, such as a magnifying glass and flashlight but Taylor also encourages the reader to make the best use of the personal senses of touch, smell, sight and hearing. A quick overview is provided on where to look for good furniture and then the book gets down to the nitty-gritty covering the details of period fasteners, types and dates of joinery, chair and bed construction and then on to tools and the clues they left by the marks they made.

"HOW TO BE A FURNITURE DETECTIVE" has an excellent section on how to identify the wood used in furniture construction and has several color photographs of typical examples and the discussions on veneer and old glass will answer a number of common questions, including how to date furniture glass by its distortion patterns.”



The "Style" section is a no frills look from a historical perspective covering major American styles and periods with examples, both in color and in black and white, of each important category.

The final sections of the book lead the reader through the process of evaluating a piece of furniture by examining the condition of the elements making up the piece, including the structure, the hardware, the veneer and the finish. All of this is wrapped up by a "test yourself" section, a suggested reading list and a glossary of terms used in the book.

Taylor’s experience in the furniture restoration business and his knack for clear explanation makes this compact book a powerful package to be added to the library of any collector, no matter the level of expertise but it will be especially useful to those just starting out on the furniture journey.

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Table of Contents


Introduction

Foreword

Chapter 1 -- Getting Started

Chapter II -- On The Trail

Chapter III -- Questioning The Suspect--Age and Construction

Chapter IV -- What Is It Made Of? -- Age and Materials

Chapter V -- Does the Suspect Have Style? Includes Color Gallery of Furniture Styles and Wood Grains

Chapter VI -- Can It Testify? What is the Suspect's Condition?

Chapter VII -- Final Exam

Chapter VIII -- Solve the Mystery

Bibliography

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Book Excerpts

By the middle of the 19th century the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and the factory system was overtaking furniture production. The old style hardware arrangements of Federal beds and Empire beds was very time consuming. Exact holes had to be drilled and nuts implanted in exact places. Everything had to be done so skillfully and individually that it just didn’t fit the new system.

A new type of bed fastener using downward facing iron mortise and tenon joints had been developed in the 1820’s but the idea of interlocking metal pieces did not receive wide-spread attention until mid century. By then the hardware had gone through another evolution and resembling square cast iron cleats with enlarged square heads protruding from the end of the side rail. These cleats engaged another cast iron device, attached to the headboard and footboard, which had matching square holes atop a slot. When the cleats entered the square holes, their shafts slid down the slots and the downward pressure held the bed together.

The visible part of the hardware, the protruding cleats, didn’t reveal the true ingenuity behind the hardware. When a wooden cover is removed from the end of a Victorian side rail the real secret is revealed - the horseshoe. The cleats actually are part of what looks like a horseshoe with the end closed. This “D” shaped appliance was then inserted in a race cut into the side rail by a mechanical drill with the top side flush to the rail and the cleats extending beyond the end. When the wooden cover was applied nothing was visible, or accessible to tear bed linens, except the cleats.

Some versions of the same idea merely drove cast iron spikes with the enlarged square heads directly into the side rail but this was not as reliable or sturdy a system as the horseshoe arrangement although it did use less metal.

In any event, here was the perfect factory adaptation for making beds. The hardware could be mass produced from molds in a foundry with each horseshoe and each receiver turning out identical. The horseshoe could then be installed in a race that was perfectly cut every time by a mechanical drill press. After that it was covered by a piece of wood cut by a circular saw and nailed over the hardware with fasteners (nails) cut by machinery.

By the mid 1800’s, cast iron bed hardware became the norm. The most prevalent in the Victorian era was the “horseshoe” seen on the lower right. This appliance was installed in the side rail (top) in a circular groove, the race, and was covered by a small board. The exposed ends of the horseshoe engaged the fitting on the left which was implanted in the head and foot posts. A variation of the horseshoe was the straight spike, center, which was driven into a pilot hole in the siderail.

How to be a Furniture Detective by Fred Taylor

Three layer plywood came into use around the turn of the 20th century primarily as drawer bottoms and mirror backs. This early version of plywood employed a nice face of walnut, mahogany or maple for interior drawer use but it was not substantial enough to be used for structural surfaces.

Early in the 20th century the idea of “lumber core” plywood became the norm in the manufactured furniture industry in America. This new “wood” started with a solid lumber core of an inexpensive wood such as gum or poplar which was very nearly the thickness of the anticipated finished panels. In some cases oak was used even then as the core on better grades of furniture. Then cross bands of veneer, also of an inexpensive wood, roughly 1/20 inch were applied to both sides of the core with the grain running at a ninety degree angle to the grain of the core.

Finally the piece was finished off with the application of another layer of cheap veneer on the bottom of the panel and a layer of face veneer, usually mahogany or walnut, on the top surface with the grain running in the same direction as that of the core. The resulting five layer veneer sandwich was now stable enough to be used as a table top, dresser top or drawer front. This lumber core plywood was the foundation for most American furniture manufactured from 1920 to 1960. Non structural elements like the sides and backs of case goods and interior drawer dividers and dust covers continued to be made of three ply material while some high grade manufacturers used as many as eleven plies in curved applications like bowfront drawers and doors.

The development of lumber core plywood early in the 20th century is the basis for most furniture produced since then. It starts with a thick solid core of an inexpensive wood. Four additional layers of veneer, with their grain patterns at right angles to each other finish the construction, producing an extremely stable flat surface.



How to be a Furniture Detective by Fred Taylor

The word “rococo” is derived from the words for the rocks and shells used to build the garden retreats of Versailles in the 18th century, “rocailles” and “coquilles”. This elaborately decorative style progressed to furniture in the form of elegant carvings of flora and fauna, graceful curves in frames and a general air of opulence.

Rococo is the form most usually represented as being the “Victorian” style and was produced longer than any other style in the century.

One of the main designers and builders in the rococo style was the New York cabinetmaker John Henry Belter who trained in Germany where he learned the technique of lamination. He glued together as many as sixteen very thin strips of rosewood and oak to make a surface strong enough to withstand the elaborate pierced carvings that were his hallmark. His chairs and sofas were surrounded by a halo of carved, flowing vines, leaves, flowers and fruit.

While Belter’s work represented the top of the scale in rococo furniture, quite lower scale, inexpensive versions were being produced in factories all over the country with shallow machine carvings and clumsy lines.

One of the most recognizable forms of the rococo period is the Victorian balloon back chair, named for its resemblance to a hot air balloon. Chairs and sofas in this style are still being produced today.

The main woods of the rococo style were walnut at the lower end of the scale and rosewood at the upper levels.

How to be a Furniture Detective by Fred Taylor

 

This is an elegant example of Rococo styling by J. and J.W. Meeks. They used lamination to produce a background stable enough for the elaborate pierced carvings. J. H. Belter was also a master of this technique, often being credited (erroneously) with the concept of lamination. (Flomaton Antique Auction).

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What The Critics Say

Book Reviews

"Mysteries of vintage pieces solved by veteran columnist." – Robert Reed,  Antique & Collectible News Service

"Fred Taylor understands you’re probably not a rocket scientist. As such, he doesn’t treat you like one. He also knows it’s unlikely you have a degree in furniture construction or furniture styles.  Chances are good you’re just an average person who likes antiques and wouldn’t mind knowing a little more about furniture. As such, Taylor has just the book for you. The popular Antique Week columnist recently published "HOW TO BE A FURNITURE DETECTIVE".

This is no oversized, overbearing treatise that reads like a doctoral thesis. Instead Taylor takes a refreshing approach that’s more like two old friends talking over a cup of coffee. The book is basic, but it doesn’t treat the reader like an idiot. Taylor patiently paces through the fundamentals of understanding antique furniture. He begins by explaining the tools needed to be an antique detective. Then, point by point, he leads the reader through the process of examining a piece of furniture so that it reveals essential clues regarding age and condition. For anyone wanting an easy-reading book to teach them a thing or two about judging the age and makeup of piece of furniture, this title is perfect." – Don Johnson, Antique Week.

How to be a Furniture Detective by Fred Taylor

"When friends interested in learning about antique furniture ask me to recommend a good basic book on the subject, I’ve been hard pressed to answer. Many of the books out there lump furniture in with other subjects, or assume that the reader already knows what distinguishes true period furniture from the “merely old.”

Fortunately, Fred Taylor, a respected longtime furniture restorer, collector and writer on the subject has authored a new book "HOW TO BE A FURNITURE DETECTIVE." Although furniture joints and tool marks can make for dry subjects, Taylor treats his readers to an entertaining writing style, plenty of full color and black and white photos, and solid information gained from his years of experience.

There is an overview of styles, a full color page showing common wood grains and a helpful section on antique glass and mirrors. As an added plus, the book is published in paperback, keeping the cost down and making it light enough to carry along to antique malls, tag sales and auctions. In short it’s a valuable resource beginning furniture sleuths will find well worth investigating." – Sarah Campbell Drury, Busy Bee Trader, American Society of Appraisers

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