"Elementary" Clues to
Solving the Mysteries of Furniture


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

Acanthus - The leafy carving found on traditional furniture. It represents the acanthus bush of ancient Greece.

Aniline dye - A type of colorant accidentally invented in England in the mid 19th century. It was used to produce the vibrant fabric colors of the late Victorian period and was adapted to furniture manufacturing around the turn of the 20th century.

Antique - A genuine artifact of the initial period of introduction. Something valued specifically for its age.

Armoire - One of those French words we inherited. It refers to a large cabinet, primarily for clothes storage used in houses with little or no closet space.

Astragal - The piece of wood that overlaps the joint where two doors meet.

Awl - In woodworking a sharp piece of metal used to scribe lines for cutting or drilling.

Back saw - A saw with a stiff brass or steel spline to keep the blade from bending. Used to make delicate cuts such as those required for dovetailing.

Bail - The part of a drawer or cabinet pull that hangs down from the support posts on each side of the hardware.(See “post”).

Ball and claw - A type of foot popularized by Thomas Chippendale in the mid 18th century. It represents a dragon claw clutching a pearl, drawn from Oriental mythology.

Bandsaw - A saw with a continuous flexible blade that moves in only one direction. Developed in the 19th century.

Bed bolts - Bolts that intersect with implanted nuts to hold siderails securely to the headboards and footboards of a bed.

Bellflower - A decorative element of carving or inlay work found on traditional furniture, consisting of a connected string of three or five leafed flowers.

Block front - A technique of sawing solid wood to produce a three dimensional effect by dividing the frontal space of case goods into (usually) three vertical sections with the center section being concave and the end sections being convex.

Bow - The rounded outside back frame of a Windsor chair. Bent to shape from a single piece of wood.

Breadboard ends - Boards applied to the ends of a flat surface such as a slant front desk top or table top, at right angles to the direction of the grain of the main surface. This keeps the flat surface from warping excessively.

Broken pediment - A pediment that is interrupted in the center.

Bun foot - A turned, slightly flattened round low foot or leg which gained prominence at the beginning of the William and Mary period in the late 17th century.

Burl - The random pattern seen in wood cut from a distur bance in a tree such as a knot or tumor.

Cabriole - The reverse S - shape of a leg which curves out at the knee and curves in toward the ankle.

Cambium - The soft layer of living cells just under the bark of a tree.

Cane - A seating material made from thin strips of the outer skin of cane that can be woven into a fabric-like surface. Older cane seating was installed by weaving individual strands into holes drilled in the seat frame. More recent cane seating is installed from pre-woven sheets and is held in place in a groove in the seat frame.

Caryatids - Female figures used as columns in ancient Greek architecture. They are seen in some classical furniture such as Empire works by Duncan Phyfe.

Case goods - Furniture such as chests, desks and armoires that consist essentially of a box with access to storage using drawers or doors.

Caster - A small wheel attached or implanted in the legs of furniture.

Caveat Emptor - Let the buyer beware.

Chamfer - The angling of an edge to reduce the total thickness of the material, such as on a drawer bottom.

Chinoiserie - A style of Oriental painting popular in the 18th and 19th centuries in the West.

Circular saw - A saw with a rigid round metal blade with teeth on the edge. First introduced in the late 18th century but put into general woodworking use in the second quarter of the 19th century.

Cleat - A piece of wood used to support the side and front rails of early 19th century chairs. Also the small, square or rectangular protrusions on iron bed hardware of the late 19th century.

Crest rail - The top rail of a chair. The top of the back.

Crotch cut - The cutting of wood just below the intersection of a branch with the trunk of a tree. This method produces unusual and attractive grain patterns with a “feathery” look.

Crown glass - Glass produced by twirling a gather of molten glass on the end of an iron rod. The centrifugal force creates a more or less flat “table” of glass to be used in windows and furniture. The primary way of producing “flat” glass in the 18th century.

Cylinder glass - The 19th century method of producing flat glass by swinging a blown bubble of glass to create a cylinder which was then cut and reheated to produce a flat sheet of glass.

Dado - A long straight channel cut into the face of a piece of wood to receive the edge or end of another piece.

Deal - A type of pine usually found in Scotland used as a secondary wood in English furniture.

Dimension - To cut a piece of lumber to a useable size for furniture making.

Dovetail - An interlocking wood joint using roughly triangular shapes called pins and tails to create the joint.

Dowel - A small round, lathe turned wooden rod used to connect two pieces of wood. First used extensively in furniture production beginning in the mid 19th century.

Draw knife - A sharp blade with a handle on each end, mounted at a right angle to the blade. It is used to shape and smooth wood surfaces.

Draw table - A form of extension table developed in the 16th century from the refectory table. Additional surfaces are stored below the table top and withdrawn from each end to make the table longer. A popular style in the Colonial Revival era of the early 20th century.

Ebonize - To paint black.

Escutcheon - The decorative plate applied to the surface around a keyhole. Usually made of metal.

Face veneer - The veneer on a table top or drawer front. The top layer of any veneered surface.

Fake - Something made with the express purpose of deceiving.

Fastener - A device such as nail or screw used to secure two objects together.

Filled finish - The smooth, glass-like finish on a piece of wood produced when the open pores of the grain are filled. Results in the “formal” look of traditional mahogany and walnut furniture.

Finger joint - A type of drawer joinery made by machinery that produced alternating layers of flat “fingers” which are glued together for strength. Developed in the late 19th century and used in light weight applications such as jewelry boxes.

Finial - The ornament that sits at the top of a post or on the crest of a pediment. Some types are flame, acorn, urn, twist and ball.

Flat cut - The method of cutting lumber from a log by successively cutting length wise without regard to ensuing grain pattern. It results in a single log producing small quantities of lumber that represents every kind of cutting technique including quarter cut and rift cut.

Flat glass - The term used for glass in mirrors, windows and furniture. Also called “broad” glass.

Float glass - Essentially flawless glass made by a method developed in 1959. Molten glass is floated on a still bed of molten tin creating glass with a surface smoothness of 1/25,000 of an inch without further grinding or polishing.

Flush - A surface that is exactly even or level with another surface with no underlapping or overlapping.

Fluting - Deep concave channels cut parallel to each other in the legs and columns of classical furniture. Quality fluting is deeply cut with smooth curves at the end of each cut. The narrow ridges between flutes are called fillets.

Froe - A long handle tool used to separate wood bolts in the riving process.

Gash saw - A rough toothed reciprocal saw, steam or water powered used in saw mills to cut lumber from trees. Used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries before the general use of the circular saw.

Gimlet screw - A screw with a pointed end. Developed in the 1840’s as the successor to the flat tipped screw.

Golden oak - Not really a kind of oak itself. Merely the color of white oak when stained light or finished naturally. Also used to denote the period at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century when the production of oak furniture was at its peak.

Gondole - The rounded twisting shape of the arms and back of late Empire/Classicism chairs, especially those made by Francois Seignouret of New Orleans and Joseph Meeks and Sons of New York in the mid 1800’s.

Gluede up - Describes large surfaces made of gluing many smaller boards together. Used to produce seats of modern Windsor chairs. Original Windsors had a single board seat.

Hardwood - A deciduous tree. Does not refer to the strength or hardness of the wood.

Jack plane - A plane with a convex blade used to dimension flat surfaces such as drawer bottoms and back panels.

Joint - The intersection of two pieces of wood.

Klismos- A light, classical form of chair developed in ancient Greece with curved, saber legs and a curved, shaped back and crest. Very popular in Empire form in the 19th century.

Knapp joint - A type of joint invented by Charles Knapp just after the Civil War. One of the first useful machine made drawer joints. It used a “scallop and dowel” approach to joinery instead of dovetails.

Lathe - A machine for making round wooden parts powered by foot, water, steam or electricity.

Lumber core plywood - A product developed in the early 20th century to produce flat furniture surfaces. It starts with a core of thick solid wood. Layers of decreasing thickness of veneer are added with alternating grain directions. Has unusual structural strength and resistance to warping.

Marlborough leg - A square leg with no foot or with a larger square foot sometimes employed by Thomas Chippendale.

Marking gauge - A precision wooden and brass instrument used in woodworking to mark areas for cutting.

MDF - Medium density fiber board. A late 20th century invention made essentially of heavily compressed paper and used as an underlayment for veneered surfaces in furniture production.

Medullary ray - The horizontal veins in a tree trunk that carry nourishment from the core, (the pith) to the cambium. When properly cut these rays exhibit a remarkable pattern called “tiger eye” in oak and other hardwoods.

Melon turning - The large bulbous turns on Jacobean and Elizabethan furniture. Also called “bulb” turnings.

Mill saw - The rough saw in a saw mill used to convert timber to lumber. A mill saw may be a gash saw, a band saw or a circular saw.

Miter joint - The intersection of two pieces of wood where each piece has been cut at a 45 degree angle so as to form a right angle when joined.

Mortise - A hole cut into a piece of wood to match and receive its counterpart the tenon. Mortises may be round, square or rectangular.

Muntin - Originally the individual pieces of wood that held panes of glass in the doors of case goods. In the 20th century it denotes the thin piece of decorative plywood installed over the glass to simulate the look of individual panes of glass.

Ogee - An S shaped curve also called a cyma curve.

Overcut - A cut by a saw that goes beyond the indicated mark.

Oxidation - The process of wood reacting with the atmosphere. The longer unprotected wood is exposed, the darker it gets.

Pad foot - A type of Queen Anne foot that has a small built up area, the pad, below the foot itself.

Panel construction - A method of creating a surface by inserting free floating panels of wood into a supporting frame to allow room for expansion and contraction of the wood.

Panel saw - What we think of today as the regular hand saw. Developed by the Dutch in the 17th century.

Particle board - A man-made material composed of wood fiber and saw dust in a mixture of glue, used in place of solid wood sides and top. Came into general use in furniture construction in the late 1950’s.

Patera - An oval or round inlay pattern frequently found in early 19th century Federal furniture.

Patina - The look of an old, undisturbed surface acquired through years of use, care and abuse. Very difficult to simulate and highly desirable in most cases.

Pediment - The top portion of tall case goods, often triangular shaped, that simulates an architectural element from classical Greece. Pediments usually reach across the width of a piece rising to a peak or an arch in the center.

Phillips screw - A 20th century variation of a machine made screw that has an incised cross instead of a slot to engage a driver.

Pit saw - An early method of converting timber to lumber. A log is extended over a deep pit. One sawyer stands atop the log and another in the pit. Each man operates one end of a large hand powered saw.

Plane - A block of wood with a flat metal blade extending through the bottom used to smooth or dress lumber and also to create shaped edges.

Plywood - The layering of thin sheets of wood with the grain patterns at right angles to each previous layer creating a strong solid sheet of material. Came into use in furniture production around the beginning of the 20th century.

Pod auger - A type of 18th century bit with a rounded end used with a hand operated brace. Also called a spoon auger.

Post - The part of a drawer pull that goes into or through the face of the drawer and holds one end of the bail. (See “bail”).

Premium - The amount over and above the winning bid price one may pay at auction. Usually a flat percentage of the bid price.

Primary wood - The main wood seen in a piece of furniture. It may be solid or veneer and comprise only a small part of the piece but it is the wood most visible.

Prospect door - The small door found in the interior cubby hole section of drop front desks.

Quarter cut - A method of cutting lumber and veneer so that the majority of the end grain pattern is 60 to 90 degrees to the face of the board. This minimizes warping and exposes the maximum number of medullary rays. Quarter cutting accounts for the dramatic figuring called “cat’s eye” or “tiger eye” often seen in early 20th century oak furniture.

Quatrefoil - A Rounded, four lobed design often seen in Gothic Revival furniture of the 19th century.

Rabbet joint - Also called a rebate joint. One piece of wood partially overlaps another and fits into a section that has been cut out to receive it.

Race - A channel or grove for something to fit into such as the channel for a roll top desk tambour or the cut out portion of a Victorian era side rail to accommodate the iron hardware, the “horseshoe.

Rail - A horizontal structural member of furniture such as the board between drawers in a chest or the pieces of wood that compose the frame of a chair to receive a slip seat.

Reeding - The opposite of fluting. Deeply incised convex parallel cuts in the legs or columns of classical furniture.

Refinish - To completely remove all finish from the surface of a piece of furniture and apply a completely new surface.

Reproduction - A more or less faithful copy of an original design but not necessarily made with the intent to deceive.

Resurface - To apply a new surface or finish over an existing one without completely removing the old one.

Revival - A reintroduction of an earlier theme or fashion but includes some elements of the contemporary period.

Rift cut - A method of cutting lumber and veneer that produces the maximum straight line grain pattern with as little variation as possible. The opposite effect of that achieved by quarter cutting.

Rive or riven - The process of obtaining lumber from timber by splitting the wood into successively smaller pieces, called bolts, without actually cutting the wood. The process was used in most furniture production prior to the beginning of 18th century.

Roller glass - Glass produced in the early 20th century by pulling nearly molten glass through a series of cooled iron rollers to flatten into sheets. Produces a readily identifiable distortion pattern of parallel lines in the glass.

Rosehead - The effect on the head of a hand wrought nail by the impact of the hammer used to create the head. A head of the nail usually was made with only three or four blows, each of which creates a flat spot on one side of the head.

Rotary saw - See “circular saw”.

Rush - A material used in seating originally made by twisting wet cattail leaves into a tight cord and weaving the cord around the frame of the seat of a chair into a suspension platform. Newer rush, called “fiber rush” is made of what amounts to twisted, sometimes variegated craft paper.

Secondary wood - The wood that comprises the structural and unseen portions of a piece of furniture. Secondary wood is almost always less expensive and more available than primary wood.

Seeds - The small imperfections caused by the trapped pockets of gas common in older glass production methods.

Side rail - The part of a bed that connects the headboard to the footboard and normally supports the main bedding material.

Slip seat - A seat that is easily removed from a chair. The seat itself may or may not be screwed or nailed to the chair and the upholstery is not attached to the chair.

Slipper foot - A minor variation of a Queen Anne foot which is rounded at the back but tapered toward the front.

Softwood - An evergreen tree. Does not refer to the hardness or softness of the wood itself.

Spanish foot - An under turned scrolled foot with vertical ribs often seen on William and Mary and Queen Anne pieces.

Splashboard - The piece of material that rises above the level of the top surface in the rear of a piece to keep objects from sliding off and in the case of serving pieces to keep food and drink away from the wall.

Splat - The center section of a chair that connects the seat rail to the crest rail.

Spoon bit - See “pod auger”.

Steeple - The pattern created in the grain of a piece of wood by flat cutting it. The pattern resembles a succession of rounded church steeples or soft Gothic arches.

Stile - The vertical structural component of a piece of furniture. In a chair it is the upright post on each side of the splat that connects the seat to the crest. In case goods the stiles form the corners of the cabinet.

Stretcher - The piece of wood that connects the legs of a chair to each other.

Structural members - Those pieces of wood in furniture that carry the weight of the piece and maintain the overall integrity of the work. A frame or other load bearing arrangement.

Stump cut - Veneer cut from the lowest section of a tree stump which produces an unusual, sometimes random pattern.

Tenon - The protruding end of a piece of wood that fits into a mortise to comprise a joint.

Tiger eye - See “quarter cut”.

Tracery - The intricate pierced carvings seen in the splats of Gothic Revival chairs.

Trefoil - The rounded three lobed design in Gothic Revival themes.

Triffid foot - A foot divided into three sections.

Trumpet turning - The turnings on William and Mary style pieces that resemble the down turned horn of a trumpet.

Trunnel - The peg inserted through a mortise and tenon joint to add additional stability. Originally called a “true nail”, the pronunciation evolved into trunnel.

Turnip foot - See “bun foot”

Underlayment - The substrate to which veneer is attached.

Valenced - Balanced scroll work on the lower edges of a skirt or rail. Very prominent in Queen Anne and William and Mary case goods. Meant to represent the folds in fabric draped over beds and windows.

Veneer - Very thin sheets of wood applied to the surface of furniture. Originally used as a decorative item it became an increasingly important part of conservation efforts world wide.

Vetted - An antiques or art show is said to be “vetted” when a panel of experts in the fields certifies that each item in the show is appropriate to the period, quality and style of the show.

Warping - A type of shrinkage that distorts the shape of a piece of wood. Caused by uneven exposure to the elements or a cutting process that is not properly aligned with the direction of the grain in the wood.

Wicker - The stems of small rattan palms or willow shoots which are interwoven and wrapped around a structural frame to produce a semi solid fabric for covering furniture. In the late 19th century a loom was invented that could wrap paper around a wire core and produce simulated wicker, thus accounting for the proliferation of factory made wicker furniture at the end of the century.

Workmanlike manner - The concept employed when all work was done by hand. It states that if something is not seen it does not need to excessively smoothed or finished. Unseen parts of older furniture still bear the tool marks and traces of this labor saving concept.