Know Your Antique Furniture Terminology Part 1

Have you ever been in the position of admiring a friend’s new antique purchase when they remark on the exceptional quality of the qhystfk of the piece? You don’t know whether to look at your watch or pull out the top drawer and agree with them. Or maybe you are trying to describe a new find to a neighbor but are at a loss for words: “The doobie that sits on the whatsit needs some repair to the thingamajig” just doesn’t seem to get it. Or, worst of all, you call a restoration shop to see if they have any of those dohickeys and they laugh at you.

To help guide you through the obscure and sometimes arcane (I had to look it up) world of antiques terminology here are a few of the basics, many of which I am sure you already know but still you may find a new pearl to amaze and delight your friends.

Acanthus – This leg of an Empire table shows an example of acanthus leaf carving.

Acanthus – This leg of an Empire table shows an example of acanthus leaf carving.

Acanthus Carving — The leafy carving on much traditional furniture. It is said to resemble the leaves of the acanthus bush, but since it only grows in Africa, Asia and southern Europe, I will take it on faith.

Bail — See “Post & Bail” below.

Canterbury — Fancy English name for a book rack, generally on wheels with a handle, not much larger than a footstool.

Cheval — As in cheval glass or cheval mirror. This is a free standing tall mirror supported on the floor by its own base and columns. First popular in the early 19th century.

Crest rail – The crest rail of this Rococo chair is heavily carved.

Crest rail – The crest rail of this Rococo chair is heavily carved.

Crest Rail — The top back rail of a chair.

Dentil Molding — A decorative trim molding of square or rectangular blocks that resemble teeth. Why it is spelled “dentil” instead of “dental” is lost on me.

Escutcheon — The decorative plate that surrounds a keyhole. Usually made of brass, but can be wood or even composition in later pieces. Not to be confused with the “key surround” or “keyhole,” the brass outline of the hole itself.

Finial — It sits on top; usually on a bed post or at the top center of a china cabinet. Some different kinds are acorn, urn, twist, ball and flame.

Muntin – The thin plywood grill over glass in 20th century bookcases is meant to simulate the small pieces of wood that originally held individual panes of glass. It is called a muntin.

Muntin – The thin plywood grill over glass in 20th century bookcases is meant to simulate the small pieces of wood that originally held individual panes of glass. It is called a muntin.

Muntin — That filigree stuff in the glass doors of 20th century china cabinets that always seems to be in bad shape. It’s usually made of very thin plywood or veneer and is used to give the illusion of separate panes of glass in the door. In cabinets that have separate panes of glass, the muntins are the wood pieces actually holding the glass.

Ormolu – The metal trim on this early 20th century vitrine is called ormolu.

Ormolu – The metal trim on this early 20th century vitrine is called ormolu.

Ormolu — Brass, bronze or copper castings that have been gilded and mounted as decorations on furniture. Used first principally by the French in the 18th century and later used extensively in Rococo and Neoclassical stylings. In 20th century reproductions it is often cast “pot metal” that is then painted with brass or gold paint.

Patera — The usually oval-shaped inlaid or carved design featured on the skirts of Federal tables, among others.
Pediment — The top arch or crown on a cabinet that forms the top front. When it is composed of two halves that don’t quite meet in the middle it is called a “broken pediment.” When there is something between the halves it is called a “broken pediment with finial.”

Post & Bail — A type of brass hardware. In the antique version of Queen Anne, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, etc. it comes in six pieces, a solid or pierced back plate, two threaded posts which penetrate the back plate, two hand-made nuts for the posts, and a bail, the drop portion of the hardware that is attached to the posts and serves as the handle itself. In newer reproduction hardware, the entire piece is already assembled, with posts stamped or soldered into the plate and the bail already installed, just fit and apply the screws or nuts provided.

Rail — The horizontal divider between drawers in a chest or the horizontal frame members of a chair.

Splat – The splat in this stylized Queen Anne chair is said to be pierced, unusual for the style.

Splat – The splat in this stylized Queen Anne chair is said to be pierced, unusual for the style.

Splat — (One of my favorites) The vertical “backrest” portion of a chair. They come in many varieties. In Queen Anne chairs they usually are solid and urn shaped. In Chippendale chairs they are “pierced.” In other styles they may be harp shaped, wheel shaped, heart shaped or just about anything else you can think of.

Stile — The vertical support pieces in a cabinet or the upright back supports of a chair. If the chair stiles are turned they are called posts.


Fred Taylor is a Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

WorthPoint: Get the Most from Your Antiques & Collectibles.

No Comments

  1. Digitory says:

    Great post! I am with Digitory Solutions, a content inventory company that writes up items that are destroyed in insurance claims; and then appraise the value.
    I will forward this to my team, great educational post for describing antiques!

  2. James Cook says:

    Mr. Taylor, thank you for sharing so much useful information with your readers. James Cook

  3. Gail says:

    By chance, I am trying to figure out what metal that was used in an 18th century sideboard. The back of the pull looks like silver and the ring is brass. Is the back silver,nickel, or what? Any feedback would be appreciated.