Detecting Furniture’s Cheap Tricks & Fake Finishes
This fake quarter-sawn oak drop front desk was made using Sherwood’s roller printing method on birch.
Throughout most of the history of wooden furniture, there have been many attempts to disguise the true nature of the wood used. Most attempts are efforts to make a lesser wood appear to be a more expensive, more beautiful or more exotic species. It may be that the desired wood is too expensive for the maker to use or it might be that it is just not available at any price—or it could be that the maker just thought he could do it cheaper and get away with it. Some of the cosmetic charades have been quite artful and ingenious while some have been heavy handed, clumsy and obvious.
In the 18th- and 19th-centuries, some furniture made of lesser-quality wood was just painted to conceal the actual construction. But another school of makers used graining as a method of disguising the true material. In the late 18th century, the graining of cabinets was in full swing. Many of these examples are works of art, such as the chest on chest made by the Dunlap family of cabinetmakers in New Hampshire (which sold at auction in North Carolina in 2005 for $276,000). The cabinet looked like real wood, even to the trained eye.
A more common application was the use of black ink over a reddish background to simulate the look of rosewood. This became especially popular in the mid 19th century, when rosewood Empire pieces were at a premium. Walnut Victorian chairs were often given a red wash and grained with black to look like the much more expensive rosewood. Even crotch-cut mahogany was widely synthesized, since it has such an erratic pattern and almost any graining technique will work. Many mid-century crotch mahogany cupboards are actually painted pine or poplar. Most of this kind of work was done by individual cabinetmakers or artists
However, by the end of the 19th century, the deception became commercial rather than individual. In 1885, an inventor in Grand Rapids, Mich., named Harry Sherwood came up with a system to mechanically grain just about any wood to look like the most popular wood of the time: quarter-cut golden oak. Quarter-cutting oak to produce the prominent “tiger eye” design is an expensive process, both in material and in labor time, and this new system allowed Sherwood to open a new business based exclusively on his deceptive graining practices.
These two mid- to late-19th-century chairs were grained to make a plain wood, in this case birch, look like more expensive rosewood.
Flat surfaces were stained and then grained with large, inked drum rollers that produced the distinctive pattern. Curved pieces were grained by hand, using small specially carved rollers. Many furniture manufacturers of the time quickly adopted the technique and it was in widespread use by 1910. The furniture looked “right” to the uneducated customer’s eye but it was made of significantly less-expensive material, like softwood pine instead of quarter-cut white oak. The surprise would come many years later when one of these pieces needed to be refinished. What had looked like a solid-oak chest turned out to be a plain softwood chest after it was stripped. Many refinishers had a lot of explaining to do.
This “Borax” chest from the 1930s is made of a plain secondary wood that has a fancy finish printed on it.
That problem continued with a vengeance into the Depression era. Hard times result in innovative solutions and some manufacturers took Mr. Sherwood’s approach to new heights. During the 1920s and 1930s, a line of furniture was mass produced that closely imitated Sherwood’s concept except in scale. In the 1920s, the deception was much more widespread. The furniture was quickly constructed of inexpensive wood using every shortcut known to the industry, including the absence of dust covers inside cabinets, the use of quick, machine-cut rabbet joints or nailed joints in drawer construction instead of dovetails, and the use of printed or rolled grained finishes made to resemble real wood. Then areas of the flat surfaces were outlined with thin router lines and the included areas received another layer of color. The effect was that of an expensively and artistically veneered piece of furniture. This type of furniture was referred to as “Borax” furniture because a cleaning product containing borax gave away coupons to redeem for cheap furniture like this. During the Depression, the word borax came to mean cheap when used in reference to furniture.
Another great deception in furniture was reserved for the Art Moderne (Art Deco) period. Part of the allure of many pieces of the period was the wide variety of woods and veneers used to create the outstanding veneer patterns. One wood widely used was called Oriental or Australian walnut; a uniformly striped wood often used on drawer fronts in diamond patterns. Another popular wood used in banding was the closely striped zebra wood or zebrano. But zebrano was costly for the time and, in less expensive pieces, it was often successfully simulated with “veneerite,” a fake paper veneer with the grain pattern printed on it.
The vertical striped banding below the drawer looks like zebra wood veneer but it is printed paper known as “veneerite.” You can see where it has worn off in the middle section.
After the Depression era, the need for deception seemed to diminish for a while. It was virtually gone in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, but it came roaring back in the 1980s, sporting a new name and a new game.
This time, the trickery was touted as the “engraved” finish. What appeared to be virtually identical dining tables could be seen on furniture show room floors, but the prices were significantly different, often by more than $1,000 for a single table. Why? Because one table was made with mahogany veneer—the expensive one—while the cheaper model had an engraved mahogany finish. What’s that? It was back to the old borax trick. It was a printed finish. And not only was it a printed finish, it was not even printed directly on the wood, as the borax finish was. The new engraved finish was printed directly on the new substrate known as “MDF,” which stands for “medium density fiberboard.” It is called heavy-duty cardboard by the rest of us.
Learn to detect fake finishes.
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