By its very nature, vintage furniture is of higher quality than new furniture. Right now, materials are much more expensive now than they ever have been historically, so naturally, new furniture makers have little choice but to either charge “an arm and a leg” for their quality furniture, or, more commonly, make furniture out of cheaper, lesser quality materials in order to keep their price points in line with what consumers expect. Add to the fact that a great deal of mass market furniture that is being sold these days is made in China to less-than-exacting quality standards, and the waters become even more murky.
There are certainly companies out there that are still making excellent quality furniture out of high grade materials, but you can expect to pay dearly for the privilege of owning these pieces. For example, a perusal of the Baker Furniture catalog (a high end furniture maker that still produces excellent quality pieces) will show you that the average base price for an upholstered armchair runs around $3000. A similar search on eBay will reveal numerous comparable vintage choices selling for less than $500 each. Now, obviously, most vintage furniture is in “vintage” condition, and we will go over condition issues in much greater detail under number 3 in the list of “The Finer Points of Buying Vintage Furniture”.
Having said all this, quality does vary from vintage piece to vintage piece. Not ALL vintage furniture was made well. However, as a rule of thumb, even the most lowly, factory made piece of furniture made in the 1950s will be made to last 100 times longer than the average piece of furniture purchased at a designer showroom today. Just the simple fact that most furniture built before the 1970s was made with veneer over plywood or lumbercore instead of the particleboard that became de rigeur starting in the 1970s insures that pre-1970s furniture will last longer and withstand more use than much of what is produced today.
There are several things to look for when assessing a piece of vintage furniture for quality. The presence of particleboard is just one. Particleboard isn’t always that easy to detect, because in the better quality furniture of the 1970s (for instance), it was fairly common to build drawers out of solid wood, but have the case of the piece made out of veneered particleboard.
While the presence of particleboard in a piece of vintage furniture is not always a “red flag” – I’ve sold many pieces over the years that were great quality, great looking pieces of furniture, but had particleboard somewhere in their construction – but it does give you good information, in that the piece likely dates from the 1970s or later, and that there’s the possibility that it’s not as well made as it appears. One “insider secret” to telling if a piece of furniture is made of particleboard is this: if the piece is inordinately heavy, it’s likely that it’s made of particleboard as particleboard is much heavier than plywood or lumbercore.
Another thing to look for in vintage case pieces (dressers, buffets, sideboards, desks) is dovetail joinery in the drawers – especially in the rear corners of a drawer (that is, if you pull a drawer out completely, the back corners should be dovetailed as well). Once again, quality pieces of furniture that don’t have dovetail joinery certainly exist, but for the most part, if a piece was made well, it will have dovetail joints.
For upholstered pieces of furniture, the “lift test” is usually the best indicator of quality. If a club chair doesn’t weigh more than 40 lbs, there’s a definite possibility that the construction isn’t really up to snuff. This is simply a factor of how much wood was used in the frame, and the heavier the better. The same rule applies to chrome furniture. A chair with a chromed steel frame should be VERY heavy. If it’s light weight, you can immediately tell that the quality isn’t there.
Quality is just ONE of the finer points of buying vintage furniture. Keep an eye out for my next article, where I will be discussing the second of the five points, Provenance.