Chair backs, table skirts, arms, legs, and other curved parts of furniture are telltale signs of quality. If a piece is a single piece of solid steam-bent wood, it will last longer and look more elegant than pieces made with thin strips of laminated wood.
Solid-wood furniturelasts an average of 10 to 15 years before it begins to show signs of aging, such as discoloration or cracking. However, there is a difference between regular wooden furniture and heirloom-quality wooden furniture.
Handmade wooden furniture with heirloom quality should last more than a lifetime. In fact, it can last for decades if properly maintained. These types of wooden furniture are more likely to reach the “milestone of antiquity”, meaning that they can last 100 years or more. Structurally, any type of solid wood or sturdy plywood will do.
If it's plywood, look for at least nine layers. Check the wood for knots, even on unexposed pieces; all knots are susceptible to cracking. Some woods, such as pine, are more “gnarled” than others and, therefore, less desirable. Avoid particleboard, hardboard, or fiberboard.
The finish of the wood can also date the piece. Until the Victorian era, shellac was the only transparent surface finish; lacquer and varnish were not developed until the mid-19th century. The finish of a piece made before 1860 is usually shellac; if the piece is very old, it can be oil, wax or milk paint. Antique, fine pieces are usually French-polished, a variation of the shellac finish.
A lacquer or varnish finish is a sure sign of further manufacture. Nowadays, a lot of furniture is made of wood or plastic composites, so it's considered more of a disposable asset, meaning it's bought now, kept for a few years and then thrown away. But because the same woods have always been preferred for furniture, workmanship and finish are probably a better indicator of age than the wood itself. When looking for quality wood furniture, you should first consider the type of wood and whether it is durable.
If you have handmade or custom-made wood furniture, be sure to ask the manufacturers what cleaning practices are best for the specific type of wood and piece of furniture. Check out Vintage Mill Werks' collection of heirloom-quality solid wood furniture to create a durable piece for your home.