Fit, Feel, Finish and Fit
This article is designed to help you organize your thought process in the selection and acquisition of antique furniture in particular but also antiques in general. Primarily the articles will consist of a list of questions to be asked and as such will provide few answers.
When considering an acquisition one of the key questions to be answered is "Does it fit?" What do I mean by that? Well, there are lots of ways something has to fit and they are all important.
Does your proposed acquisition physically fit in the space you have in mind? Have you measured the intended space, height, width and depth and do the measurements match up with the new piece? If the piece does fit will it function there, i.e. is there room for doors or drawers to open and close properly? Does the piece not impede the function of something else such as the opening and closing of a window or entry door? Can you get it into the space? In other words do you have adequate access? Will it go up the stairs and around the corner? Can you move it or will you have to hire a mover? These are simple but often overlooked basics that can be answered with the use of a pocket tape measure that should become a part of your normal personal baggage. Practice visualizing in three dimensions so that if you do have all the measurements you can "see" the piece in place
The obverse of the original question is also important. That question is "Do you have a space for it?" You may find a great deal on a great piece but if it ends up in the attic or on the porch it wasn't such a deal.
Will the piece fill the need for which you are considering it? If it is to be used on a daily basis is it sturdy enough for everyday wear and tear? Do you have to consider the unintended actions of others such as children and pets? Will it receive only occasional use or no use at all but be merely decorative? Will it function properly? For example, if you plan to use a cabinet as an entertainment center is it deep enough for a TV? Is it sturdy enough to carry the weight of the intended equipment? Is it big enough? Is there room for wiring and accessories? Do the doors open widely enough to be of use? Some cabinets with pin type hinges only allow the doors to open 90 degrees, not 180 as may be required. If it is a piece intended for a child or teenager the same durability questions apply. Don't saddle a kid with the added responsibility of "taking care" of an antique with the constant admonition to "be careful".
If you are considering a chair, consider whether it will be used primarily by men or women. Women generally are much kinder to chairs (among other things) than are men who tend to lean all the way back in a chair to the point of lifting the front legs and breaking the back of the chair, not to mention general squirming.
The next consideration is style. Not just the style of the piece but YOUR style. Are you a high maintenance person or a low maintenance person. In other words are you willing to devote the time, energy and money to the care and preservation of a delicate antique in daily use or do you want to use it and not have to worry all the time about wear and tear? Both styles are acceptable and appropriate in the right circumstances and blends of the two seem to work best, e.g. you may consider a built-like-a-tank pub or harvest table for kitchen use but a delicate French commode in the formal part of the house. Just make sure that you are able to support a new acquisition in the style to which it should be accustomed.
Another consideration in style is color. Are you a light or dark preference person? Is your personal lighting adequate to support a dark piece or so overwhelming as to wash out a lighter piece? Do you like red, brown or blonde? Also be sure to consider texture. Do you like hard edges and flat controlled surfaces or do you prefer rolls and shapes? Lots of filigree and decoration or plain but elegant? Part of this goes back to maintenance. The more detail on a piece, the harder to clean and polish.
The last consideration in style is does the piece fit with your current period style? If you are into Arts and Crafts then Federal probably would look out of place, not wrong of course but out of place. If you are an eclectic accumulator this is less of a problem but even devoted eclectics tend to have boundaries that you need to be aware of.
Now we are getting down to some good stuff. Does it fit your budget? Can you really afford this piece for what you plan to do with it or can you look elsewhere and for a slightly better price solve more than one problem at a time? How much more will you have to put in a piece to make it usable? Does it need to be repaired, upholstered, refinished, moved, painted, insured, appraised, cleaned, touched up, etc., etc.? What is the actual total COST of the piece, not the price but the cost and can you afford it?
This time we are not so concerned with the size of the piece and its space but YOUR size. Does the piece fit you? If you are a small person can you handle the large drawers and can you see yourself in the shaving mirror? If you are a large person do your fingers fit comfortably in the hardware and is there room for all of you on the settee? Are you afraid of breaking it if you use it?
The final consideration is your motive in considering the purchase of a piece. The real question is “are you a net seller or net acquirer?” Do you tend to buy things and hold them forever or do you "trade out" on a regular basis with a constant turnover? You know what you are, even if you have to stop and think about it for a minute and that knowledge should influence every buying decision.
When considering an acquisition one of the key questions to be answered is "How does it feel?". What does that mean? It actually is two questions with multiple parts. The questions are "How do you feel about the piece?" and "How does the piece feel to you?", two entirely different subjects.
HOW YOU FEEL
When you find a piece you are interested in and are tempted to buy on the spot consider some of the things that may be influencing you.
WHY ARE YOU SHOPPING?
Have you done lots of homework and are looking to fulfill a specific need or are you just spending enjoyable time and have made a "find" by serendipity but may not have all the facts in hand for an informed decision? Are you working against a deadline or an impending event such as a holiday or family celebration and feel some pressure to close out this particular subject? Have you just had enough and this is it? Be sure you know what your inner motives are.
WHO ARE YOU WITH?
Some people do their serious shopping alone and others like company. If you are not alone is your companion exerting an influence on you either consciously or not? Do you feel any pressure from your companion one way or another? Is there any need to impress either with your knowledge or with the purchase? Is your companion openly supportive or combative to the general situation and the specific item? Conversely, if you are alone are you comfortable with the decision or do you need reinforcements or the guidance of superior knowledge or maybe just another opinion? Will the opportunity to buy be lost if you delay the decision and seek help? Just be aware of this important area of influence.
HOW DO YOU FEEL?
Many decisions are influenced by our physical condition. Are you tired? Too tired to make a good choice? Know when you are past the point of good sense and quit there. If you are just ready to go home, then by all means go and finish your acquisition expedition another time. Are you upbeat and feel there is nothing you can't do? Good. But don't let the "Pollyanna" overrule your good sense. Keep it in perspective.
CAN YOU AFFORD IT?
Sometimes how we feel about things depends on whether or not they are within our reach. Some people attach an aura of desirability to those things they can't really afford and may ascribe traits to them that are not consistent with reality. Make sure your vision of a piece is not clouded by financial considerations that have nothing to do with the virtues or defects of a piece.
ARE YOU SMITTEN?
Does the piece just take your breath away? Is this what you have been looking for all this time? Do you just absolutely have to have it, no matter what? If the answer is yes, take a deep breath and walk away for a minute then come back to it. Be sure you are not being overwhelmed by some unrecognized factor such as set, setting and timing. Is the price reasonable? Is it in line with the way you feel about the piece or is this the one-time bargain of a lifetime? Remember that those are few and far between and this may or may not be it.
HOW IT FEELS
Now that we know how you feel, how does the piece PHYSICALLY feel to you?
Is the piece comfortable to you? Is that important? If it is not comfortable can it be made that way? Is it stable? If it is a chair for example do you feel OK sitting in it? Does it need repair? Can it be repaired? If the piece is upholstered is it clean? Does it smell? Close your eyes and feel the piece with your hands. Is it pleasant to the touch or is it rough? Is it sticky or smooth? Does it blend with your preconceived notion of what the piece should be like?
Can you smell new finish or new fabric? Has the piece been altered or worked on and how can you tell? In case goods, is the cabinet stable? Do the drawers fell like they work well?? Do the doors feel secure on the hinges? Does the glass look secure in the doors? Does the hardware feel tight and look right?
In general, does it pass the "smell test"? You know,that basic filter that we run everything through to see if it is what it purports to be. Is it the right age, size, price, color, style, location, etc., etc. and most important of all - how do you FEEL about it and why?
The last of the three major questions to ask is "How is the finish"? This question, like all the others has several meanings and again, they are all important but they all have to do with the final overall appearance of the piece and that can be broken into a number of manageable elements.
The actual final outer surface of a piece is the meaning most commonly associated with the word "finish" and it is a very important (maybe the most important) meaning of the word. A close examination of the surface of a piece will very often reveal a great deal of the history of the piece. The first clue such an examination should provide is whether or not the piece has been refinished and if so how well and how recently. Telltale traces of steel wool trapped in the finish in the cracks and crevices will point to a recent redo by less than an expert. Look closely using a light and a magnifier if necessary. Look across a surface of the piece against the light and search for sanding scratches or the swirling circular marks left by an orbital sander, indications of a lack of handwork. Other indications of refinishing may include a rough surface, uneven staining and color, stripper flow marks down the back or on the inside of a piece, finish inside the drawer of an older piece where there should be none, the appearance of brush strokes in the surface and sometimes even the smell is a clue. An old, original finish is nice and mellow and the piece smells, well, old. If you smell solvents or an unusual odor beware.
If the piece has what appears to be an old finish, is it sound? Is there evidence of cracking or crazing in the old finish? Again look closely against the light to "see into" the finish. Are there signs of water or sun damage? Is the finish flaky or crumbling in some areas? Is it losing adhesion to the wood surface? This is indicated by small areas that are lighter in color than the surrounding area. Is the finish dirty? Would a good cleaning help? Is the finish shiny enough for you (the sheen) or is it too bright? Do you know how to bring the sheen up or down or do you know someone who does? It all boils down to whether or not you are happy with the surface and if not can it be corrected at a reasonable price?
After the topcoat, hardware is the most obvious part of most antique pieces. Hardware like topcoat bears close scrutiny. Is all the hardware there? Do all the drawers and doors have hardware? Does it all match? Is it the right hardware for the piece or did it come from the "home center" selection of cheap brass? Does the style of the hardware fit the period of the piece? For example "batwing" Chippendale pulls generally don't fit Empire furniture and Queen Anne post and bails don't normally accompany Victorian works. Spend some time getting acquainted with period hardware
If you are satisfied with the hardware, examine it to be sure it is all intact and fits securely in its place. Check hinges for the right number and size of screws. For example are all the screws slotted as opposed to Phillips head and are all of them flat head as opposed to pan or oval? Check locks for function and key. If there is no key ask for one to check the locks or better yet buy an assortment of keys to carry around with you.
Does the hardware need cleaning? Will it clean? Is it solid brass or brass plating over steel? A magnet gives the quick answer since solid brass does not attract but brass plated steel will. On the other hand pot metal does not attract either so be careful.
In general, is the hardware appropriate for the piece and consistent with the age and price?
Is all the glass here? If any is missing can it be replaced readily? This is especially important for pieces that might have curved or serpentine sections of glass. Such glass is usually available from a reliable restoration specialist but it can be very expensive. Check all panes of existing glass to see if they are original. Old glass has lots of imperfections in it such as waves, bubbles, "seeds", distortions, etc. New glass generally is slightly greener than old glass and has few imperfections. Old original glass should even have a few scratches in it as badges of authenticity.
Check to be sure all mirrors are present and are properly installed. A poorly installed mirror is a threat to break in transit. Examine the back panels of mirrors if possible. Marks on the wood facing and back panels will give clues as to whether or not the mirror has been replaced or removed for re silvering. All original 20th century American mirrors have a date stamped on the back of the glass. Some are even dated as early as 1890. If a glass mirror does not have a date on it, it has been re silvered or cut from another piece of mirror as a replacement. Older mirrors are originally installed using triangular wooden blocks nailed into the frame. Many replacements use metal glazier points.
If the piece is upholstered is the color and pattern acceptable? Examine the fabric closely for signs of excessive wear in certain areas such as the arms. Look under a cushion or inside a seam to see how much the fabric has faded. Are the seams tight and does the pattern match at the seams? Is the padding acceptable? Do the springs need to be retied and is the support webbing sound? Is the dust cover on the bottom (the cambric) intact? Is the fabric clean? Does it smell? All of these aspects are important because the cost of new upholstery may surprise you if you haven't had any done recently.
In general, just step back and check out the overall details of the piece. Does it have the proper feet or casters? Does it sit level and square? Do the doors and drawers line up properly and do they work right? Do all the parts match? In other word is the piece FINISHED?
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