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FURNISHINGS : Country Furniture Was Built to Last

December 28, 1991| From Associated Press

Anonymous craftsmen created the country furniture that today's collectors crave, but what they fashioned was neither crude nor primitive.

The carpenters and craftsmen who supplied furniture for 18th- and 19th-Century settlers outside of Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York and Charleston, according to an article in Country Living, were quite familiar with preferred styles and construction techniques.

Exquisite carving, time-consuming inlay and delicate banding rarely appeared on what would come to be known as "country" furniture, but no apologies need be made for the construction techniques employed.

Unlike true primitive furniture, with its exposed nails, rough-sawn lumber, crude joinery and little, if any, finish, American country furniture was intended to be both functional and attractive and was built to withstand decades of use.

Pinned joints, mortise-and-tenon construction, carefully planed boards and adherence to basic principles of furniture design and construction are evident in the finest examples.

Most American country furniture was originally painted. Enthusiasts of the Colonial Revival that began shortly after World War I began stripping, sanding and scraping off original painted finishes on fine country furniture in their quest of a clear finish.

When trying to steer clear of forgeries, collectors should look for original paint. Keep in mind that not all of the paint will remain after 100 years or more of use.

In many instances, original paint will be worn through to bare wood around cupboard knobs, on the tops of chair seats and front rungs, along the edges of tables and on the arms and head rails of chairs.

Forgers are skilled in duplicating original paint finished on both old and new furniture. They know the difference between a piece of country furniture that still has its original paint and one that doesn't can amount to several thousand dollars.

Forgers also know it is more difficult to detect new paint than new wood, so they generally start by investing in authentic antiques rather than recent reproductions.

Naive buyers will assume that if the wood is old, the finish must be, too. In most cases, it is not.

The best way to identify a coat of paint that has been applied years after the piece was constructed is to inspect the chips, gouges and age cracks you would expect to find on an authentic country antique.

Presuming that the original craftsman would not have applied paint over damaged wood, we would not expect to find original paint inside these cracks and gouges.

If you find an age crack filled with paint, reason dictates the paint was applied after, not before, the crack appeared.

Similarly, deep gouges and scratches should not have any paint in them. If they do, chances are the paint is newer than the wood beneath it.

Most authentic country furniture has been either repainted or refinished. If you suspect that you own a fine country piece that has been repainted, inspect the piece for indications of the original color.

Start by turning the piece over and looking for spots the more recent painter may have missed--beneath lower rungs, overhanging tops and chair seats. Check the back for runs or drips of a different color than the top layer of paint.

Occasionally, an unoriginal layer of paint should be left alone. Many examples of 18th-Century country furniture received their second and only additional coat of paint during the 19th Century. If a piece has survived another 100 years without a third layer of paint, the second layer should not be removed.

Most authorities will agree, Bruce E. Johnson writes in Country Living, that this early top coat has earned its place on the piece.

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