Knowing how to date antique furniture hardware can help you learn about the age and history of the antique furniture you collect. Hardware styles and manufacturing methods have changed over the years, and furniture hardware is packed with clues if you know how to look. Examine each piece of antique hardware on your furniture to uncover hints about its age.
How to Date Furniture Hardware: Age of Screws
Take a moment to look at the screws attaching the hardware to the furniture or holding the furniture together. Is the slot on the top of the screw centered? Is the head of the screw centered? Are all the screws in a piece the same? According to the Journal of Antiques, there are many clues in screw construction that hint at dates:
- 18th century and earlier - Prior to the early 19th century, most screws were made by hand. In handmade screws, you will notice variation in size and shape of screws used in a piece of furniture. The screws will not be uniform with heads off center and slots off center on the heads.
- Early 19th century - Until about 1846, screws were made partially by machine. The thread pattern on these screws will be more uniform, but the heads and slots may still be off center.
- Mid-19th century - During the middle of the 1800s, furniture makers often used machine-made screws, but they screws did not have a slot. The furniture maker had to cut the slot with a hacksaw, and it was often off center. In screws from this era, the rest of the screw is uniform, but the slots will vary in placement.
- 1856 and later - The first screws to be made completely by machine date to 1856. Fully machine-made screws quickly became the norm, and most furniture from the late 19th century and after features screws that are uniform.
Examining Antique Nail Construction for Age
Nail construction also changed dramatically over the years. If your piece has nails used in it, look carefully at the individual nails. Are they uniform in size? Are they round or square? You can use the characteristics of the nail to date your hardware and antique furniture. According to the Journal of Antiques, nail styles and construction changed dramatically throughout the years.
- Before 1790 - Nails were made by hand before 1790, which means a blacksmith turned the nail and then added a "rose head" by flattening the top with a hammer. Hand-forged nails usually date a piece of antique furniture to before 1790.
- 1790 to 1890 - During this period, machines stamped nails from sheets of iron using dies like cookie cutters. The top two edges of the nail are slightly rounded from the die going through, and the bottom two edges have little ridges or burrs. Until 1885, nails were constructed from wrought iron.
- 1885 and later - In 1885, nails began to be made of steel instead of wrought iron. The steel construction quickly allowed nails to be drawn instead of stamped by a machine, and around 1890, this became standard practice.
Dating Locks and Keyholes
Antique furniture often include locks and keyholes. You'll see these on antique desks and dressers in particular. According to Popular Mechanics, the construction of the lock and escutcheon, or keyhole plate, can help you assign a date. Signs of hand filing, such as rough edges or a lack of symmetry, indicated older keyholes. You can also use the following date clues.
- Mid-18th century to mid-19th century - During this period, key escutcheons were constructed from brass. They were often inset into the surface of the wood.
- Mid to late 19th century - Wood keyholes were popular during the era. You'll see them glued on to furniture or inset into the wood's surface.
- Late 19th century and after - Machine-stamped brass escutcheons became popular, and there were many ornate styles.
Dating Antique Drawer Pulls
The style and construction of antique drawer pulls offer clues about the date the hardware was made. According to Antique Trader, drawer pull construction went through many distinct phases over the years. These can help with dating antique furniture handles. Look at the texture of the pull, the material it's made of, and the style.
- Late 17th century - During the late 17th century, known as the William and Mary period, drawer pulls were often "drop" pulls with a single knob that hung from a flat brass plate. The back of the plate is not uniform in texture, since it was sand cast. There may be ridges and bumps on the surface.
- Early 18th century - In the early 1700s, drawer pulls took on the bail shape that is still common today, hanging from two pins that curved inward to complete the handle. The pull was backed by a flat brass plate and attached to the furniture with nails or crude bolts and nuts. The texture of the back of the plate is not uniform due to sand casting, and the color of the brass was more yellow than red.
- Late 18th century - Although the bail shape continued into the later 18th century, the manufacturing process changed. More copper was included in the brass, giving it a redder tone. Additionally, brass became available in sheets, leading to smooth back plates instead of bumpy sand cast examples.
- 19th century - Some 19th century antique dresser hardware and drawer pulls were made by hand, but many were stamped by machine. Machine-made pulls are uniform in appearance and sometimes even feature a patent stamp that can help you pinpoint the construction date.
Using Latch Style to Date Furniture Hardware
Another helpful hint comes in the form of latch styles. Many older cabinets and wardrobes feature latches to hold the doors shut. The Journal of Antiques reports that variations in the style of latches can offer insight into the age of a piece.
- Before 1850 - Prior to 1850, most furniture latches were hand carved from wood. If you see a piece with a wooden latch, it may date to this period.
- Mid-19th century - In the middle of the 19th century, cabinet latches were often made of brass. Cabinet makers would inlay the brass latch in the surface of the wood.
- Late 18th century and after - After about 1871, cast iron latches became common. These latches usually sat on top of the surface of the wood, rather than being inlaid like the brass latches.
Replacing Antique Furniture Hardware
Throughout the course of an antique's life, the furniture hardware may have been replaced. Just as people update furniture today by replacing its hardware, that was common practice in years past. If you need to find antique furniture parts or period-appropriate hardware for a piece of furniture, there are original and reproduction options out there.
Finding Original Hardware for Antique Furniture
There are several types of businesses that carry, and often specialize in, original hardware for antique furniture. These include architectural artifact companies, antique hardware shops, and some antique stores. The following are several of these suppliers that have a brick and mortar location as well as an online presence.
- Located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Bob Roth's Antique Hardware has a large inventory of antique hardware for furniture, doors, windows and cabinets.
- Robinson's Antiques carries original antique hardware dating from 1680 to 1925.
- Mowery Antiques specializes in restored antique hardware for furniture and houses.
Finding Antique Furniture Reproduction Hardware
In the past, finding original hardware for antique furniture has often been challenging and frustrating experience. However, today there are many excellent suppliers of high quality reproduction hardware pieces where each item is accurately crafted in every detail as they were in earlier times:
- Whitechapel Ltd. provides an extensive selection of antique furniture restoration and reproduction hardware and fittings. Their restoration hardware is hand crafted using the Lost Wax method of casting. These exquisite pieces are made in old brass and are completely accurate in every detail including a patina that is 200 years old.
- Horton Brasses offers a vast selection of more than 1000 pieces of brass and iron reproduction hardware for antique furniture and cabinets. Their selections include authentic reproductions of hardware for the almost every style of furniture.
- House of Antique Hardware carries beautiful reproduction hardware for antique furniture form the Victorian era through the early American styles, including Federalism and Colonialism. In addition to hardware made of brass and iron, the company also carries glass and wooden pulls and knobs.