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What to look out for when buying Antique and Vintage furniture.

There are two main drivers for people looking at buying older furniture: 

  • To keep and use. Buying for a home or work environment because you love the style,  or perhaps like that it's so eco friendly to avoid using new materials.
  • 'Lovejoying' - resale to make a profit. Looking for undervalued antiques with special historical significance, 'original' condition or brand names. The classic example here would be finding a mint Chippendale chair or Faberge egg. 

At BritishOriginals we're here to give you confidence in owning, using and loving older furniture. The hints and tips below cover this. If you're searching for a Chippendale we wish you good luck, but we're not the people to help you find it.  

Buying Guide: So you've seen an item you like. 

Buying guide for Antique and Vintage furniture. What to look out for.Old pieces have been used and loved for many decades or centuries and often look fabulous for it. They are almost never in the same state as when they were first made, even 'original' condition antiques have often faded in colour due to sunlight exposure.                                                                                                                                                                                     Some things are often different from 'mint' condition include; replaced hinges, handles, feet, knobs. Vulnerable wooden beading or molding may have been bashed & had sections replaced. Veneers have sections replaced.                                                                                                                                                                       This isn't necessarily bad. If it's well done it could be better for you day to day than an 'mint' piece.  In the antiques world the more original an item is the higher its value. In the BritishOriginals world we want to; make sure it will work for it's use, won't require too much restoration, and it's safe for family homes with children.    

In short, do the following to check the condition of the item and make sure there aren't any un-fixable problems.

What to check......

First look : 

Walk all the way around an item. Pull it away from any wall or obstructions. Bend down & get your eyes level with the top. If you can, turn it upside down & look at the base.                                                                                                                                                                Unsure of any of the terms used below ? See our illustrated Glossary

 Check for little circular holes 
  • Woodworm -  Little beetle larvae eat the wood and eventually hollow it out so it looses it's strength. Often found underneath or on the back of a piece away from daylight. 
  • If there is no dust & the hole interior is dark or wax filled it's long dead & not a problem, in fact in some pieces the damage can actually look lovely.
  • If there is sawdust around the holes or the hole interior looks clean & new then you have a 'live' infection.  
  • A few holes are not a problem & are treatable, but a lot of holes suggest the interior strength of the wood will be compromised. Leave it to experts to treat or cut out & replace damaged timbers.  | Restoration Service |

Old woodworm holes ( and one new one )

Woodworm tracks from under gloss paint

Check the angles

  • Warping - Old timbers can 'move' and warp. Usually due to exposure to different temperatures or humidity ( Getting too wet or too dry ) . It's difficult to fix warping without taking a piece apart, so if you don't like the visual affect it produces step away, or be ready to call in help
  • Repairs. You can often see visually if a leg has been put back on because the angles look out of place. As long as it's been done well it's an aesthetic choice to buy or not. 


Rejoined tripod table leg.

Is it structurally sound ?

  • Wobbles. Put your hand flat on the top and wiggle it. Does the piece move? If so look for loose joints or evidence it's been glued ( you'll be able to see a clear or white ring of glue around a joint. Not necessarily bad if it wobbles but if it's been re-glued once and failed it's likely it will need to be taken apart to glue it properly. Shoving a bit of glue in a joint has failed once, and will do so again. 
  • Drawers. Pull any drawers out. Are the draw stops in place? ( pieces of wood near the front of the drawer hole ) Check the base of the drawer edges. Are they heavily worn? Look inside the drawer hole & look at the draw runners. Are they there? Are they heavily worn? Most will show wear but if it's heavy the drawer won't slide easily, or straight, and they'll need replacing.
  • Handles, knobs & feet. Put your hands on all of these. Are they secure ? Do they wobble ? Do they match ? Look closely at the wood around a handle. Can you see evidence of a different shape having been there? e.g. due to the wood being less faded in places. This means they are replacements.   
  • Hinges. Often a cause of problems. Are they secure? Do they wobble? Check the wood around them for splits, often the wood snaps remote to hinge due to excess pressure.  See different shapes or holes near a hinge? It means they are replacements.


Lots of different hinges have been here  All of the adjacent  are fixable with time & skill, so not a reason to walk away, but you might want to factor in the cost of having them fixed if the scale of the problem bothers you. 

Assess the finish condition

  • Is it flaking, cloudy, dull, dirty or patchy. To what extent? Can you live with it or will it need redoing? What is it finished with ? Shellac, wax and lacquer are all restorable. Varnish or paint will need paintstripper to remove and be more time consuming and expensive. Not sure ?  see our guide to identifying furniture finishes
  • TIP - Be careful with old paint (often found on interiors, backs & bases). Rusty red or blue-y white is often lead based. It was used to prevent woodworm as the little critters hate it. THIS IS NOT SUITABLE for houses with children. It's licking it or inhaling the dust that causes problems,  so grownups can proceed with caution but it's toxic and now banned.    


White leadbased paint to treat woodworm

 Check for repairs

  • Only a problem if you are looking to buy something advertised as 'mint' or 'original' condition with a greater price attached. Well done repairs to veneers, beading, plinths, and molding may be difficult to spot, but if this is important, look for changes in colour or diagonal black lines which highlight where joins have been made. 
Re inserted veneers & Boxwood stringing replacement

Other things to consider: 

World war two utility mark  to signify rationing was taken into account when making it Does it have any makers marks ?  These often help age the item and will be important for any provenance.  This pacman like shape dates items to the 1940's.  

How do I know if this really is old and not reproduction? Is it pretending to be something it's not ?  TIP - The easiest way to tell quickly is to look at the joints in any drawers. If they are uneven they are handmade and usually before c1920. If they even then they are machine cut and 1920+ . Also if there is any plywood in it, it's from 1920+

Handcut drawer dovetails on a 150 year old item   Handcut drawer dovetails   Machine cut drawer dovetails   Handcut dovetail joints on a blanket chest

Take a tape measure with you !Will it fit ? You'd be surprised but people buy pieces for a specific space and then find it's all gone wrong.   TIP - Jot down and take with you, the size of the space you are looking to fill or the dimensions of door frames / tight corners.

Take a tape measure. It may save you removing a window, or lots of hassle later.


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