If you are an antique collector or are simply interested in antique items, you will find that plenty of china cabinets have a seemingly vintage feel. This is partially because china cabinets are not as popular as they once were. However, to know if a china cabinet is truly an antique, there are a few factions you will need to check.
China cabinets have been around since at least the 1600s when invented in England; the English queen has used one ever since. That cabinet and many others are by now antiques, which means they are at least one hundred years old and have at least 50 percent of the original components. There are also other things to consider such as:
- Condition of the finish and drawer pulls
- Screws and nails
- Condition of the wood and construction
- Condition of the glass
- Where and when the china cabinet was constructed
The more of these you see, the more likely you have an antique china cabinet. Each of these five factors is important in determining your cabinet’s antique status.
Condition of the Finish And Drawer Pulls
When a china cabinet becomes an antique, it will start showing patina on the drawer pulls, meaning the metal pulls will have a mellow finish. The paint on the cabinet will be dull and there may be cracking or lost paint as a result of moisture and bright sun. Also, look at the cabinet feet–antiques will show signs of scuffing and a less shiny finish as the piece has been moved around.
Screws And Nails
Antique china cabinets were generally built with wood nails or single slot screws. Take a look at these. Look to see that the screws are not shiny, but will have an off-kilter head and worn-down threads. If the piece was not made with screws, then it was with square wood nails. If you find these along with wormholes, you may have an antique cabinet.
Condition of the Wood And Construction
Check the joinery on the drawer’s bottom and sides. You will want to find irregular dovetail joints. Cuts on new pieces are made by computer-aided design/computer-aided machining (CAD-CAM) and do not use dovetail joints. Also look for black marks, wormholes, and seam separations between boards. It may even have several types of wood as repairs are done over the years.
- The staining or finish on the wood is duller on older china cabinets.
- There may be flakes, scratches, or other stains from water or other materials.
- Look to see if the china cabinet has been re-stained.
- You will be able to tell if you find any drips, runs, or paintbrush bristle marks that indicate the stain has been worked on.
Also, the drawer runners should be worn down and there be pockets of dirt stuck in the deep corners of where the drawers slide into the china cabinet.
Furthermore, the piece as a whole will not be symmetrical. Many small-diameter parts of your china cabinet will not be uniform. If your components meet this, it was hand-cut, and so you may have an antique.
One other thing to look for is tool marks. For instance, a china cabinet made before 1860 will show signs of hand tools, such as chisels and planes, a spokeshave, or perhaps even a drawknife. China cabinets made after 1860 will start showing signs of circular saws and other machine tools. Handcrafting is a more positive sign that you have an antique china cabinet.
Finally, take a look at the wood itself, particularly the back and drawer bottoms. If it is a solid piece, such as with plywood, it is possible it is not an antique. Same with the drawer bottoms. Also, these areas should not be stained. The craftsmen who made the piece would not have bothered to stain or finish the back and drawer bottoms as they would not be seen.
Condition of the Glass
Now it is time to inspect the glass in the china cabinet doors. Antique glass was hand-rolled, making it have bubbles and wavy, bumpy lines on the surface. This is not the case with modern glass. For real antique china cabinets, the glass may even have a bluish tinge to it, due to the glass being Depression-era Cobalt Blue glass.
Another thing to look at here is the thickness of the glass in the doors. Look at the bottom of the glass pane compared to the top. Because of the way glass was made hundreds of years ago, the glass may actually be thicker on the bottom. This is a result of the properties of glass at that time–glass is an amorphous solid, a state between liquid and solid so, glass “flows” from top to overtime.
The last big thing to look out for is any labeling attached to the china cabinet. Look for an aged look to any labels or stamps. This labeling is called a maker’s mark. Antique china cabinets will have some sort of indication of where and when the piece was manufactured, along with the name of the furniture company. This could be painted, marked, or on a metal plaque.
These labels or stamps can be found anywhere on the piece, so check on the back and lower edges, and even inside of drawers or other storage spaces in the cabinet. Keep in mind, though, that due to the age of the china cabinet, you may not find the maker’s mark due to handling over the years, or, if a paper label, it may have ripped off.
Where And When the China Cabinet Was Constructed
If you do find the label, take a look at if it shows where and when the china cabinet was constructed. Whether or not it is an antique depends on if it was made in England or in the United States.
English antique china cabinets were made in the 18th century or 19th century (the 1700s and 1800s). China cabinets existed in England back to the 17th century or even the 16th century, but those are very hard to come by today. Most china cabinets from that style are now actually reproductions.
On the other hand, if your china cabinet was made in the United States, then you should look for a date in the 17th through 19th century (the 1600s through 1800s). These are much easier to come by,
The finish on the china cabinet can also be a clue as to if you have an antique.
- In early English furniture, shellac was the only one available.
- After 1860, you will start to see lacquer and varnish.
- For exceptionally old china cabinets, you will find such finishes as oil, wax, or even milk paint.
If you want to test the finish, use denatured alcohol in a hard-to-see spot. The finish will dissolve if it is shellac. With a painted piece, use ammonia. If the finish is removed, you probably have milk paint.
One Last Note
Look at the wood itself. Early English china cabinets, furniture in general, were made from oak before 1700, and mahogany and walnut from then on. In the United States, pine is the most popular wood, with maple, oak, walnut, cherry, or mahogany also used.