What's in a Grain?

What's in a Grain?

Tool marks in the wood grain of furniture are essential to identification of its period, quality, region and authenticity.

Regionally, methods used in the timber yards of England were less mechanized than their counterparts in Continental Europe for centuries. Saw mills were operating on a large scale in 15th century Continental Europe. Reciprocating action frame saws were used and produced coarse uniform cuts generally at right angles to the grain of the wood. In England, the majority of primary lumber conversion was done by hand into the 19th century. The pit saw remained active in some England timber yards well into the 20th century.

Hand-sawn lumber is easily identified by irregular, overlapping cuts usually at an angle to the grains. Distinctive signs of individual workmanship in hand-sawn lumber is apparent in the lack of uniformity of the cut. Riven Oak is split along medulary rays to form the most stable cut for paneling. Riven Oak was often used for the bottom boards of a drawer. Furniture with hand plane or adze marks would be difficult and time consuming to duplicate. Such marks can signify authenticity.

The circular saw and steam engine were invented in the late 18th century precipitating a gradual change in wood working techniques. The concentric marks of a circular saw are evidence of mass production in the Victorian era or after.

The band saw was invented in the early 19th century but not a reliable tool until the mid-19th century. At the end of the century, the band saw was accepted as the standard for mill work. The band saw creates a "regimented" parallel cut; any fault in the blade will produce a repeated sequence of marks. This repeated pattern of marks denotes mechanized production. The hand-saw and the frame saw repeated an identical pattern of faults. Marks left by frame saws and hand-saws are irregular by comparison to modern mechanized saws.

Evidence of wood working machinery and counterfeit pieces may be found in obscure areas or areas that may be hard to reach with a hand plane. Study any piece carefully to determine authenticity. Remove drawers and study all sides; while out check the interior, sides, top, backboards, dust boards, and drawer runners. Examine the underside and back carefully. Look inside and beneath the rails of tables and chairs. Scrutinize any area that is not visible in the course of daily use for the slightest sign of woodworking machinery marks.

Any evidence of modern equipment use requires a closer look. This may be a sign of fraud or a legitimate repair. Usually legitimate repair is easily identifiable. Craftsman tend to match material and technique as closely as possible, but will not attempt to mimic the original on repair surfaces that are not seen in the course of daily use.

Smooth and evenly spaced ripples on surface areas is evidence that a planning machine was used. Grains in molding with evenly spaced ripples are evidence that a spindle molder was used (areas that are not easily finished with sand paper by the counterfeiter).

What's in a grain? The whole story.

Sources: Bennett, M. 1990 "Discovering and Restoring Antique Furniture." Cassell Publication, London, England Peaks, Jacquelyn 1995 Recognize and Refinish Antiques The Globe Pequot Press, Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Kovel, Ralph & Terry 1981 Know Your Antiques Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, New York.

Back to Tips & Techniques