In this he was assisted by wood-carvers, and by painters, varnishers, and gilders. The term, however, can be applied correctly to any kind of decorated with veneers or marquetry, and with related techniques.

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The elaborate mounting and applied decoration of metal, which became especially fashionable towards the end of the 17th century, required yet another category of craftsman - the ciseleurs-fondeurs who cast and finished the mounts, and the doreurs who were responsible for gilding. Console tables supported in front and attached at the back to the boiserie (the console d'applique ), the carving of the support matching the remainder of the panelling, were certainly not mobile. The notion may be taken a good deal further. The independent armoire by its very size and weight is semi-permanent, and if it was originally carved to match a particular boiserie it was even more static in intent, even though it has today been divorced from its original setting.

Plans dating from the 18th century exist showing the exact position of all these pieces of furniture. Verlet has also shown how contemporary terminology recognized the existence of this classification, for instance in the case of certain small tables without a fixed position which were termed ambulantes (strolling). Nevertheless, the distinction is an important one to a proper understanding of the period. Veneering on a flat surface is simple enough. Thin sheets of rare wood of good figure are sawn and glued to a carcase of some commoner wood like pine or oak. Marquetry is a more or less elaborate pattern formed from inlays of differently coloured woods.


These can be exceedingly complex, and floral and pictorial marquetries decorated some of the finest ebenisterie. Boulle cut them from a sheet of brass and one of tortoiseshell clamped together. Parquetry is decoration with sections of veneer of the same wood but with contrasting grain, the simplest form being the parquetry floor of blocks laid in the so-called herring-bone pattern. Such work is at its best when seen by candlelight, when it seems incomparably rich in appearance. Many unusual native woods were employed for particular purposes, such as wild cherry, and limewood. He can hardly be said to have originated it. So closely has he been identified with this kind of work, however, that it is nearly always called boulle. He sometimes made his own bronze mounts, and he played an influential part in developing the characteristic disposition of the mounts of the rococo period. During his lifetime three sales were held of his furniture which he seems to have catalogued himself, and it is worth observing the emphasis which he laid on the richness and quality of the bronze mounts, such as 'a commode of the most elegant form adorned with bronzes of extraordinary richness'. His work, of extremely fine quality, is much sought today, and was usually decorated with floral marquetry or with lacquer. It was widely employed in furniture manufacture, for musical instruments, for the decoration of carriages and sedan chairs, and even for such small objects as etuis and snuff-boxes. The prepared surface, sometimes ornamented in relief, was often painted by artists of repute, or in their styles by journeymen-painters. The technique proved equally applicable to interior decoration. Oeben developed the bureau a cylindre , a writing-desk with a semicircular closure at the top, either a slatted roll-top (bureau a lamelles ) or a solid section of a cylinder. This was the beginning of a fashion for complicated mechanical furniture fitted with a variety of ingenious devices by which it was made to serve several purposes, such as the combined writing and toilet tables with rising mirrors, and tables with rising backs and falling fronts and concealed drawers. Riesener commonly used legs in the form of gaines which he protected with laurel leaves of gilt-bronze, and his secretaires were given chamfered corners decorated at the top with a console (using the word in its architectural sense) which was also of gilt-bronze. In consequence of the large number of commissions with which he was entrusted he often worked in collaboration with others. He is especially noted for the quality of his bronze mounts. Ebenistes were inclined to specialize in particular techniques. Roentgen was probably the greatest of the ebenistes to employ such motifs as vases of flowers, urns, and musical instruments executed in marquetry, although these were fashionable and done by others. In the first category only the name of the craftsman is usually given, generally in full, but sometimes only initials. Most such names are stamped in a straight line; a few are in circular form. The royal mark is usually the fleur-de-lys in conjunction with a crown. When everything agrees a stamp is very desirable, and one of those listed above as indicating its origin in one or other of the royal chateaux an extremely important addition.

Philip D. Zimmerman

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To a considerable extent the dissemination of the new styles was a product of the art of printmaking from engraved copper plates, newly discovered at the beginning of the 16th century. These were particularly employed to delineate the popular grotesques which we can trace in varying forms through the ensuing three centuries. It was usually fitted with drawers in an interior closed by two doors. The cabinet itself was more or less richly decorated, often with chiselled silver. The carved and gilded stand was no less rich, the four legs being in the form of pilasters with an azure ground, and four figures representing the principal rivers of the world. The cabinet is basically a chest on stand. Related to it are the marriage-chests on stands and the commode. The latter first appears a little before 1690. It means 'convenient' or 'commodious', and it was not only an extremely decorative object, to be placed under a pier-glass between windows, but it was useful for storing the multitude of valuable trifles which the 18th century accumulated. The term does not seem to have become current immediately. The stiles are slightly curved in a fashion termed profile en arbalete , from a resemblance to the arbalete or crossbow. The armoire resisted change rather more than other kinds of furniture. Divorced from its top and surmounted by a marble slab it became the armoire basse , the low armoire , often a meuble a hauteur d'appui , a piece low enough to lean on. Provided with shelves for the storage of books, the armoire became a bookcase (armoire-bibliotheque ). Like the armoire , the encoignure was often built in. The distinction between the console attached to the boiserie (console d'applique ) and the table de milieu placed in the centre of the room is an important one. The most precious part of the console table was undoubtedly its marble top. The carved gilt-wood support, however fine, was considered to be expendable, to be changed in accordance with the dictates of current fashion. It would not, of course, be difficult for a skilled workman to recut an old marble top to a more fashionable shape, and this we must assume was done occasionally.

French Furniture Antique Furnishings1640 1792

The term, however, is to be used with care. The trestle-table could be adapted to the seating of a very large number of guests; it could easily be taken down and stored when not in use; and it was large enough, and strong enough, to provide room for the elaborate table-decorations customary during the 17th and 18th centuries. The art of table-decoration was carefully studied. At first of silver or silver-gilt (vermeil ) and later of porcelain, the complete ensemble often took hours to set out. It was also far from unknown for two sets to be used, one for dessert which was laid at a separate table. Informality marked the 18th century increasingly as the years passed. Rooms became smaller, more intimate, and more varied in their purposes. The 17th-century gueridon had been a candlestand with a tray-top, a stem, and a tripod foot. It was a table, usually circular, quite small, and with a shelf or shelves between the legs. Work-tables were almost infinite in their diversity, and rarely are two alike. They were made to hold the implements for sewing and embroidery.

These tables commonly had pierced hand-holes on either side for ease of carrying, since they were stored in the garde-robe during the day. It was first introduced about the beginning of the 17th century, and the name comes from the stuff used to cover it - drap de bure , a sort of drugget. The term 'bureau ' seems to have been reserved for the more imposing examples with large drawers, while 'table a ecrire ' referred only to small tables for this purpose. Thus we find in an inventory of 1677 'a small table in the form of a bureau with five drawers'. The more usual arrangement in the 18th century was the addition of a cartonnier or serre-papiers , (untranslatable terms for what are essential ornamental racks of pigeonholes and drawers), often to the flat top on one side or the other. These, like the bureau itself, were frequently superb specimens of ebenisterie , whether separate from or integral with the table.

The true bureau-plat with its cartonnier was immense in size, fit for formal occasions and great houses. Bureaux of this kind have fall-fronts which rest on two pull-out slides on either side, or are supported on the upper side by two brass pieces shaped like a compass. Many pieces of furniture, apparently small tables intended for other purposes, were fitted for writing with pull-out slides which were leather-covered, and a small drawer at the side for ink and pens. Others had a reading-slope incorporated rising from the top and supported at the back with an adjustable stand, with a ledge at the bottom on which the book was placed. In some pieces the whole of the top lifted upwards. The top frequently opened in the middle to reveal the mirror which lifted upwards and was held by a stand, and the top folded back on either side to provide access to small compartments fitted with hinged or sliding covers. This, however, was an almost standard version, of which many variations in shape and size are to be seen. These tables were ambulantes , often on casters, to enable them to be moved from the bedroom to the boudoir , and to the garde-robe when not required. Another variety of writing-desk, which developed from the armoire rather than from the table, is the secretaire en abbatant , sometimes called en armoire. In its usual form it has a large fall-front which, when let down, uncovers a series of drawers, and provides the writing-surface. Often it was provided with a companion piece - the chiffonnier , not to be confused with the chiffonniere which is a work-table. Both these objects, because of the large surface presented by the doors and the fall-front, offered exceptional opportunities for elaborate decoration in marquetry. From years of exposure to light and dust these have now lost their original brilliance, but the rare enclosed cabinets of this kind of lacquer, when finely preserved, are evidence of the colourful appearance of these screens when they were new.

Chinese painted paper, or painted lacquer and varnish. In front of the chimney-piece was the firescreen (ecran ), which was generally rectangular on a double support at either side. They were often quite elaborate, with sliding panels, and sometimes a shelf in addition for small articles, and even a drawer. Large paravents began to disappear, to be replaced by the ecran , which became more elaborate as its usefulness as an additional piece of furniture became apparent. The firescreen en secretaire , for example, was provided not only with a drawer but with a small shelf and an inkstand. Pear wood, which takes dye well, was often stained black, and such wood is termed 'ebonized'. Provincial furniture from the latter area was often carried out in mahogany and early armoires of solid mahogany are not unknown. Soon it had almost replaced walnut for the finest work. The demand for exotic woods suitable for coloured marquetries and veneers rose steadily. For the most part they were needed for marquetries - a field in which the possible range of colours had hitherto been very limited. The latter were the culminating point - floral bouquets, trophies, and even figure and architectural subjects, some of which necessitated the use of dyed woods which have now lost their original colour. Roentgen was the greatest exponent of this kind of marquetry, and he developed a fashion which first appeared soon after mid century. By using smaller pieces of wood he produced pictures in far greater detail than the earlier ebenistes , and by heating the surface and by engraving it he attained a much more varied effect. The focal point of the bed-chamber was the bed itself, on which even people of modest means often lavished all, or more than all, that they could afford. Portable beds were still common in the 18th century, both for campaigning and travelling, although few have survived. They were usually provided with four posts (quenouilles ), one at each corner, which upheld the canopy. Canopies became increasingly luxurious, and the top of each post was decorated with costly plumes and ornamental pommes or 'apples'. Madame's bed towards the end of the century bore 'apples' of gold and silver brocade, with plumes of green, white, and yellow feathers. The plumes were called panaches , from the plume of feathers decorating medieval helmets.

Tool marks on antique furniture

The bed was totally enclosed by ample and sumptuous curtains, and when drawn they left a space between them and the bed itself. Additional to the curtains were the lambrequins , draperies looped upward at intervals or scalloped and fringed, which hung from the frame of the canopy, the curtains being suspended inside the lambrequins on rings sliding on rods. At the back a hanging was permanently suspended, and the bedhead itself was lavishly upholstered. These are but a few of the many terms used to describe canopies, some of which are now obscure. Nor was he parsimonious in giving beds to his mistresses. Less sumptuous beds marked the descent in social scale, but even a simple country gentleman had a bed of violet satin embroidered with small pieces of cloth of gold and bound with silver threads. These are perhaps better classified as seat-furniture rather than beds. By the middle of the 18th century beds had become far less elaborate. They now fell largely into three different categories - a la francaise , a la duchesse , and a la polonaise. Occurring less frequently were the beds a la turque and a la romaine , but these terms are imprecise and obscure, and it is now difficult to be certain exactly what they meant. The emphasis on woodwork rather than on textiles is the reason why more beds have survived from this period. Some variations were of a relatively minor character to which exotic names were given by the dealers of the day, and these are now often difficult to separate one from the other. The principal one was the sopha , an overstuffed canape which was often of great length. Alternatively it took the form of two bergeres at either end with an intervening leg-rest. The veilleuse was a day-bed large enough for night-time use. The strict etiquette governing the positioning of chairs in the 18th century was partly a product of the fact that the woodwork was carved to match the boiserie of a particular room, and the coverings were similar to the fabrics of curtains and portieres , and often the wall-hangings. Nor must we omit reference to the kind of chair to which one was entitled. For the lowest rank of those entitled to sit a high stuffed cushion had to serve. Next in order were those whose rank was high enough to be awarded a pliant - a folding stool. Slightly higher in the scale was the tabouret or stool proper, and the banquette or bench on which several people could sit side by side. Status was also equated with the richness of the chair offered. Invited to sit in the chamber of a nobleman of high rank, a minor country gentleman, a bourgeois, or a poet might be offered a chair with turned rails and a rush seat. The fauteuil of this period had a relatively high back, rectangular in form, which was overstuffed like the seat. The 18th century saw the introduction of many new kinds of seat-furniture, much of which had comfort as its principal objective. Then it went to the upholsterer (tapissier ), who delivered it to the customer. A contributory factor was the popularity of smaller and more numerous rooms.

The legs terminated at the top in a cube carved with a rosette. Backs were often square or trapezoid in form, frequently of an oval medallion shape, and generally en cabriolet. A fairly common back, termed a chapeau , has a slightly curved top rail terminating at either end in short, sharp counter-curves just before it joins the two stiles on either side. Other terms include the lyre, with a back in the form of a lyre; the corbeille de vannerie (wicker-basket), also an open splat; and the montgolfiere or balloon shape, testifying to contemporary interest in the ascents of that intrepid aeronaut. Bergeres continued to be popular; the fauteuil en bergere was a comfortable fauteuil somewhat in this form and not so large as the bergere proper. The emphasis on comfort so noticeable as a feature of the rococo period is no less obvious during the second half of the century, and coverings were of such rare stuffs as silk and velvet of one kind or another, but printed cotton also makes its appearance as an upholstery material. Leather-covered dining-chair seats were stuffed with horsehair, and provincial chairs for the same purpose with rush seats on turned legs are light and well proportioned. The backs are usually a chapeau , and the seat was often given a square cushion tied to the stiles and the front legs with tape. From the beginning of the 17th century onwards great ingenuity and the most luxurious materials were lavished on mirror-frames. Mirror-frames attracted the attention of the ornemanistes. Boulle made mirror-frames in his characteristic marquetry. Most have an elaborate cresting, usually foliate, sometimes with figures, and sometimes with trophies.

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The mouldings of the frame are often multiple, the intervening spaces filled with narrow strips of mirror-glass. Most are gilt, although colour combinations such as crimson and gilt are not unknown. Among the most handsome of these are mirrors in scarlet lacquer frames bordered by carved gilt wood and decorated with chinoiseries in gold. A frame of cartouche shape sometimes occurs in gilt wood. The carved wood of the frame was especially adaptable to the motifs and swirling curves of rococo, and some of the finest mirrors belong to this period. Faience mirror-frames also exist, but neither variety approaches in size those of more conventional materials. The asymmetry of the mirror-frame was occasionally carried to unusual lengths, the top of the scrolled cresting being distinctly to one side of the centre line. An unusual site for a cartel clock was in the centre of a tall overmantel mirror, about one-third of the way from the top. An 18th-century engraving shows a clock in this position. Convex mirrors were limited in number, and largely regarded as curiosities. These focused the sun's rays, and they generated sufficient heat to melt metals of all kinds. He and his journeymen and apprentices accomplished these tasks with an amazingly small array of hand tools, some of which would be familiar to us today and some that many of us would have no idea how to employ. Some of these tools, and the techniques used in conjunction with them, left marks in the wood that allow us to catch a glimpse of the action, frozen in time for our inspection. This saw is what we think of today when we think of a handsaw. It has a long tapered, stout but flexible blade and a pistol grip handle. It was used to rip and crosscut larger pieces. Other saws used were the bow saw, the keyhole saw and the “backed” or “back” saw as they are known today. These saws had a brass or steel spline on the top of the thin blade to stiffen it and allow precision cutting such as was required for dovetails. Handsaw marks are relatively rare since sawn surfaces are usually either further dressed or concealed within a joint. The best place to look for them is on the bottom of chair legs, which are carved rather than turned and on the inward facing surfaces of carved legs.

The most common saw mark is the thin overcut left on a dovetail joint. The workhorse of the plane family is the “jack” plane or the “fore” plane. This heavy, wooden bodied tool had a slightly convex blade and was used to reduce the thickness of a panel of wood. It was worked with the grain in long straight strokes, reducing the thickness more or less uniformly across the panel. While the blade was kept sharp and was worked with the grain, using a jack plane was hard work, often relegated to the lowest rank in the shop. This tool leaves perhaps the most obvious and identifiable mark of any of the tools in use. Since the drawer bottoms and back panels were never expected to be seen, no effort was made to smooth out the marks of the plane.

We can find the long shallow gouges of the jack plane on most drawer bottoms and back panels of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Fingertips run lightly across the grain will detect the rise and fall of the furrows. A raking light or a light behind a straight edge will show the marks to the naked eye, often revealing the wandering pattern of the tired apprentice. Other types of planes were used to create the multiple cuts required on moldings. Sometimes a quick sighting down the length of a piece of molding or reeding will highlight the slight variations caused by the hand-operated plane. Yet another kind of plane was used to create rabbets, or rebates, and grooves.

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The “toothing” plane with a comb-like blade was used to reduce the thickness of small hard surfaces and to scratch out tiny parallel channels in the surface of a piece of wood to prepare it to receive a sheet of veneer. A peek under the loose veneer of a period piece will often show the results of the toothing plane. The lines of the jack plane are clearly seen on this drawer bottom, circa 1830. As a result not all the wood was removed evenly. Softer new growth may have been cut more deeply than older growth, leaving a vertical ribbed feeling along a turned piece. These spirals were caused by the turning gouge moving horizontally as the piece was spun. Since most turners of the 17th and18th centuries worked by the faster method of measuring by eye rather than by stopping the work and using calipers and a rule, variations in “identical “ turnings on the same piece can be spotted by careful measurement. Because we expect to see identical turnings we often do not detect the minor variations without measuring, thus missing a valuable clue. One last clue about old lathes is the mark that is not left. Old lathes left a single shallow round hole. The resulting hole is rounded on the bottom and can be detected with a finger or a flashlight. However some flat-bottomed bits were in use at that time. They were known as center bits or brad point bits. They left a flat hole with a conical indentation at the bottom.

How to Look Up Vintage Furniture Using the Model Number

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This type of bit was introduced early in the 19th century and came into general use around mid century. Since the chisels used by period craftsmen were kept extremely sharp, most often no further dressing of the wood was required after a chisel cut. A finger run under a carved crest rail or behind a cabriole knee will encounter the sharp, undressed edges of chisel cuts. Surface carvings provide the best site for chisel marks. By looking against a light across an acanthus carved knee or crest rail cartouche it is often possible to see individual chisel stokes as the carver worked his pattern. Period smoothing techniques, prior to the invention of sandpaper, did not remove these marks though they may have mellowed over the years through wear and the removal and reapplication of finishes. Another more mundane chisel mark was used to record the identity of a chair within a set or a drawer within a case. Roman numerals, which require only straight lines, were often used to number and identify pieces and were inscribed with small chisels. Cabinetmakers used three main markers, the awl or scratch awl, the marking gauge and the newly developed writing instrument of the late 1700s, the wood encased pencil. This drawer side, circa 1830, shows the vertical line made by the marking gauge to indicate the depth of the cut for the dovetails. The dovetails show the overcuts made by the thin blade of the dovetail back saw. Awls may have been as simple as a sharpened piece of iron driven into a stick or an elaborately manufactured marker made of steel.