Antique Chinese Furniture 

I decided to write this article about antique Chinese furniture although it is not within the frame of this site. That is...  my personal interest in antiques started really with antique Chinese furniture and wooden objects, as used in everyday life.
Hopefully, this page may be of some benefit to the reader.

Evaluating the age of antique Chinese furniture and carved panels

As of now the export of antiques over 50 years old from China has effectively been stopped. For this reason there is an even higher need to be conscious of some of the techniques used in the repair, restoration and the production of antique Chinese furniture.

Yes, and I really meant it to be "production of antique Chinese furniture" above ...

Attention needs to be paid to multiplication and ageing techniques employed to make more "antique" furniture. 

Buying antique Chinese furniture?
When buying a piece of antique Chinese furniture or carved wall panels always check the following:

  • Was it handmade, or is it made with electric or machine tools?
    (Check for electric tool traces and/or the distinct signs of hand work.)
  • Perhaps made in Vietnam or SE Asia?
    (Styles are slightly different, even if Chinese subjects are shown in carvings, etc.)
  • Is it vintage or antique?
    (This is sometimes difficult to decide. Furniture was commonly hand made until at least mid-20th century. Are there any repairs or restorations indicating a higher age? Is there a patina indicating that it is very old?)
  • What wood type is it made of?
    (Certain types of wood are now protected, others are/were imported from SE Asia.)

Points To Check

To check if a piece of antique Chinese furniture or wooden panel or screen is antique, the most important things to check are:

  • Back panel
    With antique furniture as well as wall panels, etc., the uncovered / raw back or bottom is the best place to check age. But wood can be easily made to look old, thus it takes experience to make sure that the age signs are genuine.
  • Workmanship
    Carving and other details must be checked to make sure all was hand made. When antique Chinese furniture or panels are made using hand tools, there are always some minute details showing this. Generally, the traces of hand tools, electric tools or machines are different. When decoration details are repeated, either on the same or different panels, check if the details look 'exactly' the same, or if there are minor differences. With hand carving intricate details always show some differences. If there are none, then the item most likely was machine made or carved. Some knowledge of hand tools and electric tools, as well as the actual methods of making furniture may be of advantage. Lots of people fall into the trap of buying machine made items because they lack this knowledge. As electric and machine tools mostly are rotational action tools, some things simply cannot be worked, or at least not in the same way as they would be with hand tools. And, they are recognizable to the trained eye.

    For example, if there is a place where the wood was not further worked, apart from cutting it with a saw (e.g. bottom or back of figurine or carving), there are usually traces of the tools used for cutting or sawing the wood. Hand saws leave a different type of trace than electric saws, which appear more regular. Circular saw traces are especially easy to recognize.
  • Cracks, fissures, warping
    Many wood types used in antique Chinese furniture develop cracks, fissures or warping over time... some more, some less. Complete absence of such, or the absence of repairs and restorations of such is likely to mean the wood is more recent.
  • Dirt lodged in fissures and recesses
    Age old dirt is usually present to some degree, especially if items were exposed to the weather or were cast outside or in a shed. Note: the appearance of dirt can and IS used for age faking
  • Inlays
    Inlays of Chinese antique furniture, where one type of wood is inlaid into the wood of another color can be extremely intricate and carefully made. Sometimes the inlays show in relief, protruding from the base wood. Newer, machine made inlays often are crude and easy to recognize. Antique furniture is never made using such crude methods.
  • Wood type
    The type of wood used is closely related to the value of an item. Certain hardwoods command very high prices, regardless of the condition of the item itself. This is due to the rarity, or use of now protected local wood species. Due to over-exploitation certain wood types were already rare a long time ago, in the late Qing dynasty.
    Newer products often use similar or the same wood types native to and imported from Southeast Asian or other countries. While some were imported already early on, others were imported only from the late 20th century. This simply means that items made with such wood are recently made, HOWEVER OLD THEIR APPEARANCE may be.
  • Lacquer, gilt, painting, wax
    If the wood is covered with non-transparent lacquer, gilt or paint, do not expect the underlying wood to be made of a top quality wood. It is said that the furniture in the Qing palace was only waxed, showing the beautiful grain below. Of course, this is not limited to the palace. Furniture used in the Ming dynasty often did show the grain. Antique Chinese furniture made of fir or pine wood is almost always covered with mineral paint or non-transparent lacquer on the front side.

  • Multiplication of antique Chinese furniture
    Just to give an example how this works:
    If there are both complete and damaged chairs remaining, the chairs may be disassembled and their parts would be re-built and intermixed with newly made "replacement" parts to obtain a larger number of complete "antique" chairs. Another one that is frequently encountered are cupboards, etc. with antique or old front boards used for drawers and doors; inspection of the interior often shows that all or part of the interior boards and back panels are newly made. Sometimes old boards are used to make this less visible.

Age signs of wood

The age signs of wood used in antique Chinese furniture can be quite different depending  on age and wood type. The places to most easily detect signs of age are the back panel or underside of furniture and carved panels, respectively.
This is especially the case if they are made of fir or pinewood. Old Chinese houses are not tight. Even after only a couple of decades exposure to the air in a traditional Chinese house, the back panel of pine wood furniture turns gray as the untight house allows it to dry out fast. Often the wood is completely dry to the core, and the gray color is the same even in deeper layers of the wood. It is now very brittle at this stage and repairs, etc. may encounter serious problems as the wood is not strong enough anymore for working it or supporting the furnitures' overall weight. Sometimes braces or other means are required to support the frame.

Not all coniferous wood types do display erosion or drying to such a degree, however.
Far Eastern cypress wood, for example, which has a fine grain and high oil content, can remain in good condition in its interior over a very long time. Old cypress wood can frequently be worked or planed anew, and reused without a problem even after almost a hundred years. We frequently see wood being reused that was taken from pieces of furniture, door and window frames, and wooden building materials used in houses built in the early 20th century!  This wood shows often little loss of strength, only the surface shows erosive or drying damage. Once the surface layer is planed off, it looks the same as new cypress wood. The same is valid for many tropical or subtropical hardwoods that are used for furniture.
Some woods will even give off their fragrance anew when re-worked decades later.

Traces of more recent production methods

Machine made inlays and carvings from China

  • Machine made inlays or carvings from China are often easily recognizable. The inlays are frequently crude compared to handmade inlays.
  • Carvings look too regular, especially the curves, and when two or more items are repeated, they frequently seem exactly the same. With handmade carvings their proportions differ always a little.
  • No matter whether computerized production machines or electric hand tools are used, they have one thing in common – these tools work either in a circular movement, like carving tools, or a regular movement up and down or forward and backward (with some saws). Unless much effort was spent to remove all tool traces carefully, which seldom is the case, it is possible to detect these.

Age faking methods used with "antique" Chinese furniture

  • Age faking by adding dirt or dark colors into crevices and fissures
  • Woodworm: some people keep woodworms to make the age of furniture seem real
  • Rat bites: the wood is damaged in a way to resemble gnawing by rats
  • Burning the surface

Why some experts do not trust what they see…

Restored or new? Even before the export of antiques from China was restricted, some dealers were very skeptical regarding the authenticity of antique Chinese furniture. Unless they could see the actual item in its bad condition before its restoration, they would not believe that a restored item was really antique.
The reason is the incredible ability of some Chinese wood workers making the new look old, and the practice of multiplying antique furniture used in China. See

In fact, repaired furniture items can look pretty new after a restoration, with all age signs and blemishes virtually invisible. Not necessarily a good thing as this may lower an item's antique value. Always be critical.
Few furniture or wooden items are in good condition after centuries, without at least some restoring. Perfect items should always get the alarm bells ringing, if you are looking for REAL antiques.


Wax application methods used in China

Wet wax application
The method of wet wax application used in China is basically the same method as that used in the west. A paste wax or semi-liquid wax is applied to the surface of the wood.

Dry wax application
Dry wax application is something different altogether. In old times probably a torch would have been used. Electricity has made it possible to use this method without fire. Hard wax shavings are placed on the wood surface (positioned horizontally) to be waxed. Then a heating body like a hot air hair blower, induction coil or heating iron is held close to the surface to soften und liquefy the wax, which then flows and spreads over the wood. It fills all crevices and the wood grain. The wax is polished after the wax has cooled down. The result is a completely smooth and rather hard surface, hiding uneven grain completely.

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