Have we lost the plot regarding furniture quality and prices


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AJB Temple

Finely figured
13 Oct 2015
Reaction score
Tunbridge Wells
Disclaimer: I don’t know much about antiques, though I do have some old 16C oak. I was hunting for an early oak livery cupboard and bought one from a dealer, having seen it on-line. That has yet to arrive. Whilst hunting around on well-known action sites I came across a flame mahogany linen press (above and below), which the sellers claim is dated circa 1820. It is quite large and I bought it for £200 cash. This is about the price of a MDF kitchen carcass from a DIY shed. Having brought it home I've had a good look. Now, I freely confess that when I saw this on-line I thought if it is cheap enough I'll break it up to harvest the wood. It is in two pieces, and the ornate top also comes off with the removal of three screws.

This is what I got for my £200. The drawers, slips and cupboard fronts and sides appear to be solid mahogany veneered with flame mahogany and French polished. The top and bottom carcasses are held together with dovetails, as are the drawers. Nicely made and tight. You can see the marking lines etc still.

The drawer and slip sides are nice quality oak, about 3/8” thick, and the drawer and slip bottoms are also oak (two piece), nailed on with forged iron nails. Quadrant reinforcements on the drawer bottoms look later to me. Handles appear original – there are no other holes in the drawers, and no depression marks. Hinges are brass but all screws are steel and look original. There are no keys to the locks and I've not taken them off yet to look. Everything else that is not visible looks like it is probably made of softwood that was cut very roughly. This has some old worm holes.

Not quite sure what to do with it. We might actually use it for storing linen. Anyone who has insights into these old cupboards, I would be interested to hear.


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"Brown" furniture rather went out of fashion a few years ago, but there are signs of a revival in interest, possibly fuelled by the almost universally abysmal quality of much modern furniture.

Just a wee side-note on woodscrews - if the piece is genuinely of 1820 date (and dealers' dates are almost always to be treated with some scepticism) the screws will be of wrought iron, not steel. The first woodscrews had the threads hand-filed onto forged blanks, but machinery to cut the threads was developed in the 1770s. The screws made by this machinery had parallel blanks - no point at the end. The point-end screw was a development in America in the 1840s, so I suspect that few British cabinetmakers would be using such screws before about 1850 or so.

Thus, if your press has pointy screws, it's either later than the dealer's date, or it's had some heavy tlc at some stage in it's life, in which case some evidence of original fittings should show.

(PS - I think one or two of our regular members have professional furniture restoration experience, so I hope they chip in. They'll know far more than me.)
Thanks for that. I was using the word "steel" loosely. I will check the screws and report back. They certainly do not look of modern manufacture as the slots are not cut dead on. I know brown furniture was more or less unsaleable at auction in the past 20 years. The high end antiques still seem to hold value. Think it would be impossible just to buy the wood to make this anything close to £200.

Edit: I popped out to the freezing cold (but dry) barn and popped a few screws out. They have straight shanks and threads - virtually no taper. The small ones I took out of the door catches have had points roughly filed on the end - but this bit is not threaded. The brass catches that hold the upper section doors shut, look fine on the outside, but the inside of the catches looks hand sawn and hand filed. The rebates for these could easily have been cut by a mouse they are that rough on the inside (but dead on accurate for the visible bit). The screws are all rusty. The other interesting thing is that the slots are very narrow - even modern cabinet maker's screwdrivers have too thick a blade.

Also the ornate top moulding is perfect on the face side, but on the top edge they made no effort at all to finish the mahogany (which is about 3/4" thick) - the saw marks are fully evident. (This would have been at least 18" higher than the the typical height of a man in those days, so not at all visible I suppose).

The drawer cupboard back is planked, nailed on with obviously hand hammered iron nail heads that are somewhat oblong shaped. The top cupboard back is better fitted - as I suppose it is visible when the doors are opened.
That would make a lovely tool cupboard. :D

Agree with your sentiments, but brown furniture needs the right sort of house/room for it “to work “.
seems good for the money!

I think this style of furniture works best in grand houses and mansions, you need a big space ideally.

I have seen some solid crotch mahogany furniture go for really good prices, as in not veneered, occasionally they get pieces like that at my local charity shop but surprisingly it gets snapped up very fast so there's obviously a demand for it. I just hope it's not the latest chabby chic victim.
That's absurdly cheap.
I can appreciate the quality of the materials and workmanship. But - and this is the killer - even though I live in an old house and have a few bits of humbler old furniture, I wouldn't want it, even at that price. It's just too big, too showy and would dominate any of our modestly sized rooms.

I wouldn't have the heart to cut it up and re-use the wood either. So I'm glad it's now likely to be looked after and used, rather than burnt or left to rot.
I agree that it needs a certain kind of house. I had a Manor House years ago and that could take quite a mixture of furniture styles. However, everything that I have kept over the years has been almost all oak, and most of it is 300 to 500 years old. We presently live in a barn (one of a succession of the flipping things - this one is about 400 years old but has been developer bodged) and again although we have some big spaces, I think it suits oak.

For me to use this, say in our new separate barn kitchen and family room, I would have to store the ornate top and make a new much shallower one. Also replace (and keep) the lion's claw feet and lower it a bit. I think I can do a suitable simple moulding from mahogany and match it to the finish. I know some may regard this as sacrilege, but at this price I don't feel I am damaging an heirloom. The bespoke tool cabinet idea really appeals to me.
My mother bought a beautiful roll top bureau in 1975, paying £400 ( which is £3380 now according to an inflation calculaor to put it in perspective). I sold it when we moved house in 2013 as it was so dated and out of place with where we moved. After the auction the auctioneer told me I was lucky to get £700 for it ........... as a computer wouldn't fit in it. :D
Excellent stuff.
"Harvest the wood"? No chance! The best bits would be the mouldings but everything else too thin for much at all. What amazes me about stuff like that is ruthlessly economical they were at every stage - the less visible the lower the quality and the finish - back boards as though hewn with stone axes etc.
We imagine that IKEA style minimalism and production line techniques are all new but they are not - these people knew very well what they were doing, and they were not the products of isolated "cabinet makers".
Also amazing is the sheer durability - it's normal for 100 year old drawers on wooden runners to be still working perfectly - dovetailed drawers may have lost all the glue and just be dry fixed but still together, and so on.
If you want to know how to do dovetails it's pieces like this which will tell you - they did everything to optimise the material, methods and the effort put in. No effin about!
Well to my surprise Jacob, when I went to see it (prior to parting with 200 notes) the drawer fronts are solid mahogany (with veneer on top) and are about 3/4" thick. The top cupboard sides and the slip fronts are just over 1/2" thick and the bottom chest is mostly 3/4".

It always amuses me that they made the drawer sides out of such thin material in this case a but thicker than usual at 3/8" with the slips at 1/4". As it happens I also have a small oak linen press with wooden screw plate, dating from around 1700. All the linings on this are 1/4" oak. Every drawer runs perfectly easily after 320 years of use. I think back in the day they had a lot of skill and a complete absence of Festool. They also did not obsess over finishing materials - and they have in fact stood the test of time and are easily repaired.
Can we see a photo of the drawer dovetails? That will help to verify the date.

Looks a nice piece, and yes it should be used as is!

I couldn't get access to the drawers as I have had another delivery blocking it in but here are the dovetails in the slips.


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These pictures are of a chest of drawers, which had lost part of it's moulding. Giving an in-site into the construction.
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Solid it was, but plenty of veneer in ere!



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Beautifully made, exquisite materials and very cheap...

It is however, phenomenally ugly.

I keep seeing pieces like this and if I had an old house would maybe be slightly more likely to buy them, but only slightly

Re. Bod's:
So is that top basically two equal thicknesses of wood, hard on top soft below, stuck together? Never seen that before!
I guess the bottom would be DT'd the same but all one piece softwood, with the DTs going the other way (vertical) or perhaps framed around instead.
Otherwise it's fairly conventional way of making a sturdy chest of drawers or cabinet, with biggish pins for strength, covered by a moulding.
AJBs are slender 'single kerf' pins (well the middle ones at least) which are easiest to do of all, suited to light work and look a bit more freehand.
AJB Temple":1u0zsuut said:
I couldn't get access to the drawers as I have had another delivery blocking it in but here are the dovetails in the slips.
Thanks for the pics. These narrow dovetails are consistent with the date suggested, or possibly a little later.
Thanks Music Man. I was having a look at it today as I am doing precautionary woodworm treatment on old holes. In doing so I found a decrepit bill of sale pasted on the bottom of one of the drawers. It is dated June 1812, and was sold by Gillow of London. Two drawers (but nothing else that I have found) are stamped GILLOW with what must have been a metal punch, along with an indistinct number. Almost invisible under the accumulated dirt. Can't read the whole 4 digit number. I think I may have to treat this piece with a little more respect than I had intended.