FARM TABLE BUYING GUIDE
(What to look for and questions to ask when buying a table made from antique reclaimed wood.)
Building a table well, one that is sturdy, robust and will weather the test of time is an art that employs the distilled knowledge of years of experience. It is a process, however, that looks easy and profitable luring to it many overnight “experts”, many of which only know the specie of wood they are using because that’s what they were told. Design, proportion, construction techniques and above all finish can be a disaster causing the consumer years of torment. When investing in a table from a professional, time-tested furniture maker, you are purchasing a family heirloom, a table that will last for untold generations.
Remember the age old saying, “The bitterness of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of a cheap price.” There are lots of ways to make a poor quality, inexpensive farm table. The tips below will help you to avoid the phrase so often heard, “I didn’t know”. Good luck and remember that most often “you get what you pay for”.
- Where did the wood come from? Ask the table manufacturer if they know the ‘story behind the wood’ -- was the wood originally cut from the virgin forests of America? Was it from some other forest in another country? Did it come from an old house or barn? Where was this structure located? When was it built? Who lived there? What function did the lumber serve in its first use? Ask for this information to be written down so you can tell the ‘story’ to friends and family. Ask if the wood the table is built with comes with a ‘Certificate of Authenticity’.
Demolition is soon to begin on these New England barns.
- Are the turned legs machine duplicated or hand turned? We live in a “cookie cutter world” and often times, due to the lack of skill of the table assembler*, the legs are mass produced on a duplication machine compromising the handmade appearance of old and giving the table a standard furniture store look*. A professional woodcraftsman can hand turn each leg without the aid of calipers* enhancing the handmade ambiance of the table. A machine turned leg spins at a high speed and is pressed against a profile knife* that cuts the leg out in one swift operation. Each leg is the exact duplicate of the other, which is a perfect example of our “cookie cutter world”. There is something special about a hand turned leg. The gentle differences in proportion, the slight waves and dips of the craftsman’s hand held chisel add another dimension to the overall texture of the table.
The next time you’re looking at antiques, note the subtle changes in proportion.
This chair’s finials* and table legs are from the early 1800’s. Note the difference in the size / irregularity of true handmade turnings. Note the table leg to the right is an extreme example. I only show this because it is so extreme.
Stephen Staples is hand turning a table leg without calipers.
- Are the legs made from reclaimed wood? Ask if the origin of the leg and apron stock is from the same structure as the table top? If they are tapered legs, look to see if the clean cut side of the leg has been embellished to resemble the uncut faces of the old beams?
Arrival of old beams for leg stock.
5. Is there a choice of table ends? Quality table ends include:
- Breadboard ends* – is a term that originated from early bakery breadboards. They are narrow boards (2” to 3” wide) that are applied to the end grain of the main table boards. If the breadboard ends are rigidly attached with nails or screws, they will cause the main table boards to crack. A quality table with breadboard ends is engineered to accept movement so the wood can expand and contract with the seasonal changes in humidity without cracking.
- Square cut ends – is when the table top has been cut off square, straight and even.
- Cityscape ends – is when each board making up the tabletop is cut at random lengths giving the table a more rustic look.
- Mountain range ends –is when the boards making up the tabletop ends are cut with slight variations in straightness, much like a primitive table top would have been.
- How are the bowtie patches made? Are theyhand cut and slightly irregular giving them a handmade, more primitive farm table look? They should be the same thickness as the tabletop if expected to have any structural holding power. If the bowties are machine cut using a router and a template, they will be perfectly symmetrical and won’t look appropriate on a table top. This method only allows the thickness of the bowtie to be about ½” which affords little holding power. They are used more for cosmetic, decorative purposes. You will find symmetrical bowties used more on modern furniture creations.
Bowtie between two pine boards
Final touches to the fitting in of a bowtie patch.
- How are the holes in the wood filled? You do not want the holes filled with handyman type wood fills, glue and sawdust or wax crayons* that will chip away and fall out as the wood moves. Holes and cracks should be filled with quality epoxies* that can be colored as desired and will stay put with the natural expansion and contraction of the wood. If preferred, nail holes can be filled with wooden pegs* of the same vintage wood or in some cases, authentic hand forged rose head nails* that were in the boards originally.
|Rose head nail made by the blacksmith’s hammer as he peined* the nail head||Square pegs showing end grain.|
- What types of finishes are used? Beware of wax finishes* as they may cause white marks and may get sticky in the summer time. Many table assemblers*, who do not have a finishing background or a finishing facility, use wax finish because of its simplicity. If the wax has been heavily applied, you will be able to scrape it off with your fingernail, which is not a good thing. A durable wipe on finish that finishes the wood from the inside out is far superior. This finish is in the wood and not sitting on top. This type of finish eliminates chipping, flaking and cracking. Be sure the finish is maintainable. Ask how it could be repaired in the event of a scratch? Ask if another coat of finish can be applied as part of a table maintenance program? Ask if the table comes with a maintenance card.
- If you have your own reclaimed wood, can it be used in your custom-made farm table? A caring craftsman will be more than happy to build the farm table using wood from the client’s homestead, which adds sentimental value.
- Is the bottom of the tabletop finished? When the bottom of a table is finished with the same number of coats as the tabletop it allows the even absorption of humidity, which prevents future warping, cupping or twisting of the wood. This also produces a hygienically safe surface. Most table bottoms found in the marketplace display raw boards still dusty from the barn or attic carrying untold micro organisms.
- Is the table identified by the furniture maker? Does the table have a signed and dated paper label glued to the bottom of the tabletop and/or is it branded in a way that cannot be removed? This craftsman adds his signature signet mark on the tabletop. A significant addition that could add greatly to the value of the piece as it ages.
Stephen Staples hand scribing his famous signet mark in a table top.
- Does the table carry a warranty? Confirm that the furniture maker will repair or replace structural defects or a defective finish barring misuse or abuse.
- Are custom orders considered? Confirm that the furniture maker will sit down and consult with you and your interior designer about your taste and style, the style of your home and other furniture you may have in your home when you are investing in a custom piece. It is important that clients get exactly what they desire.
- If there are drawers in the table, are they dovetailed? A good sign of a quality table is if the craftsman adds a dovetailed drawer in the apron of each handmade table. Also, ask if the front of the drawer is made from reclaimed wood like the tabletop.
- How long has the furniture maker been in the table making business? Anyone can place a couple of boards on top of 4 commercially available legs and call it a ‘table’. It takes years to learn all the nuances of how to do it correctly. Beware that if table making is the person’s sideline, they may be ‘here today gone tomorrow’. Make sure furniture making is the craftsman’s full time passion and don’t be afraid to ask for references.
Stephen C. Staples at his Norton, MA shop in 1982 making tables long before it was popular.
- Do the boards for the table top match? Do they come from the same tree? Are they the same species? Were they reclaimed from the same building and/or floor? If they do match, it means the maker took the time to ensure the uniform look of the table. Boards should be chosen with an artistic eye making sure they are symmetrical with similar age worn character from the same reclaimed building.
- Know where tool marks should and should not appear. All modern day tool marks made by the craftsman in the construction of the table, like the circular saw blade and jointer marks*, should be removed with a hand plane* at the same time leaving some of the tool marks from 200 years ago. If these clues to the age of the wood are preserved, it will always be possible to date the antique boards.
- Beware of a skinned* table top. When an old wood tabletop is sent through a wide belt sander*, the entire surface is removed making the table flat and even. This process cuts hours off the production time and a century or more off the face of the old wood tabletop leaving it flat, smooth and speechless. Ask the furniture maker if the table top has been processed in this manner.
- Will the table appreciate in value? It takes an artisan with a track record to build a piece of furniture that appreciates in value over time. It also takes a company who has built a name for quality and artistry in the industry. Look at their website and go to their ‘news page’. Every time they have appeared in a significant publication, they gain credibility and value is added to their creations as more and more people begin to collect their work.
- Unwanted guests? Will you be taking home more than just a table? Wood from old structures is often home to a variety of burrowing insects. One in particular is the powder post beetle*, which can go undetected at the time of purchase only to be noticed when a little pile of dust or frass* starts to accumulate under the table. The powder post beetle is so named due to its ability to turn a post to powder (often times a table leg will do nicely). Many builders treat the wood with an insecticide (not the best method on your “green” table); however, more often nothing will be done at all, allowing these little fellows to emerge and venture throughout your home looking for that choice timber, whether part of your home or another piece of furniture. The only way to rid the wood of these pests, as well as mold spores and other living creatures, is sustained levels of heat. Stated by Carolyn Klass, Senior Extension Associate, Cornell University, in her document called ‘Powder Post Beetles’ dated April, 1986, she recommends a core temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. This is achievable through the use of a kiln or oven.
Rung to a chair shows entrance and exit holes as the core of the rung is dust.
Looks like a good board right?
This board is actually full of frass left from a boring beetle.
The larvae of the powder post beetle will not eat the outer skin of the furniture or wood it infests. Usually this outer skin is impregnated with something unpleasant tasting like finish or bug spray.
- Was the table made in America by Americans? God bless America!
- Apron / Skirt – Table aprons, also known as a skirt, are boards connected to the top, to which the legs are attached.
- Assemblers – Someone with little woodworking experience and skill who buys pre-manufactured table parts and puts the pieces together with a few old boards, some wax finish and “hocus-pocus” a Table! For now anyways.
- Butterfly Patch / Dutchman – A bowtie shaped piece of wood, also known as a Dutchman, cut into a board to hold a crack together, replace a defect in the board or fill a hole in the board.
- Calipers – A measuring device with two C shaped legs hinged at one end with an adjusting screw for opening and closing calibration used in wood turning to measure and replicate rounds and hollows.
- Epoxy – A thermosetting resin adhesive characterized by toughness, strong adhesion, and low shrinkage.
- Finials – An ornamental termination to the top of a piece of furniture.
- Frass – Sawdust like powdery dust excreted by larvae and pushed out of holes left in the wood. A beetle’s life cycles can last from one to ten years.
- Hand Plane – A hand tool used from the earliest days of woodworking and still in use by discerning craftsmen today to slowly level the surface of wood as it comes from the saw mill.
- Mill Marks – Marks left by a power planer that gives the board a corrugated wavy appearance. Since this machine has only been around since the turn of the last century, you should not find these marks on an old piece. A quality woodworker makes every effort to remove these telltale marks.
- Patina – The color all things turn with age; such as, wood, steel, copper, brass or a stone wall.
- Peg – A square piece of wood used to fill a hole in a board. A peg is also used to hold mortise and tendon joints in place.
- Peined – To hammer, bend or shape.
- Powder Post Beetles – The adult beetle does little damage. It is the larvae that do the major part of the damage. Larvae create tunnels in the wood and become pupae. As adults, they bore out through the wood and fly off looking for a mate. Then they start the whole cycle over again boring a new entry hole in another location.
- Profile Knife – A steel knife blade into which the profile of a turning (table leg) is cut. As the wood block spins at high speeds, the knife is pressed into the block and cuts an exact replica in seconds.
- Rose Head Nail – A handmade nail from the 18th century characterized with a petal like appearance from 5 or 6 blows from a hammer to broaden out the end of the nail rod.
- Skinned – Taking a board and removing all the traces of age. All of the boards’ character is swept away in just a couple of passes through a leveling machine.
- Standard Furniture Store Look – Where one piece of furniture is exact in every detail to another; such as, color, tone, shape, etc.
- Wax Crayons – Special wax crayons that are used to fill holes in furniture. This wax remains soft and eventually wears out of the hole.
- Wax Finish – A method of finishing wood with paste wax. When done correctly, this can produce a nice luster. When done incorrectly the surface can become sticky and be susceptible to white rings.
- Wide Belt Sander – A machine similar to a large belt sander with an adjustable table to calibrate the amount of surface taken off with each pass. It is used to flatten uneven and wavy table tops. 200 years of age can be peeled off the surface of a table in just a few passes.
- Wood Expansion and Contraction – With the changing season and consequential changes in humidity, wood will shrink across the grain and not along the length of the grain. A table that measures 6’ long and 40” wide in the winter could measure 6’ long and 41” wide in the summer, depending on the wood species. If wood is held securely along its width, it will crack as a result.