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"Vintage" dry sink - determining age and style without dovetails

detailaddict
4 years ago
last modified: 4 years ago

I recently bought this piece at an estate sale, mainly because I like old furniture that tells a story about how people used to live. But now that it's in my basement (awaiting placement in our new build) I've been trying to research the period it came from and the general style. All of the websites out there offer advice on how to assess the dovetailing - i.e, by hand or machine; but this piece doesn't have any. All of the pieces are either glued or nailed - which seems to indicate more recent construction, but most of the nails appear to have square heads, and the top, sides and one door are made of single panels that are much wider than what one can find in modern lumberyards, and maybe even the lumberyards of 50 years ago. It is definitely solid wood - no plywood and certainly no MDF, although whether it is all the same wood type (pine or another soft wood) I'm not sure. It does show signs of wear, especially in the feet, but this could merely be due to use of reclaimed wood.

Obviously the construction is VERY plain and simple - even more so than what one would find in primitive Amish or Shaker pieces, from what I can tell. The only "decoration" is the carving in the side panels. I haven't seen any pieces with such a plain apron (which almost makes it look like a MCM piece), and it doesn't even have front-facing feet - the weight is entirely supported by the "feet" that are extensions of the sides. Whether these indicate strict practicality or a lack of skill, I don't know.

Pointers on other features to look for or insights as to its style and/or age would be appreciated. Apparently the appraiser for the sale thought this was worth something as the asking price was $850, although I didn't pay this much. Admittedly I'm still new to antiquing and purchase according to what I like and what price point I can justify rather than what I think a piece is worth. I've prepared myself for the possibility that this is a reproduction piece, but comments as to lack of research prior to purchase (learning curve!) are not helpful. Any takers?





Comments (29)

  • lindac92
    4 years ago

    Lovely!!! You have a piece made by someone who needed it...a dry sink, not a piece of furniture that needs dovetails...it's a utility piece....made from what was at hand...obviously hand made. hard to tell how old because these things were made for a long time. I would guess from the mid 19th century...
    Where are you? any idea where it came from? Check the thickness of the boards....I'll bet a good inch or more!
    Great piece!


    detailaddict thanked lindac92
  • detailaddict
    Original Author
    4 years ago

    The owner of the house in Georgia where I bought it had made several trips to Pennsylvania, and this was presumably one of her purchases. She also had many modern, yet traditionally-made Amish storage boxes and a corner cabinet - so this may well have come from Amish country. And yes, the boards are very thick! I was actually hoping to turn it into a bathroom vanity, but with the top in such good shape I refuse to put the requisite drain hole in it. So now I'll have to reinvent it as a sideboard or console behind the couch. :)

    It would be nice to discern what repairs or changes were made over the years. I'm doubting the hardware is original, so I may replace the hinges with strap hinges (which I love), or at least the latches as they seem cheap and plastic-y.

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  • lindac92
    4 years ago

    I'll bet the hinges and latches are original.....and please don't put strap hinges on that piece....very out of character for the piece.
    I use a similar piece ( but not as nice!) for a TV stand....at one time it held kids games. Lots of uses.

  • sam_md
    4 years ago

    This looks like a primitive, softwood dry sink. It looks all original. When you alter pieces like this you devalue them. Thumb latches look original to me.

    BTW, I live not far from Amish country. The reproductions that I have seen look clumsy and unappealing to me.

    detailaddict thanked sam_md
  • detailaddict
    Original Author
    4 years ago

    If I can confirm that the hardware is original then I will keep them...They just look so insubstantial for a piece this chunky. (And strap hinges would mean adding holes, I will admit.) I did find a picture online of a different piece with the exact same hardware, or nearly.

    Is the finish likely to be polyurethane, or could it be a shellac?

  • detailaddict
    Original Author
    4 years ago
    last modified: 4 years ago

    I would like it if the wood were walnut, but we accidentally added some scratches and gouges getting it into the house :(, so I'm thinking it's a soft wood like @sam suggests if it scratches that easily.

    I was initially afraid it was some "midcentury"-style reinterpretation or repair-job, looking at all of the straight lines and lack of ornamentation - and the fact that it didn't match any style I could find online. This was what made me doubt the originality of the latches and hinges, if were even a period piece. But given the asymmetry and the comments here I would agree (with relief) that it's an original "home-job," slapped together using the materials on-hand. I don't see any telltale marks or indications that the latches or hinges have been replaced, so you could both be correct on this point. If this is indeed the case I will leave it alone. Depending on placement it may make a nice pairing with a large hutch I found at another sale, also primitive and made of old-growth lumber (likely Longleaf Pine). I call it my "Big Boy". :)

  • lindac92
    4 years ago

    Oh wow!!!! That's fabulous!!
    As for the dry sink...it very well could be made from several different woods. Let's see a picture of the back if you can. and what does the inside of the side panel look like? How about a nice clear pivcture, fairly close of the grain in the wood on several places...
    I am a big fan and semi collector of what I call "country walnut"....primitive walnut pieces, made from walnut back in the day when a walnut board could be more than an inch thick and 24 inches wide.

  • jemdandy
    4 years ago

    History of lumber sizes:

    Note that finished lumber presumable was planed from 'standard' rough sizes of the day. Therefore a finished 1 inch board was thinner than a rough sawn 1 inch board.

    This article is long, however, there are tables near the end that may be useful. It shows that lumber sizes in the US was a mash-up until the last 60 years.


    https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/documnts/misc/miscpub_6409.pdf


    The construction of your "dry sink" gives me the impression that it may have been home built. Search the internet for the heights of table tops from the floor and standard widths. These dimensions seem to have been somewhat standardized at some time, many pieces built to the expected dimensions by the public. If you find that your piece had an oddball height or width, this would be further evidence of home-built or custom made to fit an existing space. (My two nephews are woodworkers and cabinet makers. They often build to fit existing spaces.)

    detailaddict thanked jemdandy
  • detailaddict
    Original Author
    4 years ago
    last modified: 4 years ago

    @jemdandy...I did wonder about the dimensions, as it is 21" wide (i.e., profile from the wall) but 51.5" in length - just over 4ft, which seems odd. My husband is also an amateur woodworker and his projects are generally to "standardized" or to-the-foot dimensions. The height to the top of the "lip" is 33" (4.5" for the lip itself) which may well have been customized to the height of the original user.

    The link is appreciated, as I had done some searching for a timeline of sorts on when either the old-growth trees (producing wider boards) had been used up or board widths became narrower and/or more standardized. We're guessing that my "Big Boy" above is quite old as one does not find 18"-2' wide planks anymore. The article seems to focus mainly on board thickness which I had not considered as a factor, but it makes sense that these would have both diminished and become more standardized as well. Most of the dry sink boards are 3/4" thick, and the back and inner shelf (and possibly the work surface; impossible to tell without disassembly) are 1".

  • lindac92
    4 years ago

    I know farmers who have piles of board lumber...walnut mostly, "seasoning" in the barn or shed. Been there for years. I saw an ad less than a month ago for "seasoned walnut, up to 24 inches in width, varying lengths".
    I used to work on a government survey...30 years ago...took me to many out of the way places on the backroads of Iowa...I saw some stuff there that made me drool for sure....still thinking about one walnut corner cupboard with small glass panes on the top....filled with wonderful 19th century glass.

  • bubblyjock
    4 years ago

    I *think* it might be early Canadian, Ottawa Valley, Renfrew County or Lanark County (you can look that up). The curved base of the ends/legs were common in simple honest furniture made in that area, which was settled by Scots and also Germans, and a lot of the Germans added such curves - winters are awfully long here, so what else are you going to do of an evening! I have a simple rustic table that has a beautiful star carved into the top, a similar touch of whimsy, and it is totally authentic (provenance known and documented).

    Some of the wood might be butternut, hard to tell from the photo but it was a "desirable" wood for furniture-making for a while, as it grows locally, has an attractive grain, and isn't as dark as walnut or as soft as pine or as expensive as oak.

    A lot of our early "primitive" furniture was bought by dealers in PA, NY, etc, by the truck-load 20-40 years ago for chump change and flipped in the US for big bucks. Some of it is beginning to make its way home again ...

  • Gargamel
    4 years ago
    last modified: 4 years ago

    I wondered the same thing bubblyjock, if it were French Canadian. A friend of mine has an almost identical one and it's Fr Cdn. But I'm no expert.

  • detailaddict
    Original Author
    4 years ago

    Interesting...so what would the style/origin (French Canadian or one of the other styles bubblyjock mentions) say about the age?

  • detailaddict
    Original Author
    4 years ago

    Yikes...just noticed my misspelling in the thread title! "DetermINing" is what I meant to write. I've contacted tech support on how to edit this, but until then...

  • detailaddict
    Original Author
    4 years ago

    @bubblyjock...upon googling those makes, I did find these:


    As these are the closest in style to mine that I've found yet, I think you may be onto something. And the hardware on the second appears to confirm that mine is original.

    I am surprised (and a bit dismayed) at how little some of these pieces go for...some prices listed are over $1,000, while others are listed at only $2-300, (One antique piece with a copper liner AND a water pump went for $325.) Not that I'm looking at resale value; I just wonder to what extent I might have been hoodwinked...

  • bubblyjock
    4 years ago
    last modified: 4 years ago

    detailaddict - you're right, they are similar!

    A lot of these sorts of simple, authentic pieces were bought by pickers for a steal from unsuspecting old farmers, etc, who thought them tatty therefore worthless (which is why the feet - bases - are often worn and show signs of old rot) and it wasn't like the picker was going to tell them their real value, was it! Then they were sold on to the antique dealers who then flipped them for exorbitant prices in the USA. Antiques aren't holding their value at the moment, which is grating for the dealers (which I happen to think serves them right for ripping off the original owners in the first place, harrumph), but good for buyers.

    About the age ... if I'm right about where it's from, then it's from any time in the very late 18th century right through the 19th century, lol. I'd say earlier in that period, but I'm not sure. We just pulled up the pine floor in our Ontario stone farmhouse kitchen, and it was nailed in with great long square-headed nails, and it dates to the early 1870s for reference.

    Does it have any signs of paint on it? It looks like it's been refinished and urethaned, with some repair which decreases its value - if we're right - enormously, unfortunately. The best value is in pieces with the original paint, which was often a green not unlike Farrow & Ball Arsenic, or a lovely soft mid-blue.

    Can you take a close-up of the latches? That might help. Do they look like they've been replaced, or removed and put back?

    There are some really good books about early Canadian, early Ontario, early French Canadian, antiques. They, too, used to cost a fortune but you can probably find them via Amazon, etc.

    And by the way - the big black piece is brilliant too! You have a good eye. :)

    detailaddict thanked bubblyjock
  • detailaddict
    Original Author
    4 years ago
    last modified: 4 years ago

    "And by the way - the big black piece is brilliant too! You have a good eye. :)"

    Maybe you could tell my husband this! We share a love for antiques and our tastes run pretty similar (I've never been into "girly" stuff), but he merely tolerates my apparent taste for primitive pieces. I intend to place my Big Boy (the black hutch) in a centralized location in our new house where it can be used and admired, but he's thinking that it and the dry sink would be better placed in some out-of-the-way, private area to use for storage, etc. Do you think the paint on the hutch is original? I'm not normally a fan of black but as this is a "soft" black that has obviously been there a long time my only plans are to give it a good wipe-down to remove dust and dirt.

    As for the dry sink, I haven't seen any paint on it (even on the bottom, as I vacuumed the spider egg-sacs off when we brought it home), and was wondering myself if it had been topcoated with polyurethane (which I hate as a general rule, even for new pieces). It has a light sheen but isn't extremely shiny; this could be a matte poly or offer some hope that it's a shellac. I just did the DA test and noted that "something" came off in a couple of places but not all, so this could just be dirt/dust - although the sellers would presumably have wiped it down before the sale(?). But I suppose the refinishing factor could explain the wide difference in pricing that I've seen.

    So more pics - here are the latches:

    From the squarish marks it does appear that these were replaced at some point - with modern replicas? The one on the right doesn't exactly meet up so apparently this door sags a bit.

    The inside of the left door, which is one solid plank, as opposed to the right one (above) which is 3 panels:

    It is starting to split on the inside so someone shored it up at some point. (And yes, that's one-half of a magnet-keeper in the middle, which has its counterpart on the shelf. :( )

    And for lindac92, a look at the inside - this is the inside back:

    The curved marks are a little worrisome, but they do appear to have come from a very large blade - i.e., a mill rather than a home-circular saw.

    The inside shelf:

    This is one of the thicker pieces - 1in.

    And the inside of one side - also a single plank:

    The inside and back do not appear to have been topcoated, although I suppose it's possible that it was stained inside and out.

    Finally, the back:

    So...thoughts?

  • lindac92
    4 years ago

    It appears to me to be made from several different woods.....and I agree the thumb latches are newer, If there is shellac on it it's been added....as I said, shellac turns milky around water....so no self respecting farmer would have had shellac on a dry sink.
    It appears you have some walnut going on there and perhaps some butternut....maybe poplar too. All appears to be tight grained hardwood, rather than oak.
    I think that troublesome board on the back panel may have been replaced...because it's lighter in color and I don't see the circular saw marks on the adjacent boards
    Are the nails in the top piece square?
    As for where it came from...the midwest was full of. farmers and huge stands of chestnut and walnut, poplar and such. Also there are colonies of Amish, Mennonite and Dutch in Iowa. And 50 years ago I went to many farm sales where there was a picker or two filling up their truck for a song and heading East to the bigger markets.

    My husband felt the same way about certain "stuff" I would pick up at sales....until he heard people raving over something....then he acted like it was all his idea..;-) I remember one wonderful very small oak ice box, with all the latches and hinges....and someone had covered the top and sides with many layers of oil cloth and painted the front with silver radiator paint. I paid $1.25.....and stripped the oil cloth off to find pristine original finish.
    Anyhow...it spent a winter on the carport because he wouldn't help me get it into the house. The next summer we bought a bigger house and I put that ice box in the family room and that and a walnut drysink became the bar. people raved....and he just glowed in how clever he was to think of using an old icebox as a liquor and wine keeper.
    "Big Black" is wonderful just as it is....don't let him talk you out of it!

  • detailaddict
    Original Author
    4 years ago

    The closeup of the nails (at the top of the thread) are the ones that hold the top in place, so yes - they're square.

    I'll have to look at the other boards in the back...the "adjacent" board you see in the pic is the inside shelf, so I'm not sure if all of the back pieces have these marks. If one or all were replaced, at least it was with thick lumber and not some flimsy pieces like they do in modern furniture.

    As for the lack of paint, I wonder if it had become some chippy piece that gives people scares over lead-poisoning. I myself picked up a small table/desk at a different sale (the same one where I bought the Big Boy) for $10, and as the paint was obviously old and peeling (although the piece was structurally sound) I sanded most of it off (while leaving the wood's patina intact, I think) and painted it with chalk paint. (I know, some consider this trend a "holocaust" but I like the look and it made the piece useful.) If the dry sink has been repaired/refinished, I suppose even if this diminishes the value it at least kept the piece useful so that the whole thing didn't get tossed. I'll just have to have a more discerning eye in the future.

  • detailaddict
    Original Author
    4 years ago

    Here's another thought...what if it's finished with tung oil? This has become my go-to for waterproofing of modern pieces, and I couldn't blame a past owner for protecting it with this if the original paint had to come off. Is there a way to tell?

  • detailaddict
    Original Author
    4 years ago

    Here's the rest of the inside back, below the shelf...the back (not including the sink's lip) is made of only two boards, the top being very wide - 17.5" - and the bottom only 4.75". So the "saw marks" are only on the wide board, which is starting to crack on one side as seen in the upper right. But I agree that these could be two different species as the bottom appears to have a different color and grain. So it's possible that the top board was put in place after 1860(?), but given its width I would guess it's still pretty darn old. And looking inside the piece there are gaps and separations everywhere, so the wood has apparently shrunk/checked with age.

  • lindac92
    4 years ago

    If it had ever been painted, you would see some vestige of the paint left....perhaps ti was finished with linseed oil....
    And why would you give one whit about saving the "patina" of that table if you were going to paint is? To get that paint off, someone would have to ruin any "patina" too.

  • detailaddict
    Original Author
    4 years ago

    Linseed oil was the other possibility I'd read about...would this come off with DA as well?

    As for a "patina", I had read some blurb a few years back about not sanding it off when refinishing a piece, so I tried to preserve the "discolored" portion of the wood while taking the chippier sections of paint off - and I should have said that I stripped it (for the most part), not sanded it, although this was also necessary in the rougher spots. This was likely a second coat anyway as there was something underneath that would not come off in several areas, so I just painted over it - which is one of the nice things about chalk paint as one does not have to take a piece back down to bare wood. I imagine I could use a stripper again and leave the patina intact if I ever want to take the chalk paint off. But I digress...

    If the dry sink was likely never painted as you say, then maybe there's still hope that the finish is original and no such travesty was committed upon it. I don't plan to touch the finish, in any case.

  • detailaddict
    Original Author
    4 years ago
    last modified: 4 years ago

    Interestingly enough, I came across this article in researching how to determine (sp!) the finish on an antique piece of furniture: http://www.refinishwizard.com/refinishing_antiques.html

    I personally prefer the look of unpainted wood and am only inclined to paint an item if it just looks really bad or would otherwise be improved by a coat of paint (e.g., a telephone stand made in shop class in the 1960's). But according to this article, unless a piece is a true antique in excellent, original condition, refinishing it is mostly a matter of personal preference and might actually improve the piece's value. This surprised me, so I thought I would share.

    What I want to find is an old dresser, table or dry sink with "good bones" but with parts missing and/or a top in such bad condition that I wouldn't feel bad putting a hole in it to convert it into a bathroom vanity.

  • lindac92
    4 years ago

    There's a lot of "stuff" out there masquerading as "antique" when in reality is's just used. There is no harm at all in refinishing stuff that was machine made in an era when machines made cheap furniture. Think 3 or 4 times about refinishing anything hand made; but remember that a lot of stuff made in the 1800's has already been stripped and refinished, and there is no harm in redoing.
    But to paint anything that was not originally meant to be painted is just wrong, and frankly looks so "newly married, very young, redoing stuff from mom's attic"....and to paint anything made out of "furniture wood"...oak, maple, walnut, Honduran mahogany, cherry and old growth pine is criminal.
    I stripped a painted walnut table made as a shop project, slapped on 3 coats of polyurethane and sent it to college to live in the Delt house and survive beer, coffee and who knows what else. After 4 years ( well 4 1/2 years!) it came home to live in an apartment, eventually the family room of the first house and eventually go back to college with another generation....I don't know where it is now, but I suspect it's still in use somewhere. Don't knock a shop project unless it's made of plywood!
    And stripping paint, whether you sand or not always destroys any patina a piece may have had....and patina is not discolorations from misuse ( although that can contribute), but the fine lines and silky texture a piece gets with long use....and a stripped bare piece has no "patina" only signs of use....which mostly I find worth maintaining.

  • detailaddict
    Original Author
    4 years ago

    Here's the "telephone table," for lack of anything else to call it:

    I don't have a "before" picture but it used to be a painted-to-look-like-wood brown (don't know what it's made of), with a shiny topcoat. Cute piece...topples over rather easily...and I decided that that part of the room needed some color.

    I'll try to conduct some inconspicuous chemical tests on the dry sink and see if I can suss out what the finish is. Stay tuned...

  • detailaddict
    Original Author
    4 years ago

    bubblyjock - do you agree with the assessment that the dry sink was never painted? What are your thoughts?

  • lindac92
    4 years ago

    Definitely paint worthy!!