Understanding Antiques: Upcycling 101

A grouping of antique and vintage furniture in a flea market.

When I was younger, I used to wander antique shops with my grandmother. Now to me, what I saw there was nothing special. Sure, there were pretty plates and fine china cups I was warned not to touch, but there were also a lot of old dirty things I could never imagine buying and displaying in a modern home. It wasn’t until I began researching upcycling that the distinction of why such things hold value became apparent to me. The goal of every upcycler is to find something old and through a bit of DIYing, give it new life. But sometimes the financial worth of an object when left in its original state can far surpass the monetary value that could be accomplished though a creative refurbishment. So how does one know if something is an antique? Could we all have pieces of great value in our own homes and not even know it? This article will offer a basic guide to discerning antique pieces, so that you can get the greatest value for your next upcycling project.

The True Definition of an Antique

An antique wooden desk and spinning wheel.

Although often used as an umbrella term for describing anything old, to be deemed a true antique an object must fall under a distinct set of regulations. First, by most accounts a good antique must be at least 100 years old to hold the qualification. It must be an original piece to carry great value (meaning a non-duplicated object regardless of age), and should show some degree of being handmade. By most accounts, the introduction of machine made commodity is where the line is drawn when deciding the true value of a piece, though the rule of course varies depending on the background of the product itself. Finally, it can it be restored and properly bare the label of “antique,” but it must maintain at least 50% of its original character.


When shopping for products to upcycle, flea market vendors, if not connoisseurs themselves, do not differentiate secondhand goods from those possibly holding antiquity. The greatest way to determine the true nature of an object is by looking for a series of indentifications that without careful examination would otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Look for the style: Many times the style of the piece itself is enough to point a customer in the right direction to identify antiquity. If a piece in question is made of wood, one should first assess the style it displays. A wood chair from early colonial times was made firstly for function, therefore commonly baring straight lines and edges out of darker colored wood. A chair from the 1970s, on the other hand, tends to be made of lighter colored plywoods, with rounded edges and smooth finishes. The identification of a style is sometimes tricky, as most people would have a hard time naming differences in eras based on décor alone, yet some fashions of the time are now cliché enough to be a great first step in guessing the birth of a piece.

Look for composition: In a chest or cabinet, the way a piece is constructed gives clues to its true origin. The corners or “dovetails” of a chest, for instance, are always staggered in number, and slightly uneven on a truly antiqued product. If they are flawless and bear a perfectly sealed edge, it shows the piece was made by machine, which history tells us does not fit in with the 100-year rule.

Further, during examination, one should always search for symmetry. True and perfect symmetry is nearly non-existent in proper antiques as no matter how talented of a craftsman the builder may have been, only machines can create perfection 100% of the time.

Finally, look for markings, tags, and words -- anything that may give a sign of the history of a piece. I know this sounds funny, but sometimes people get so wrapped up in attempting to guess a manufacturing date that they overlook the name of the craftsman shop that is written on its bottom. The natural step is a simple internet search, which can easily head the next leg of your search.

What to Do When You've Found an Antique

A set of bedroom furniture with a lamp, beside table, and headboard.

The greatest tip that can be given when someone has found and purchased an antique is to take it to an assessor before doing anything. Finding a a valuable piece of furniture is exciting. Yet experts say one should not refurbish, sell, or even touch it until exact estimates are made on its worth and the product history is made available. In past times this was a very expensive feat, but thankfully with technological innovation comes opportunity. Many websites now provide services that offer assessment right over the computer.

If the piece turns out to be worthless, have fun flipping it. If it is worth a gold mine, try eBay first, and approach local shops and auctions second. Such places tend to take more than their share. If all else fails, preserve and keep your find in a cool dry place where you and your loved ones can enjoy your object, and relish in the memories had when finding it.