The nation is awash in quarter-sawn oak furniture. One-man shops put together respectable end tables and desks at modest prices. Esteemed manufacturers like Stickley turn out quality wood and upholstered pieces for every room in the house. Master craftsmen and -women create their own interpretations of chairs and sideboards in the style of the brothers Charles and Henry Greene, sometimes at prices that seem fantastic yet which barely cover the cost of making them, considering materials and labor.
That’s not to mention vintage and antique Craftsman furniture, where a solid but unsigned slat-back side chair good for another generation of use might sell for $150—a fraction of the cost of a well-made reproduction. Of course, true rarities by Charles Rohlfs or Harvey Ellis can and do sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
Given that prices are all over the map, how do you determine what’s worth buying? If the goal is to build a legacy collection to hand down to your children, look for the best you can afford, old or new. If you simply want your children to have a place to sit, eat, sleep, and study, affordably made reproductions—maybe even affordable vintage pieces—make the most sense.
A large part of the appeal of Arts & Crafts furniture comes from its reliance on easily identified and naturally strong woods, like American cherry and quarter-sawn white oak. Quarter-sawing is a cutting method that results in boards less likely to crack, check, or warp than other cuts; it also reveals the beautiful flecks or rays in the grain so characteristic of Arts & Crafts furniture. In a piece like a Morris chair or a bed frame, for example, the wood should show both a tight grain and the characteristic flecks or rays. Less expensive furniture in the style may not be quarter-sawn, or may be constructed from red oak rather than white. Keep in mind that wood selection is an art: the better the artisan, the better the matching and wood selection for the most prominent faces.
Well-constructed Arts & Crafts furniture is made using mortise-and-tenon joinery—where a projecting tenon fits perfectly into a mortise opening—say, where a leg meets a crossbar—with as little nailing and gluing as possible. Mortise and tenon joints are often pinned with dowels so they won’t shift as the wood shrinks and swells. They’re also sometimes glued, although a well-constructed joint shouldn’t require it. “This type of joinery has been used for hundreds of years and is the reason that 100-year-old Arts & Crafts pieces are still in use today,” says Tedd Colt of Caledonia Studios. Other techniques are similarly chosen for their ability to add strength and longevity: dovetail joinery on drawers and cross rails, center guides and non-plastic side suspension for drawers, hand-cut knobs for doors and drawers.
Early Arts & Crafts practitioners turned several of these age-old interlocking techniques into signature “quaint” decorative elements, like the through tenon. Common on chair arms, rocking and Morris chairs, picture frames, mirrors, and tabourets, a through tenon is somewhat self explanatory: The tenon extends all the way through the mortised piece (say, the chair leg connected by a tenon from a side rail) and projects through slightly on the other side. Through tenons are often finished with pegged dowels, also a characteristic decorative element. In less expensive furniture, these details may not be integral to the construction—except, occasionally, in expensive Greene & Greene-style furniture, where in some cases exposed ebony pegs and splines are indeed purely decorative.
Not every piece of Mission-style furniture is constructed solely of solid wood. (Gustav Stickley himself made quadrilinear posts from quarter-sawn oak veneer mitered and glued around a central post.) Many highly sought-after pieces make use of veneers, hand-carving, and inlays. These accents should almost always be for dramatic or decorative effect rather than as a means to cut work, and will add both value and cost to a piece of furniture.
Finally, pay extra attention to the finish. Good pieces are hand-sanded and then pigment-stained many times (with additional sandings between coats) to achieve the desired color. The craftsman then creates highlights and exposes different layers in the finish by laborious hand-rubbing—the initial steps in creating a patina that will only get richer with age. As a last step, many furnituremakers apply a layer of penetrating wax that should help your new treasure maintain its fine appearance for many years.