Discover Vintage America - OCTOBER 2017

Back to school - a nostalgic time of year

Q: I was reading one of your articles recently and love vintage furniture. I wanted to know if vintage furniture of the 1920-60s still emits toxic fumes in the house?

I have a few pieces and am thinking of purchasing another - a waterfall dresser, which I read was cheaply made of pressed plywood back in early 20th century.

I cannot find any information on whether it is safe or not to have in home a century later. I'd like to think its gasses/fumes have been gone from the furniture by now. But I do not know for sure if it is still toxic or not. I do not want to repaint any furniture that I find beautful in its original state.

A: This is an excellent question and one that I am frequently asked.

Antique and vintage wood furniture are absolutely safe to have in a home. The glue used on veneered pieces is hide glue or a water-based glue. The same applies for glue used in the construction.
The wood used in veneered pieces has changed over the years but there is always a base wood, which is determined by the thickness of the veneer. When using thick veneer, a less expensive wood such as pine or poplar is used.

As technology improved to cut very thin slices of veneer there would still be a solid wood sub-surface with several layers of veneer and could include a high-grade top layer of mahogany.

Wood finishes from the 1600s to the 1950s are a bit of a mystery as cabinet makers and woodworkers did not make notes or keep records on the composition of the finishes used. The craftsmen were more focused on the construction of the piece than the finish. We do know that in
the early years of the United States the finishes used were wax, shellac, varnish and lacquer.

The wax was beeswax and many furniture craftsmen had their own beehives from which they collected the wax. Wax was used for around 75 years from the mid-1700s to the 1800s.
Shellac made an appearance in the 1800s. "Lac" is the raw material from which shellac is made from the secretions of the tiny female insect Laccifer Lacca, which is native to Thailand and India. After a rigorous extraction and cleaning process the raw shellac flakes are almost ready for use.

The flakes are dissolved in denatured alcohol and then applied to the wood surface. Shellac comes in several colors from a dark amber to blonde. Varnish and lacquer were both adopted from use in other industries and are non-toxic, but please don't drink it.


Antique and vintage furniture is non-toxic and safe to have in a home. If paint has been applied that can pose a problem since many old paints contained lead. Actually, the lead is fine as long as it is not eaten.

The newer furniture made of MDF, Medium Density Fiberboard, is a totally different story. It contains formaldehyde. As long as there are no dents, nicks or scratches to the piece, all is well, but in all honesty who wants to sleep on a bed containing formaldehyde.

I hope that this has answered your question. If you want to "Go Green" or just not take chances, antique furniture is the answer. It is beautiful and won't give you cancer.

Note: All prices given are for sale in a private sale, antique shop or other resale outlet. Price is also dependent upon the geographic area in which you are selling. Auction value, selling to a dealer or pawnshop prices are about half or less of resale value.

Michelle Staley is a Lenexa, KS-based dealer and researcher with 35 years of experience in the antique trade. Send questions with photos to Michelle to Please keep queries to one question; questions without photos of the item may not be answered. Michelle is also available for consulting and extensive research work beyond this column. If you would like an appraisal on an antique or collectible please go to for a one-on-one appraisal.