Antique furniture has changed over the years—and one of the most noticeable pieces that have evolved is the drawer pulls. As an antique furniture collector, knowing the different types of antique drawer handles—and understanding how to date these antique drawer pulls—makes it much easier for you to determine when the furniture was made.
Maybe you are not an antique furniture collector but would like to give your modern furniture a vintage look—knowing how to identify and date antique drawer handles will also come in handy.
Antique drawer handles are little works of art. They are constructed from varying materials and are available in a wide variety of shapes and styles. They give us fascinating clues regarding antique furniture history.
In this detailed guide, we will take a deeper look at the different types of antique drawer handles that have existed over the centuries. We will help you with dating and valuing these pieces too.
How to identify Antique Drawer Handles: The Different Types of Antique Drawer Pulls
1. Antique Bail Handles
One of the more common antique drawer pulls, these handles feature a bail (handle) attached to the antique furniture by 2 posts. This handle will swing back and forth, making it possible for you to slip your fingers on the handle when you want to open the furniture drawer.
In most cases, the antique bail handle will have a backplate. This is a metal piece that sits behind the handle to protect the furniture’s wood from damage. The metal may also act as a form of decoration.
2. Antique Inlaid Backplate Handles
In some situations, the bail pull will have a backplate made of inlaid material—that is, the material will be set into the drawer’s wood. In most cases, the material used for the backplate is brass.
It is also not uncommon for other inlaid materials to be used—these will include china and bone. Because inlaying the backplate was a labor-intensive process, you will only see this type of antique drawer handle on handmade, top-of-the-line antique furniture.
3. Primitive Antique Bail Drawer Handles
The first antique bail drawer handles entered the market in the early 18th century. Some of the most primitive examples can make things easier for you when it comes to dating the earliest types of antique furniture.
The initial bail handles tend to curve inwards—they are attached to the furniture’s wood using pins and do not have a backplate. While a pull using this style may not always indicate an old piece, it could be a clue that the antique furniture you are looking at might be very old.
4. Antique Ring Drawer Handles
This type of drawer handle features a ring hanging from a hinge that’s attached to the furniture. To open the drawer, you just slip several fingers through the handle’s ring and pull.
This antique drawer handle is common on furniture from the early 20th century. However, it is worth noting that this type of handle was first produced before the 20th century.
5. Antique Drop Drawer Handles
Just like the antique ring drawer handles, drop drawer handles also attach to the furniture via a single hinge. However, instead of being round, they are straight and often feature impressive designs that make them stand out.
6. Antique Carved Wood Drawer Handles
These types of antique drawer handles are rare, attractive, and mostly very valuable. The drawer handles are generally handmade and are usually carved out of wood.
In most cases, the drawer handles will be decorated using leaves and details of blossoms. The handles sit on furniture from the mid-19th century.
7. Antique Bin Drawer Handles
Although they are extremely simple, these drawer handles are also very solid. To use them, you just put your finger under the open end of the handle and give the handle a pull.
These types of drawer handle originate from between the 19th and early 20th centuries and were common on file cabinets, card catalogs, apothecary, and dry good stores.
How to Date Antique Drawer Handles
Now that you are familiar with the different types of antique drawer handles, we will show you how to determine their age. The following tips and clues should help you figure out the approximate manufacture year (or century) of a specific drawer handle:
Check the Antique Drawer Handle Style
The construction and style of an antique drawer handle can give you the clues you need to determine its age. Over the years, the construction of drawer pulls went through numerous distinct phases:
Late 17th Century
Known as the William & Mary period, the late 17th-century drawer handles were generally the drop pulls that featured a single knob hanging from a flat brass plate. The back of the plate did not feature texture uniformity as it was cast using sand. The surface featured bumps and ridges.
Early 18th Century
At the beginning of the 18th century, drawer handles adopted the bail style that is still extremely common today. These antique drawer handles would hang from two pins curving inward to complete the pull.
On some antique furniture, the antique drawer handle will feature a flat brass backplate that is attached to the furniture with crude bolts, nails, and nuts. Due to sand casting, the texture of the backplate will not be uniform. In the earliest days, the color of the brass tended to be more yellow than it is red.
Late 18th Century
While the bail style of drawer handles continued into the second half of the 18th century, the process followed in their production changed. More copper was added in the process of producing brass—this gave the handles a redder color.
What’s more, brass became available in the form of sheets. This shifted the design from the bumpy backplates that were sand cast to the smooth backplates.
Some of the drawers handles sitting on antique furniture from the 19th century were handmade. However, most of the drawer pulls were machine stamped.
Machine-made pulls feature a uniform appearance and, in some cases, they may feature a patent stamp that can make things easier for you when it comes to pinpointing the handle’s construction date.
Check the Screws Attaching the Handle to the Antique Furniture
Take a moment to look at the screws that have been used to attach the antique drawer handle to the furniture. You may also want to check the screws holding your furniture together.
Several hints can help you determine when the antique drawer handle was manufactured:
18 Century & Earlier
Before the 19th century, the majority of screws were handmade. When you look closely at handmade screws, you will see shape and size variations of the screws used on your furniture.
The screws will not be uniform. In most cases, the head and slots will be off the center of the screws that attach the handle to your antique furniture.
Early 19th Century
Until 1846, machines were only used partially in the process of manufacturing screws. The thread pattern on these types of screws tends to be more uniform. However, you may notice that the slots and heads are still off-center.
Furniture makers started using screws fully made by machines in the middle of the 1800s. However, these screws lacked a slot.
The furniture producers used a hacksaw to cut the slot. For this reason, the screws from this period will still be off-center. Therefore, while the screw will be uniform, you will notice that the slots will vary when it comes to their placement.
The first fully machine-made screw came out in 1856. These screws quickly became the norm and the majority of antique furniture from the second half of the 19th century boasts uniform screws.
Use the Keyholes and Locks to Date the Antique Handle
On some antique furniture, you will come across keyholes and locks. Studying these pieces of hardware can help you date your antique drawer handle.
The construction of the keyhole or lock plate could help you assign a date to the entire antique furniture—including the handle. Signs of filing by hand—including the lack of symmetry and rough edges—can easily indicate older antique furniture and hence an older handle.
Below, we will look at various clues you can use to date handles based on the locks and keyhole appearance.
1750 to 1850
During the period running from the 1750s to the 1850s, the key escutcheons were produced using brass. On most of the furniture, these keyholes will be inset into the wood surface.
1850 to 1899
During this period, wood keyholes became popular. In most cases, furniture from this period will have these keyholes glued on the furniture surface. In some cases, they will be on the surface of the wood.
Early 20th Century
After 1899, key escutcheons featuring machine stamping became popular. These keyholes featured numerous ornate styles.
Check the Latch Style
Another helpful hint that could help you date your antique drawer handle is the latch style. A large number of antique wardrobes and cabinets will have latches that keep the doors shut. Latch styles changed over the years:
Before Mid-19th Century
Before 1850, the majority of furniture latches were made from wood. These latches were carved using hand. If you come across a piece that’s using a wooden latch, the antique drawer handle on it may date back to before the 1850s.
Furniture manufacturers started using brass latches after 1850. In most cases, the cabinet manufacturers in-laid the brass latch in the wood’s surface.
After 1871, furniture producers started using iron latches. These latches would sit on top of the wood surface. They were not inlaid like brass latches.
Examine The Nails
Over the centuries, the construction of nails has evolved. If the handle you wish to date is still attached to its antique furniture, you might be able to use the nail construction to figure out the age of the handle.
If the antique has some nails on it, check each of the nails carefully. Do the nails have a uniform size? Are the nails square or do they feature a round shape? Below, we will look at some of the clues that can help you date your furniture using the nails:
Before the late 18th century, nails were handmade. This means that blacksmiths were responsible for turning the nails and then putting a rose head on them.
To add this rosehead, the blacksmith had to use a hammer to flatten the nail top. For this reason, if you find a handmade nail on the antique furniture, there is a very high likelihood of the antique drawer handle dating back to before 1790.
Late 18th Century to Late 19th Century
Between 1790 and 1890, machines were used to stamp nails utilizing iron sheets and taking advantage of cookie cutters. The majority of these nails have the top 2 nail edges slightly rounded from the die that had to go through.
The bottom 2 edges featured small burrs or ridges. Until 1885, wrought iron was used in the production of nails.
The material used in the production of nails changed from wrought iron to steel in 1885. Steel construction allowed the nails to be drawn, eliminating the need to use machines for stamping. By 1890, this had become the standard practice.
Top 5 Most Valuable Antique Drawer Handles
Now that you know how to identify and date antique drawer handles, you may want to know the cost to expect for the most valuable pieces. Below, we will look at the cost of 5 standout pieces.
William & Mary Drop Handles
Hepplewhite American Oval Eagle Set
Hepplewhite Sheraton Handle
Thomas Chippendale Handles
Late 18th Century
Lion-Themed Hepplewhite Handles
1. William & Mary Drop Handles
Manufactured between the late 17th century and the early 18th century, this piece has been around for more than 300 years. One of the oldest pieces we found, this William & Mary-themed antique drawer handle boasts a combination of bronze and brass as its materials.
The seller notes that the handle has minimal signs of wear. Currently listed on eBay, this piece is selling at $325. For this amount, you will get a set of 3 drop handles. Interestingly, a total of 13 buyers have already expressed interest in the antique handles.
2. Hepplewhite American Oval Eagle Set
This Hepplewhite American Oval Eagle Set was produced between the late 19th century and the early 20th century. This suggests that it has been around for more than 100 years.
The bail pull boasts a federal brass oval theme and has an American eagle art on it. The seller notes that for a price of $275, the buyer will get a total of 6 similar bail pulls.
3. Hepplewhite Sheraton Handle
Perfect for a dresser, this piece first entered the market between the late 18th century and the early 19th century. The seller notes that it is made of brass.
The antique drawer handle is in good shape and has zero dents. For a price of $195, the seller notes that the buyer will get 6 complete sets, one bare backplate, and 1 backplate that still has 2 original screws and 1 original nut.
4. Thomas Chippendale Handles
Boasting a combination of gilded gold, brass, and bronze as the manufacturing materials, this Thomas Chippendale Handle features the bail pull as its style. The seller notes that the piece was produced in the 18th century and estimates the manufacture decade to be in the 1770s.
The Thomas Chippendale-themed handle is currently selling at $145. The seller notes that the antique drawer handle is in good condition and is working perfectly.
5. Lion-Themed Hepplewhite Handles
Featuring lion art, this is one of the most attractive bail-style handles we came across. The piece was produced between the late 18th century and the early 19th century.
Boasting a Federal Brass Oval theme, the piece was made using a combination of bronze and brass. Currently listed on eBay, this piece is selling at $125 and has already attracted the interest of 11 buyers.
Understanding how to identify and date antique drawer handles can make it easier for you to learn the history and age of the antique pull you are interested in. Over the years, production methods and styles of antique drawer handles have changed.
Both the handle—and the antique furniture on which it is attached—feature numerous clues that you can look at and determine its age. This article answers questions about identifying and dating antique handles. If there are some questions we have missed, please let us know in the comment section.