Antique cabinets come in many styles and periods from primitive pie safes and storage cupboards to ornate Victorian cabinets sporting mahogany inlays. There are china cabinets, corner cupboards, sideboards, hanging cabinets and armoires. They were built for storage and still serve that purpose in modern homes. But antique cabinets are also put to work in ways the woodworkers who crafted them could never have imagined, such as being used for media centers.
Do your research. Before shopping for an antique cabinet, take the time to learn as much as you can about the style and time period you are interested in. Know the characteristics that specific category of cabinet should have. For example, an antique Victorian era corner cupboard or sideboard will be ornate with carvings and possibly leaded glass doors while a primitive pie safe might have punched tin or screened doors and two drawers at the top.
Study reference books like William A Ketchum's "The Antique Hunter's Guide to American Furniture; Chests,Cupboards, Desks and Other Pieces" and "Starting to Collect Antique Furniture" by John Andrews and online sources like Kovels and Collector's Weekly.
Know what to look for. Keep in mind that an antique must be at least one hundred years old and many of the cabinets you will see are much older than that.
The construction of a true antique will differ from that of a newer model. Until the 1830s, when furniture began to be mass produced in factories, antique pieces were hand crafted. Signs to look for are primarily in the cabinet's construction. An antique piece will have been joined together with primitive mismatched square headed nails, dovetailing and dowels. Tool marks will be evident. If the piece has hardware, like drawer pulls, they will not match perfectly. Wooden handles will be worn from use and paint will be worn off in spots. Even if the piece has been stripped and refinished, the signs of the original construction will still be easy to see.
In a newer piece, you will see uniform, round headed nails and screws and even evidence of parts that have been glue-gunned together. The hardware will be perfectly matched because it has been machine produced. And another thing to remember is that furniture made prior to the twentieth century will not be built of plywood or particle board.
The woodworkers who made antique furniture only painted the surfaces that showed. If you inspect a painted piece and find that the undersides of the shelves or the bottom of the piece have been painted, chances are it isn’t authentic.
An antique cabinet's boards might show separation on the seams, whereas a new cabinet will look flat and smooth. Other signs of wear might include water stains, scratches and dings from years of use.
Odor is something you might not think about but open the cabinet's doors and take a sniff. An older piece will have a slightly musty smell.
Consult an expert. Perhaps the best way to be sure you are getting a true antique is to have an antique appraiser inspect it. An expert on antique cabinets, especially one whose specialty is the type you are interested in, will be able to spot a fake no matter how well it reproduces the original. Appraisers can be found at antique shows, online and by word of mouth through other antique collectors.
True antique furniture has a patina due to the products, like beeswax, that were used to clean and polish it over the years. This patina can't be replicated. It only comes with age.