The high level of skill and expense required to create a fake antique means that you probably won't ever encounter one in your shopping rounds; they aren't very common. What you're much more likely to encounter are reproductions with a good many years of use on them. Furniture styles of past periods and designers are still manufactured and sold new today.
Harold Sack, former president of the respected antiques firm Israel Sack, says that visual inspection is the first step in detecting a restored, faked or reproduced antique. "The overall look, which I call 'aspect,' should ring true for the period and for the area in which it was made," he wrote [source: Sack]. In your inspection, look at the wood, joints, tool marks and hardware.
Wood is an important indicator of the age of a piece. Different woods were favored during different periods -- and by different makers. Prior to 1720, walnut, a dark wood, was popular with Europeans and colonists. It was used for graceful Queen Anne tables and chairs, and for utilitarian colonial benches and cupboards. Mahogany was the prime choice for mid-18th century formal furniture, such as dining and drawing room pieces. It was also prominent in Chippendale styles. Cherry, a paler red than mahogany but just as strong, was abundant in North America and widely used to build sturdy, durable furnishings for rural dwellers.
Many antiques, new and old alike, are made from oak. It was the first choice for European furniture before 1700, and enjoyed renewed popularity in circa 1900s American furniture.
Pale, fine-grained and hard maple provided country craftsmen with wood for functional furnishings. The beauty of grain patterns in bird's-eye and tiger-striped maple encouraged cabinetmakers to apply maple veneers to plain furniture made of other woods.
Finally, humble pine was disguised or hidden in most antique furniture. Mostly, it was used for the backs, undersides and interiors. If the entire article was constructed of pine, it would have been painted or stained to look like a more expensive wood.
Also keep in mind that manufacturers of pre-20th century furniture never used plywood or particle board.
It's important also to look at the color and condition of the wood. Wood darkens and shrinks as it ages. Thin panels used as door inserts and drawer bottoms shrink faster than the thicker frames that support them. This shrinkage causes splits or cracks in panels that were nailed to the frame. Panels that were loosely held in place may no longer cover the full space of the frame. Where this is the case, the exposed edge should be slightly lighter in color than the rest of the wood composing the furniture.
How the wood ages over time could also help you spot not only whether it's real, but also how old it is.