Taking good care of your antique furniture will allow you to enjoy each piece to its
full decorative and functional potential in addition to protecting your investment
and safeguarding a unique historical item to pass on to future generations. Just a
short period of neglect or bad repairs can cut short its life or permanently diminish
* Avoid placing
furniture near heat sources or direct sunlight. Do not place hot items directly onto
* Check your home
with a hygrometer and aim for 50%-55% relative humidity.
* Dust regularly
and keep clean of spills and abrasive items or substances.
* Inspect for
damage, loose veneers, woodworm and deterioration, taking action/advise when
* Lift items from
beneath the main frame to avoid damage to tops, mouldings etc. Empty before lifting
and don't drag.
* Cover, pack
carefully and strap down for transportation. Glass or marble kept vertical, loose
General care and positioning of antique
due to features of construction and materials, as well as general age and degradation
is not very resistant to fluctuations or extremes of temperature or humidity.
Such furniture being constructed with solid
wood, timbers originally air dried, often veneered and with underlying timbers set at
right angles, will with excessive shrinkage of components due to low humidity, cause
others to split, joints to fail and veneers to tear and loosen, as well as adhesives
to become more brittle and finishes to degrade.
humidity can similarly cause movement in timber, swelling and warping, softening of
adhesives, and promote corrosion, growth of moulds and insect damage. Fluctuations in
humidity just generally stressing components.
Excessive temperatures, have an effect on
humidity as well as being a factor in corrosion and condition of finishes.
variations of humidity and temperature and generally any extremes beyond 35% – 65%
relative humidity and above 75 F or 23 C will increase the risks. Ideally 50% – 55% RH at
70 F 21 C should be aimed for. It is highly advised to check the humidity levels of
your home, the optimum levels for your furniture also happen to be generally good
levels for a healthy home in general. Hygrometers (instruments to measure relative
humidity) are easily obtained but do avoid overly cheap examples which tend to be
vulnerable positions for your antiques; avoid direct sunlight, avoid proximity to any
heat source, i.e at least 2 feet from a radiator, avoid placing items in
conservatories, and areas prone to high humidity such as bathrooms .
If you need to alter the humidity,
humidifiers or dehumidifies are easily obtainable, so too are home ventilation
systems that not only provide fresh air but both can maintain humidity levels and
extract and conserve waste heat from outgoing air; as such the benefits are not only
to your antiques. Or for a simpler solution to dry conditions, potted plants in the
home can increase humidity levels.
Regarding sunlight, direct sunlight can not
only heat a surface causing damage but will also over time lighten the colour, with
surfaces also being adversely effected by ultra violet light. As such avoid direct
sunlight and if subject to prolonged sunlight then occasionally alter the position of
the furniture to avoid uneven discolouring and avoid placing items on top of
furniture in the same position, which over time will leave a noticeable 'shadow'.
In use, always consider sensible use and
treatment; dining chairs are not designed to be rocking chairs!, or devices to help
you reach the top shelf!. Antique furniture and children or pets unfortunately
sometimes do not mix well!, keep an eye out for overactive teeth, claws, toys etc.
It must be noted (and is surprisingly not
always realised) that traditional finishes and polishes are not necessarily as
durable as modern equivalents.
You may not notice the further accumulation
of surface damage on a 'tired' surface, but once cleaned/revived, or perhaps
re-polished you will more readily see the effects of a lack of careful treatment.
They may under many circumstances 'absorb'
marks etc. better than a modern finish in such that they can sometimes be revived or
improved with basic treatment to not appear as unsightly, but they will still
mark/scratch/dent/stain often quite easily if care isn't taken.
It is good to maintain a waxed surface (if
the existing finish has this) as although wax cannot protect the polish beneath from
excesses it will be an extra line of defence against light general use.
The surfaces of your antique furniture is
highly likely to have materials (veneers, inlays, polishes such as French
polish/shellac based, etc.) which are vulnerable to direct heat and liquids.
Never place hot items or wet items on such a surface, use suitable mats which cannot
conduct the heat, and mop up spills straight away. If cleaning with a damp cloth,
wipe completely dry afterwards.
Cleaning and polishing.
Keeping your furniture clean and dust free
not only maintains its appearance but prevents any degradation to the polish caused
Usually simply a good wipe over with a
duster will keep the surface clean, or a slightly dampened cloth to remove specific
dirt, spills etc. If the finish is wax based or with a wax layer on the surface, a
careful buffing will tend to maintain a sheen. Most antique furniture, whether with a
French polish/shellac , or other varnish, or wax finish will tend to benefit from a
wax finish as its top layer, this gives a surface which is more ‘maintainable’
protecting the polish beneath. Application of a wax, following the directions on the
tin, is of benefit, but not to be done too frequently, once or twice per year is
plenty. If you clean a surface with any form of detergent (which should never
be used in excess) then bare in mind you will likely remove some of the wax layer,
you would be advised to re-apply wax if confident in doing so.
Spray polishes are not ideal, although
beeswax silicon free types are acceptable.
Oil based polishes and revivers should also
not be used too eagerly, the idea that the wood needs feeding with such things is
incorrect, oil rarely penetrates through the polish and if it does can cause
localised darkening, dry wood does not require oil it requires moisture and any such
issues should be resolved by considering humidity levels. Although oil based polish
may be beneficial to the existing finish under certain circumstances.
If the polish appears to
be deteriorating, worn or flaking then it is wise to seek advise before attempting to
apply anything at all. Certain very early period oak items were left unfinished and
as such should be left in their original form.
Care must be taken not
to over polish brassware, patina on furniture fittings is desirable to conserve,
some brassware may be gilt or lacquered to give a gilt appearance, which will be
removed with abrasive polishes. Metal polishes can also easily damage surrounding
Glass in antique
furniture such as bookcases and display cabinets can be cleaned with a dampened
cloth, although if using a detergent, glass cleaner or vinegar, there is a risk of
damage to the surrounding wood/finish, hence take great care.
Extra fine steel wool (grade 0000) can be
useful to remove more stubborn dirt. Although this should not scratch the glass, care
must be taken and if a copper wool pad is available this is preferable.
It is always wise to take special care with glass in antique furniture, it is not
simply a sheet of glass but quite likely a period piece of cylinder blown glass with
distinct imperfections, as such in the event of an unfortunate breakage it is not
simple to replace, although restoration grade glass is available it is considerable
more expensive than modern float glass which is often inappropriate to use.
Baizes on card tables, brushing slides,
etc. may react differently depending on quality. A cheap baize, more likely a felt can be
damaged by brushing, however a good baize can be cleaned of dust and fluff using a
soft clothes brush. For removal of stains and ingrained dirt there are risks involved
in using water and detergent which could discolour aged fabric, and effect the
adhesive below, a foam type upholstery cleaner may be more suitable, if unsure seek
advise or at least experiment to a minimal degree.
The most common
likely insect to be concerned about is the Common furniture beetle (Anobium punctatum);
its larvae (woodworm) can do severe damage, it can effect the sapwood of many woods
but is particularly fond of any pine and spruce (common in most furniture
construction), and fruitwoods including walnut and cherry.
Inspect new antiques and existing pieces
for woodworm holes, being approximate1mm diameter typically on areas towards the back
If evident do not
be immediately alarmed, as few pieces have escaped woodworm completely. A few
woodworm holes are not at all a problem providing there is no woodworm currently
active. If however there is numerous clusters of these holes (where the adult beetle
exits after metamorphosis) then it is a sign that the wood within may be
substantially weakened. A restorer may well be able to treat the area with
consolidants to increase strength if of particular cause for concern.
Worse case scenario when
inspecting for woodworm is finding evidence of recently active worm, in the form of
fresh pale fine gritty powder (called ‘frass’) beneath exit holes, this frass may
just be dislodged from previous no longer active infestation, but it is wise to
presume the worst and have the piece treated with insecticide.
The 3 to 4 year
lifecycle of the common furniture beetle means that new or continuing occurrence may
not show itself for a long time.
Handling and transporting furniture:
Check the piece over
first for any loose or vulnerable parts. It is always best to lift antique furniture
from beneath the main frame, this avoids stresses on parts such as table tops, edge
mouldings, chair backs etc. all of which can typically be damaged or broken loose as
they are not necessarily sufficiently strong to take the weight of the piece.
Remove or support with packing any parts
which can work loose, such as shelves, internal drawers etc. Large items should if
possible be strapped within a van or laid such that the centre of gravity is at a
low point, i.e.. on its back.
Fragile panels, glass or marble should be
transported vertically, including items with glass doors. Carefully padded and
strapped in. Marble especially, if lifted or transported flat can easily fracture.
People for some reason seem happy to throw
their newly acquired or restored piece into the back of the car, rattling around with
the jack, umbrella, folded pram and smelly dog blanket. It is also unpleasant to have
your freshly repaired chair hit you in the back of the head come an unforeseen
Therefore here are some useful preparatory
recommendations. Have necessary materials to wrap the furniture, plastic sheet is
useful if likelihood of rain between the car and front door, but a good blanket
should be suitable for this and protecting the item from knocks and vibrations in
transit, along with some extra padding in the form of more blankets or some cushions
and a method of restraining the piece, some webbing or strapping being best but at
least wedge or weigh down with more blankets.
Choosing to have your
Generally if in
doubt do no more than that advised above, and if any parts such as bits of veneer
become loose, store these safely with the piece. If a piece becomes unstable or
broken in some way then you must at least consider not using it functionally.
If you wish to treat the piece to
some attention, perhaps because you consider the piece has reached a state whereby
you can no longer use it functionally as you wish, or the rate of wear or damage is
accelerating, then a professional restorer conservator should be consulted, so
that a proper, sympathetic treatment can be given.
work can be far more costly if the wrong action has been taken by previous owners,
dealers or ‘repairers’. Often pieces are brought to the workshop solely due to
previous 'repairers' poor repairs failing.
Too often we encounter crude
reinforcements, modern screws, modern unsuitable glues and mismatched timber used in
replacement parts, perhaps more worryingly, repairs are encountered which are
unsuitable but clearly carried out by a ‘restorer’ likely charging for his work
(however, a customers restricted budget may often be the cause for this), although
still being a sign that quality in the profession varies greatly. Most of such
amateur repairs cause further damage and are a complete false economy in the long
term. Unless of particular interest or relevance a previous poor repair is perfectly
It is well known that
many so called restorations are not carried out to a good standard and so to some
extent the description ‘restored’ is often seen as a bad thing, but you must not
worry about having restoration work done as long as it is done responsibly.
In terms of value, a perfect condition
completely untouched piece will of course be desired the most. After which a similar
piece where work has been needed and done in a professional honest and sympathetic
manner, i.e restored but restored properly, such a piece may not easily show evidence
of restoration if done to a high standard.
Lower in value would be a piece requiring
restoration, although its poor condition may not be evident to an inexpert eye. Such
a piece, unrestored but requiring work is always of interest to a dealer who prefers
to see an honest view of condition and have the piece restored by his preferred
At the bottom of the scale sits the rather
awkward pieces, these being those which have been badly or irreversibly restored, or
perhaps even altered or partially faked. In reality these pieces are worth the least,
however unfortunately the poor repairs or alterations frequently fooling the less
expert buyer, dealer or auctioneer into overvaluing it and placing it amongst the