Caring for your  Antique furniture

 

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 its value.

In brief:

  * Avoid placing furniture near heat sources or direct sunlight. Do not place hot items directly onto any surfaces.

  * 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 necessary.

  * 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 fittings removed.

 

 

General care and positioning of antique furniture.

     Antique furniture, 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.

      Too high 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.

      Excessive 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 inaccurate.

 

      To avoid 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 by contaminants.

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 wood finishes.

    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.

 

Insect damage:

 

     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 and base.

     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.

 

Transporting furniture.

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 emergency stop.

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 furniture restored:

 

      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.

      Restoration 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 justifiably improved.

 

     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 craftsman.

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 best items!.