Antique Furniture Care and Restoration

Proper care of antique furniture is an art and science unto itself. Made primarily of wood, metal and upholstery, most pieces will require some regimen of care to maintain their integrity and avoid costly restoration work further down the road. Here we’ll review some of the basics of routine furniture care as well as guidance for those times when you need to call in a professional.

Antique Wood Furniture

Keep the wood happy by avoiding aerosol dusting products, as the chemicals can damage the wood, along with the finish. Antique dealers and other experts recommend using pure beeswax for cleaning. Regular dusting with a slightly damp cloth will do. Every few months, wax with a good quality beeswax that can be found in any hardware store. If you wax too much, it can dull the finish and may actually attract dust.

To use a beeswax paste, apply a small amount to a clean, dry cloth. Wipe a thin, even layer of wax over the wood using circular motions. Buff the wood with a separate clean, dry cloth until it shines, again in a circular motion. The beeswax puts a barrier coat over the wood to protect and brighten the existing finish.

When it comes to caring for antique furniture, sometimes it’s best to know what NOT to do, among these ‘no-nos’ are:

  • Do not polish wood with lemon oil on a regular basis; it has a petroleum distillate base that causes it to evaporate quickly. While it initially gives a shine and covers scratches, over time the finish darkens and will eventually break down.
  • Do not allow antique furniture to be exposed to constant direct sunlight, as it yellows and discolors the finish.
  • Do not slide anything across the wood surface, particularly against the grain of the wood, as it may not only damage the finish, but scratch the wood. While a light scratch can be treated with an at-home fix, such as Restore-A-Finish, deep scratches may require a professional restorer.
  • Do not ignore the long term impact of seasonal temperature changes. During the dry winter months, wood tends to shrink. During hot, damp summers when it is warm outside and cooler inside, wood will expand. Long-term exposure to these conditions leads to cracking, warping and splitting. To avoid these problems keep fresh air circulating. Maintain a constant room temperature; consider a humidifier in the winter and possibly a dehumidifier in the summer to maintain humidity levels.

To Refinish or Not to Refinish…

This is the age-old question with antique furniture. You do not need to be an expert to answer; you simply need to know when to ask an expert. First, know what you have – is it valuable, does it have the intrinsic value of an antique, or is it merely second-hand furniture? It is well worth your time to get answers before attempting a refinishing project yourself or investing in a professional refinishing or restoration project.

Many times, an old finish just needs a little sprucing up rather than a full refinishing job of stripping the old finish and applying a new one. This spruce up can be done as a do-it-yourself project, or you might turn to a professional for more valuable pieces. When a piece of furniture is waxed or polished there is a fine layer of dust that becomes mixed in with the wax or polish. Over the years, the layer will darken and obscure the grain pattern of the wood. To clean this layer without stripping the original finish:

  • Use warm water with a mild hand dishwashing detergent, mix together as you would to wash a sink full of dishes.
  • Use a rag to wash down the furniture starting at the top and working down, without saturating the wood.
  • Wring the cloth out until it's almost dry, and work one section at a time, rinsing the cloth often to remove the dirt.
  • Use a clean, dry, soft cloth to dry.

After cleaning, examine the finish closely to determine its condition. If it is in good condition, but just looks dull, polish with beeswax to bring it back to life. If the finish seems to be degrading or perhaps old finishes have degraded and become mixed together, you should consult with a professional.

Antique Furniture Hardware

Like the wood, the metals in antique furniture take on a patina. Most brass or other antique hardware on furniture should simply be dusted with a slightly damp cloth and left to age naturally to keep the patina. Any bronze metal, on furniture or otherwise, should never be cleaned.

Chrome, on the other hand, is often found on Art Deco and Eames-Era, Mid-Century Modern furniture, and it should be polished up to a shine. Many collectors and dealers swear by an automotive grade chrome polish, while others prefer a marine-grade paste wax, which can be found at a marine supply store.

Upholstered Antique Furniture

Vintage or antique upholstery is tough to restore and clean, particularly since the fabric becomes delicate through the years. Adding to the challenge is the fact that under the upholstery, there can be cotton or even horsehair, which can be damaged by moisture. It is best to use a dry foam extraction method by a professional to clean antique upholstered furniture. Before you make this investment, determine if the upholstery is even original to the piece. To do this:

  • Turn the furniture over and carefully lift a corner of the ‘cover’ on the base, called a cambric, which is used to keep stuffing from falling out and dust from getting in.
  • Look for old nail or tack holes from previous upholstery, or even remnants of an older fabric.
  • Look for more than one layer of webbing in antique chairs or sofas to show previous work done to the piece.

If the upholstery is not original to the furniture, it does not add to the value of the antique furniture, and may even detract from it. If it is not original, value will not be impacted by having the piece reupholstered or cleaned.

Calling in the Professionals

Make sure you trust your professional – not only with having possession of your antique, but with their knowledge and expertise. Some tips for choosing the best professional to restore, repair or refinish your antique furniture:

  • Antique dealers usually are in the know. Ask a dealer from your local antiques shop if they have anyone they use on a regular basis.
  • If you have an auction house in the area, ask them if they have a specialist they recommend.
  • Friends and neighbors may be able to provide a recommendation, but remember, they may be a novice in antiques, and may not know enough to guide you properly.

Once you have identified a professional restoration or refinishing specialist, meet with them, and ask plenty of questions and do your homework. Some questions to ask:

  • How long have they been in the business?
  • Do they have any experience in working with similar projects?
  • What type of insurance is there should the piece be damaged by fire or a natural disaster while at the location?
  • How long will the project take to complete?
  • How much will it cost?
  • What methods will be used to complete the project?

A true professional will walk you through a refinishing or restoration project step by step and answer your questions.

The Bottom Line

You’ve probably heard the old saying, ‘Jack of all trades, master of none.’ Even an experienced antiques collector or dealer needs some professional help at times, as you cannot be expected to know each and every nuance to refinishing and restoring antiques. Knowing when to call in the professionals for advice or assistance is what separates the ‘jacks’ from the ‘masters.’

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