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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
A true professional will walk you through a refinishing or restoration project step by step and answer your questions.
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.’
Collecting Antique Furniture
Of all the collectible antiques, the broad category of furniture is perhaps the most widely held and most satisfying. Frequently handed down through generations, the various chairs, tables, cabinets and other pieces are often in use, adding character and constancy to our daily lives. This guide includes an overview of the significant styles and historical periods, and other important information for collectors.
Antique Furniture Styles - Chippendale
Thomas Chippendale created some of the most famous and copied styles in the history of furniture. This guide presents the historical context of Chippendale’s work and provides an overview of his stylistic elements for the collector.
Antique Furniture Styles - Hepplewhite
Little is known about George Hepplewhite, but the Hepplewhite legacy in furniture design established in the book The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer's Guide has had a profound and lasting influence.
Antique Furniture Styles - Sheraton
Thomas Sheraton was one of the most influential English designers of the 18th century. The technical and artistic expertise found in his publication The Cabinet-Makers and Upholsterer's Drawing Book has left a lasting impression on the furniture craft.