Most people who buy Antique Furniture buy it to use, not just for display purposes, which means that more often than not people are looking for help and advice on how best to care for these valuable items in the modern home environment. The below guide is designed as exactly that, a guide, and as with so many things there is not just one right way and one wrong way to look after things but many different ways. This guide gives advice on the most common of practices.
Firstly there are some obvious faux pas to be avoided that will immediately eliminate the most unnecessary of damage. These are things that simply mean treating the furniture with the respect it is due, taking into account the age of it and its original purpose. For example leaning back on a just two legs of a dining chair may not be the wisest of moves, or dragging a heavy chest of drawers with an elegant splay foot instead of lifting it may not be a good plan either, as both of these moves put unnecessary strain on the structure. Think of a 200 or even 300 year old person and how delicately you would feel the need to treat them, if indeed such a person could ever survive that long.
Always remove all contents and detach all detachable parts before lifting or moving any piece of antique furniture and never lift a chair by the legs, stretchers or back.
With regards to patination a good surface patina greatly enhances the character, authenticity and value of an article, and to this end even if the original surface is marked or damaged every reasonable step should be taken to preserve it. Any restoration that is required to the finish of a piece should be matched as closely as possible to the original finish and French Polishing for example should never be used to replace wax or shellac.Graining and Ebonising are caused when a surface is stained to resemble an exotic wood and this effect can easily be worn away with constant friction, rubbing and bashing. Veneered furniture is exceptionally vulnerable to extra dry and extra damp conditions and if water or polish is allowed to seep beneath the surface then this can often cause the veneer to buckle, lift or even split.
It is also wise to protect Antique Furniture from fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity which can cause some of the worst damage and can be very very expensive to repair properly. It is very quick for a fine piece of furniture which has survived centuries in an unheated environment to suffer major harm when stuck in a hot, dry, centrally heated area. The reason for this is that most antique furniture is constructed using air dried timber, so therefore has a far higher water content than most modern furniture, which is normally made of kiln dried wood. Therefore when subjected to the humidity, slowly but surely it gives up the moisture to the dry surrounding atmosphere and then starts to shrink and split. This is made worse when the carcass is laid at right angles and veneered over as the carcass wood moves, thus splitting the veneers. There are other problems which can be caused by dry air aswell including cracking, drawers sticking, loose joints and warped doors or tops. However it is always worth remembering that nearly all damage is repairable, even if it is a difficult job, but it is vital that you keep any pieces that become detached. By the same token prevention is obviously a better solution than cure, so if you feel that your home is particularly dry it may be worth investing in a good electric humidifier. You can also look at hang on radiator humidifiers and even just a simple bowl of water, if you are on a tight budget.
Any sealed wooden surface can be waxed to bring out the colour and grain of the wood, and also provide another line of defence against accidental staining and scratching. However remember it is possible to over wax something and this can cause dullness and a profound smear effect which is difficult to lose. Really furniture should only need new wax applying every few months and in the interim just buffing of the wax thats already been applied should do the trick.
Much antique furniture comes with decoration of some sort, including brass or ormolu mounts and gilded decoration. These finishes of course have there own quirks and normally react quite differently to wood so require thought regarding their care also. With regards to brass it is not advisable to use brass cleaners as they can cause a fair bit of damage to the wood around the brass. Remember that the brass does not need to be shiny on antique furniture, just clean, and buffing with a long term silver cloth can often achieve the required results with this. Ormolu is a slightly different kettle of fish as it is actually gold and very delicate, therefore it should never really be polished, even with a dry cloth, and definitely not with any sort of fluid. In time the brass or bronze beneath the gold corrodes, creating a spotty black appearance. This is perfectly normal and is far more desirable than having the ormolu re-gilded.
Gilt surfaces again require care although probably require less regular attention than most wood or similar finishes. Water based gilding remains permanently water soluble so therefore should only ever really be dusted and Oil based gilding can usually be cleaned by dabbing some slightly damp cotton wool against it. Chips in most gilded surface are often unavoidable and can be filled using fine surface filler, then disguised using yellow ochre. Try to avoid gold metallic paint as it can clash with the true gilding.
Upholstered antique furniture should be regularly vacuumed and brushed using a fine mesh over the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner if a fabric is particularly delicate. On a lot of antique furniture upholstery can be regularly replaced, re-webbed and re-stuffed without really affecting the value of the article however it is wise to seek expert advice first before stripping something you think may be an original fabric.
Many people worry about woodworm in antique furniture and it is correct that it can be an horrendous ordeal to get rid of in a very small minority of situations. However it is uncommon to find live woodworm these days, and any reputable dealer has every item that goes through their restoration workshops treated for worm as a matter of course as the last thing they need is a woodworm infestation. It is caused by furniture beetles and pinhole beetles laying eggs in crevices of wood. These eggs then hatch into larvae(woodworm) and eat into the wood leaving tunnels approx 1mm in diameter. Eventually they emerge as beetles and fly away into the sunset, usually between May and August. If you are concerned regarding woodworm then a tell tale sign is freshly bored holes which when tapped leave deposits of sawdust. Good quality low odour woodworm fluid id readily available and easy to apply, but remember that upholstered or delicate furniture should be left to the professionals really. The most effective time to treat items is late spring and make sure that you only treat unfinished surfaces.
Finally I should say that a piece of antique furniture which has been sympathetically restored into usable condition, using traditional methods and materials is often worth more than a damaged item. However it is important to remember that;
Make sure that any repairs you carry out yourself are done using water-soluble glue,
If anything seems loose then all furniture made before the Mid 20th Century depends on well jointed timber for strength so must be fixed
It is wise to use professional restorers to replace rotten timber with sound wood
You can use candle wax to help drawers or doors operate more smoothly, but if something is out of shape, then they need to be trimmed
Chipped or lifting veneer needs to be fixed asap. Use masking tape to protect temporarily exposed edges and keep any broken bits
If it is necessary to strip without removing a valuable patina, it should be done by a professional restorer.
Dry or cracked leather can be easily revived using the correct chemicals, but again it is worth seeking expert opinion
At S & S Timms we are always happy to share our expertise and where possible advise people as to the best course of action with regards to their antique furniture, whether it has been purchased from us or not. So if you have any queries then please do not hesitate to get in touch with us and we will do the best we possibly can to assist you.