The methods of care for historical or valuable Antique Furniture have changed over the years. No longer considered just functional, antique furniture should not be cared for or repaired in the same manner as modern home furnishings.
The use of polishes, adhesives, fasteners, and finishes can dramatically affect the current and future value of such pieces. Beautiful old furniture glows with a warmth that’s very special. The beauty of antique furniture that has been cleaned and waxed reflects loving care by its owners over the years. Here are some tips for keeping your antique furniture in the best possible condition. The NUMBER ONE RULE is NEVER use Pledge or other spray furniture cleaning products on your antique furniture. They leave an oily residue–even the ones containing lemon oil. It’s not the shine you need to preserve but the patina. Never use anything that has a rough texture to it. This could scratch the furniture you’re trying to preserve. And that means avoid feather dusters too. Broken feathers are like little scratchy sticks that will mar the surface. Remember to take the dust off the piece entirely. This may sound silly, but a lot of times, when an object has wax on it, you just move the dust around. This happens when you use a spray cleaner like Pledge.
Always use a good-quality wax, like Feed- N-Wax to wax the wood. Higher priced beeswax from England will also work well. Apply a little at a time, rubbing softly following the grain of the wood, building up a deeply layered finish. Furniture’s patina, especially on an older piece, is very important and must be nurtured. This process should be done at least once a year, if not more. Use a very soft cloth, such as cheesecloth, for waxing. Try not to overdo the amount of wax you use. Spread it on in a thin, even coat and rub evenly and gently to bring up a high polish, you want to build up a good finish with wax, one that will seal and protect the wood underneath.
But be gentle when waxing your antique furniture. If a piece of veneer or inlay comes loose, save it. Such pieces are irreplaceable, and substitutes are impossible to find. The pieces should be tucked away in a safe place, then brought to a furniture or wood expert to restore. Don’t attempt to glue them back or to make the repairs yourself. Many pieces of furniture have some kind of metal ornamentation or hardware, such as brass knobs or keyholes, ormolu, or other decoration. These bits of metal should not be polished with any metal-cleaning product. By polishing the metal, you take a chance on damaging the wood underneath. Instead, you should just dust them carefully several times a year. If the hardware on your piece is badly tarnished, carefully remove it, polish it with a good polish appropriate to the type of metal, and replace it with the piece.
UV or ultraviolet light is damaging to antique furniture. Sunlight can degrade early finishes, wood, and fabrics. Antique furniture should be placed out of direct sunlight, and curtains or shades should be used to diffuse or block sunlight when possible. Clear finishes can yellow or turn opaque from the exposure to sunlight.
Avoid placing your antique furniture in front of heating and air conditioning vents, radiators, fireplaces or stoves. The heat can cause shrinking that can loosen glue joints, veneers, inlays and marquetry.
Your antique furniture is also affected by the amount of moisture in the air. Changes in relative humidity can cause wood to expand and contract. This expansion and contraction can cause glue joints to loosen, drawers and doors to drag or become stuck in their opening. Extended periods of high humidity can lead to mold growth, rot and insect infestation. If your house or apartment is especially dry in winter, you should use a humidifier. Wood responds to changes in temperature and humidity. It swells or shrinks and can warp or split. So try to avoid extremes in temperature and make sure that your wood objects do not dry out or become too damp. Today’s homes, especially, are often heated with forced air heat, which can tend to dry out furniture quickly. The same applies to too much moisture. Occasionally check the back of your furniture, like pieces resting against an outside wall, for signs of mold and mildew. If you find some, immediately wipe it off with a soft cloth moistened with a very dilute solution of household bleach–10 parts water to 1 part bleach. In the case of spills, stains, or serious scratches, avoid using homemade remedies. Instead, call a good furniture restorer to assess and repair the damage. Boxes and other little wooden objects should be dusted very lightly with a soft, dry brush or small dust rag. Try not to use a dust rag since loose threads can catch on pieces of veneer or marquetry, pulling them off. The use of a humidifier or dehumidifier is recommended to help maintain the relative humidity and minimize the adverse effects that moisture can have on your valuable antique furniture.
Insects and Pests
Wood, leather, fabrics and upholstery materials such as horsehair can be inviting to insects and other small pests. Insects such as powder post beetles or termites eat their way along the grain of wood until they mature. Mature insects bore their way out of the wood leaving exit holes.
Active infestations can be identified by exit holes and a fine sawdust called frass appearing under the piece of furniture. Active infestations should be isolated as soon as possible and an exterminator and/or conservator should be consulted.
Cockroaches can damage the existing finish by feeding on the buildup of body oils, grease and dirt that has accumulated on the surface. Their excrement can stain raw wood surfaces found in drawers and interior panels.
Small rodents are attracted to the upholstery materials found in antiques for use when nesting. Rodent activity should be addressed as irreparable damage could result if left unattended.
Cleaning and Polishing
The idea that antique furniture needed to be fed with oil to keep from drying out is a myth. Wood does not dry out from the lack of oil but rather from the lack of moisture. As such, storage in hot dry areas such as an attic should be kept to a minimum. Furniture oils will temporarily enhance the finish and appearance but can contribute to the degradation of the finish over time as oils leave a residue that can attract dust and dirt build up.
The preferred method of maintaining a varnished finish is a coat of high-quality paste wax. Furniture paste wax is stable and long-lasting. It will provide protection from moisture and dust and is not permanent.
A thin coat of wax applied following the manufacturer’s recommendation annually will help protect your antique furniture’s finish. In between waxing, dusting with a soft, lint-free cloth on a regular basis. Dampen the cloth slightly and turn frequently. A dry rag can cause scratches when dusting. Wax may not be appropriate for surfaces with a deteriorating finish; if in doubt, consult a furniture restoration specialist in your area for advice on how to best care for your antique furniture. Silicone-based polishes should be avoided as silicone can penetrate the finish and will cause problems with future restoration or repairs. Silicone oil leaves a difficult to remove film behind that affects the adhesion of spot repairs or restoration of the existing finish.
With time brass and copper hardware will acquire a soft patina that may appear to some as unattractive. Brass and copper hardware on historical and other valuable antiques should not be polished to remove the tarnished appearance. The original finish and patina should be retained on the hardware including handles, knobs, hinges, pulls, and escutcheons.
Handling and Moving
When moving your antique furniture you should check for loose or damaged joinery. Chairs should always be carried by the seat rails as opposed to the back splat, top rail or arms. Tables should be carried by the apron or legs instead of the top which could pull loose from the base. Large pieces should always be lifted and never dragged across the floor.
When transporting your antique furniture it’s best to first remove shelves, doors, and drawers. Protect glass doors with moving blankets or another adequate padding. Large items should be transported on their back or top, preferably their back.
Marble tops should be removed and transported vertically. A marble top transported lying flat can crack easily. Mirrors and glass should also be transported and stored vertically.
The finish found on historic furniture is as important as the furniture piece itself. Stripping and refinishing removes the original finish coating and damages the patina as well. Once removed, it can never be recovered. Patterns of wear indicating the history of use are also lost during refinishing.
The appearance of antique furniture can be enhanced without damaging the existing finish. Consulting a restoration expert prior to treating your antiques will help preserve what only time can produce. Maintaining the original aged finish should be the primary consideration.
General Antique Furniture Care
- Avoid placing antique furniture in front of a window or direct sunlight.
- Avoid placing antiques near air conditioning and heating vents.
- Don’t place your antique furniture near fireplaces and stoves.
- Blot up spills immediately.
- Dust regularly using a lint-free cloth.
It’s worthy to note that not all antique furniture has significant monetary, artistic or historical value. The notion that removing the finish from any antique or collectible piece of furniture destroys the value is only exaggerated by the simple misinterpretation of comments such as this seen on popular television shows.
Many antiques increase in value after the proper restoration or complete refinishing and repair. Consult a professional when in doubt.
As always, it’s best to err on the side of caution when considering a course of treatment or repairs to your antique furniture. If you believe you might possess a piece with significant historical value or provenance, it’s best to consult a licensed appraiser for values and conservator for any repairs or restoration.