"Furniture" as a type of object is often thought of as just wood. However, when considering it in terms of antiques and their care, it is important to consider its various components of metal, plastic, leather, fabric, paint and natural and synthetic resins. The presence of these various materials is important when thinking about the maintainance of antique furniture.

In the past, furniture was largely considered solely in terms of functional value. Because of this, it was acceptable to repair damaged and broken furniture in any way available so long as it would become servicable again. Often times, when the varnish or paint on a piece was starting to chip or wear off, it would be removed and replaced with new coats of paint or simply the old layers would be covered with new ones. Recently, a large amount of value has been placed on furniture for its cultural, historic and artistic aspects and has therefore has risen in monetary worth. Because of this, much more attention has been paid to the correct practices of caring for antique furniture.

Nature vs. Nurture
The Effects of the Environment on Furniture

Sunlight is perhaps one of the most damaging things to such organic materials as wood. Any damage due to light will be both cumulative and irreversible. Light will degrade both finishes and wood colorants and if exposed to direct sunlight over a long period of time, the cell structure of the wood itself will begin to break down. Finishes, as well as the wood itself, can become discolored when exposed to sunlight for extended amounts of time. The only way to restore a piece of wood furniture after it has been exposed to light in such a way is to strip it and refinish it which will result in a loss of the patina and a decrease in value.

In order to minimize this, keep furniture out of direct sunlight. Make sure that sunlight it diffused throughout a room and do not leave lights turned on in rooms for extended periods of time. UV light can be filtered out by putting a UV-filtering film on the windows or by simply adding curtains of some kind to them.

Moisture is another factor affecting furniture quality. Being a porous organic material, wood will expand and contract in order to achieve equilibrium with the relative humidity (RH) of the air. Humidity should be maintained somewhere between 40 and 60 percent ideally. If the air is more humid than this, wood will expand, and if contrained in any way by objects around it, the furniture may split once humidity drops. Finishes will deteriorate in such conditions as well; the expansion and contraction of wood may cause it to seperate from the finish. To avoid such problems, store furniture in areas of moderate humidity and temperature, avoiding basements, attics, fireplaces and heating ducts. Thermometers and hygrometers can be purchased in order to monitor heat and humidity levels at any hardware store. If necessary, humidifiers and dehumidifiers can be used to regulate levels should you live in any area where it would be appropriate to do so.

Insects can also cause harm to furniture. They can potentially infest materials like wood, horsehair, or leather. Commonly, beetles will lay eggs in such objects. An infestation can be noted if you see small burrowing holes in the wood; as some insect larvae mature, they will tunnel out of the wood in which their eggs were laid. If the infestation is still active, frass, a fine dust will be seen around the holes. If you have an infestation, notify an exterminator immediately in order to get a fumigation.

How to Care for Your Antique Furniture

Oddly enough, almost all furniture oils do not help, and usually will harm furniture in some way. They usually make the furniture look better temporarily, but will not help in terms of caring for it. Many contain linseed oil or other oils which will cause a sticky residue to coat the wood the obscure the grain. Other polishes that contain non-drying oils like lemon oil will still attract dirt. Silicone polishes also leave a film which can be hard to remove and may cause problems when applying finishes.

In order to properly maintain furniture, use paste wax. It is very stable and will not change chemically and also will protect against pollutants and moisture. It can be purchased in most hardware stores. Directions for application are on the can — a thin coat is best, about once a year. If your furniture has a poor finish or other such unstabilities, consult a conservator. Otherwise, it is your best bet in terms of maintenance.

For cleaning, simply dry dusting with a cloth is best. Dust and dirt should be removed regularly as they can scratch polished surfaces. Don't use feather dusters; they often times will shed feathers which will lead to damage of gilding work and finishes. If your wood is particularly dirty, use a damp cloth.

If the brass on your furniture is becoming tarnished, polishing can be a good move. When the furniture was made and the hardware was initially installed, usually a coat of lacquer was put on the brass so it would keep it shiny appearance. Over time, various things will cause that to wear away and become exposed to the air. If you want to polish your brass on your furniture, remember not to buy polish with ammonia; it will lead to corrosion in the long-term. When polishing, remove the hardware (if this is practical) so that your polish won't hit the wood. If the brass keeps becoming tarnished, it may be a good idea to have the hardware coated with clear lacquer again.

cbustapeck says Oh, and I would advise completely against doing anything to the brass - it is like the patina of the wood - you would not want to remove that. Also, taking hardware out is bad because each time you take it out, the strength of the hold is reduced

I have heard both types of advice on brass, now. As cbustapeck also mentioned, talk to a professional regarding the particular aspects of your piece. It is the best way to assure that you won't do something irreversible to it.

To strip or not to strip? (:P)

Refinishing furniture is no longer a common practice. Patina, a sign of aged furniture, is one of the most important things that collectors look for. Usually, buyers will forgive you if your finish and paint is a little rough looking as long as a good patina is still intact. It is very central to the history of the object and can offer important data to researchers. If an old finish really looks bad, it can be enhanced using specific cleaning methods — it is best to consult a conservator for these types of cases. Any treatment should be aimed at preserving a patina, and a good restorer will realize this and treat your piece with care.

Handling and Storing Your Antiques — Don't Break the Damn Thing

Before anything else, if you're going to move an antique piece of furniture, make sure none of the joints are loose or damaged. Remove things like shelves, doors, and drawers if practical. If you can't take the doors off, wrap the piece with cloth strips to secure them. Tables should always be lifted by the legs as the top can sometimes detach. Chairs should be lifted by the seat, which tends to be the most sturdy part of the chair. When moving something large like a bureau, lift it, don't slide it; you'll put a lot of pressure on the legs possibly causing them to wear or snap not to mention the damage you could do to your floor. If you're moving something in a car, place it on its back, not its legs; the jostling would put too much pressure on them.


A. J. Panshin, Carl de Zeeuw. Textbook of Wood Technology. © 1980.
Keith O. Story. Approaches to Pest Management in Museums. © 1985.
Thanks much to Christopher, as well.

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