QUESTION: What’s the best way to maintain antique furniture? When I see pieces at antique shows, they always look so beautiful. Is there some trick to making them look that way? Can you tell me the best way to maintain the pieces I have? While I have some older ones from the early 19th century, most are from the mid to late 19th century.
ANSWER: You’ve asked about two different procedures. The first is all about restoration while the second is about conservation.
Generally, restoring pieces made before 1830 affects their value. If a piece is more than 60 percent restored, it drastically loses value. Refinishing these early pieces destroys their patina. On the other hand, pieces made after 1830 usually benefit from restoration. The 60-percent rule doesn’t apply to them.
Restoration can range from minor repairs to a complete professional refinishing. With improvements in materials and finishes, a person can do some simple refinishing at home. However, for more complex work, especially when a piece may have several layers of old paint that have to be removed, it’s a good idea to invest in the work of a professional furniture restorer.
Before attempting to refinish a piece of antique furniture, assess it’s overall condition. If the piece just looks dull and dingy, it’s possible it may just need a thorough cleaning. Cleaning wood can do wonders for it.
If there’s oily dirt or grease, such as may get on pieces in a kitchen, remove it with an old washcloth, soaked in a mild dish detergent and water solution and wrung out. Work on small area at a time and dry it immediately with a soft cloth. Always avoid using too much liquid directly on a piece’s surface.
An alternative is to use Murphy’s Oil Soap in spray form. Spray a little on the wood and wipe with a damp washcloth. For really grimy surfaces, use #0000 steel wool and Murphy’s, then wipe with a wet washcloth, and dry. Allow the piece to dry thoroughly for 24 hours before waxing. Wipe the surface with #0000 fine steel wool until smooth.
After a piece of furniture is cleaned, it can be freshened up using Wood Sheen, a rubbing oil stain and finish made by Minwax that combines tung oil with a coloring agent, available at most hardware stores and home centers. This product comes in a variety of wood stain colors to match most types of wood. tra fine (four zero) steel wool. Wipe the surface again with a damp cloth. Apply a thin coat of Wood Sheen using an old sock and let it dry for an hour or two. Do not do this more than once every year or so.
An alternative to using Wood Sheen is to wax it with Minwax paste wax. This is a petroleum-based product that comes in both natural and dark shades for light and dark-stained furniture, respectively. The hard surface it produces can be dusted more easily and without the danger of scratching because its smoother. Waxing once or twice a year is sufficient for table tops and chair arms. For less used areas of furniture, such as chair legs and case pieces, wax only every four years.
Conservation of antique furniture is all about maintenance and keeping it clean. Avoid using any of the popular spray dusting helpers. These tend to leave a nasty buildup on furniture that’s hard to remove later on. Instead, use a soft cloth to gently wipe away the dust. You can also slightly dampen the cloth with liquid glass cleaner.
Avoid using any of the popular oil-based liquid furniture polishers. These leave an oily residue that attracts dust. Lemon oil is one of the worst because it doesn’t sink into the wood like commonly thought but lays on the surface acting as a dust magnet.
Be extra careful when cleaning any wood that has been gilded. The gilt is usually applied with a water-soluble adhesive which can be removed by detergent cleaners. To clean uneven or carved surfaces, use a soft-bristled brush or your vacuum cleaner with the brush attachment. Be careful not to hit the furniture in any way with the vacuum cleaner, itself.
Do not use feather dusters. They move the dust around and can scratch the surface.
Before using any cleaner on a piece’s surface, test an inconspicuous area towards the back first.
Try not to polish hardware while it’s attached to the furniture. The polish will damage the furniture’s finish. Instead, remove the hardware and polish separately, being sure to rinse or wipe it thoroughly before reattaching it to your pieces. If hardware cannot be removed, be sure to mask it from the furniture’s surface to prevent damage. For ornate hardware, use a cotton swab dipped in the detergent solution.
Do not polish ormolu, which really isn’t brass but bronze. Instead, wash it with a soft cloth soaked with a mild dish detergent.
If mold or mildew forms on a piece of antique furniture, dampen a soft cloth with a very mild bleach solution (two tablespoons of bleach to a quart of water) and wipe the affected area. Dry immediately with a soft cloth, then wax as stated above.
Heat dries out the wood of antique furniture, loosening joints. An interior should be kept at a comfortable level but not excessively hot in the winter. If the temperature must be kept higher, put pans of water around to humidify the air or use a humidifier. The air will be healthier, also.
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