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Our Guide to the Care of Antique Furniture
We are often asked by Clients and prospective Clients how to look after their piece of fine antique furniture, how to polish it, how to clean it and where to place it in their home or office so that it doesn't get damaged. These guidance notes on the Care of Antique Furniture have been compiled by Antiquedesks.net from advice published by various professional bodies and organisations, including the British Antique Dealers Association (BADA), the Association of Art and Antiques Dealers (LAPADA) and the British Antique Furniture Restorers Association (BAFRA)
Keep antique furniture well away from strong sources of direct heat, such as central heating radiators which may warp veneers. We would recommend that a distance of at least three feet is maintained between radiators or direct heat sources and antique furniture. The aim should be to maintain room temperatures as constant as is reasonably possible, avoiding large variations between maximum and minimum.
Antique furniture is made from naturally dried timber and therefore it retains more moisture than modern furniture (which is normally built from kiln-dried timber). As long as heat sources are not too close to them, all types of antique furniture can normally withstand a wide range of temperatures that are reasonably constant, but as wood is an organic material, it is levels of very high or very low relative humidity that can cause problems
POLISHING, CLEANING AND DUSTING.
Patina: This is the term given to the individual visible characteristics of a piece of furniture accumulated over many years of use and polishing. Patina may include old marks and surface damage, which should generally be preserved. It is best to consult with professional bodies such as those mentioned above, before undertaking the restoration of badly damaged antiques.
Polishing: Waxing with a good quality furniture polish based on beeswax highlights the colour and grain of polished wood and helps provide protection for wooden surfaces. The use of spray polishes should be avoided as most contain silicone which can build up over time and form a sticky surface film which is difficult to remove. To polish efficiently, place a small amount of wax on a soft cloth and rub the piece of furniture until the wax on the cloth shines. This will burnish the surface and evaporate any solvent. Then follow by polishing with a clean duster. If possible, apply the polish and allow it to dry overnight, which can help nourish the wood. Polish the following day. If the wood has become very dry, the wax will soak in rapidly. Normally, wax polishing need not be carried out more than once every few months, as too much wax will cause dullness and absorb dust. However, frequent dusting is important, using a clean, soft, dry dusting cloth. This will encourage a hard skin to form on the wood, which will help to provide protection and improve patina.
Cleaning: If furniture is heavily soiled, it may be necessary to clean it, using a soft, damp cloth which has been well wrung out. A weak solution of vinegar diluted in water can be used to clean more thoroughly, but only on polished and undamaged wood. After cleaning, wipe again with a clean cloth rinsed in clear water and dry immediately with absorbent paper or a soft dry cloth.
Water Marks: Any accidental spillages or wet ring marks left by drinking glasses should be dealt with as quickly as possible. Allow areas that have become wet to dry thoroughly, which may take several days. Once dry, apply clear furniture wax. If wax is applied before the affected area is completely dry, a dark discolouration may occur due to different rates of absorption between the wet and the dry areas the wooden surface. Ring marks left by drinking glasses on polished surfaces can sometimes be removed with a small amount of Brasso brass cleaner, applied with a soft cloth. If at all possible, work on a small trial area first to ensure that this process does not do any damage to the surface to be treated.
Metalwork: Handles and mounts made of brass should not be polished with metal cleaners as they may damage the wooden surfaces around the metal and can also strip away certain types of gilding. Brass can be kept bright with light burnishing while dusting. Gilded bronze or ormolu has a very delicate surface which should not be polished. Rather, it should simply be dusted with a very soft brush. This sort of metal ornamentation should be handled as little as possible, as the acid in all fingerprints can cause damage.
Upholstery: This should be gently vacuumed regularly to prevent any accumulation of dust or pests.
Candlewax: Lift off candlewax in a slab when it is cold. Alternatively, warm the wax with a hot-water bottle wrapped in a clean cloth. Then gently remove the wax using a fingernail.
Leather: Leather writing surfaces can be protected using clear furniture wax, applied sparingly every few months. Dry or cracked leather surfaces can be revitalised using a combination of beeswax and lanolin, but spot test a small area to ensure that no staining is caused.
EXPOSURE TO LIGHT
Long term exposure to direct sunlight will cause the colour in most wood to fade. If polished surfaces become damaged from to much exposure to direct sunlight, the fading may be uneven and affect the appearance of the finish. Consider the use of blinds, particularly when a room or office is unoccupied. Also consider the position of the furniture in the room in relation to its direct exposure to sunlight.
Wood beetles lay their eggs in cracks and crevices in the wood, which later hatch as larvae (woodworm). Check furniture regularly for signs of freshly bored holes (flight holes) and deposits of wood dust which may indicate active woodworm infestation. Fortunately treatment is fairly straightforward if this problem is dealt with early. Unpolished wooden surfaces can be treated with a readily available fluid to kill eggs and woodworm. The fluid may, however, damage the finish to polished surfaces and in these situations help and advice should be sort from professional furniture restorers or specialist firms. The presence of old flight holes with no traces of wood dust usually indicate that previous problems have been properly dealt with.
MOVING AND HANDLING
Common sense dictates that antique furniture should be treated with care and respect. Never tilt back whilst seated at an antique chair. If a drawer has two handles, the both should be used to open the drawer. Furniture should be lifted rather than dragged across floors; lifting from the lowest part of the furniture’s frame. Chairs should be picked up from beneath the seat. Remove as much weight as possible from furniture before attempting to move it. Drawers should be unloaded and removed if there is a need to reduce the weight of a piece. The same applies to adjustable bookcase shelving. Beware of drawers and doors which can suddenly open when furniture is being moved. They are best removed or temporarily locked.
Sympathetic and honest restoration of antique furniture is quite acceptable. It is important however, that such work is carried out by professionally trained individuals, who will use the correct traditional materials. Chipped, lifted or bubbled veneers should be repaired as quickly as possible. Only water soluble adhesives should be used for repairs. Small chips of wood or veneer can be held in place with masking tape (not sellotape) prior to professional attention. Drawers and doors which stick can be eased by rubbing candlewax on the contact surfaces
Repairing antique furniture is a difficult and is a highly specialised skill. Qualified and professional advice should be sort before any repair work is undertaken.