Antique furniture can be enjoyed for years, provided that some basic care is given to its preservation. For many antique furniture owners, the desire to both use their furniture while preserving it, presents a challenging dilemma. That said, it’s a challenge that can be overcome with a proper understanding of how to minimize or eliminate conditions that cause damage.
AVOID NICKS AND DINGS. The primary source of damage to furniture is reckless handling and use. Prior to handling furniture, remove anything that could scratch or ding its surface; belt buckles, rings, watches, and other jewelry are the usual suspects in the cause of nicks, dings, and unsightly scratches.
MOVING FURNITURE. When moving antique furniture, always take hold of its most durable area. No matter how heavy or awkwardly-shaped a piece of furniture is, do not be tempted to drag it across the floor! Doing so will put stress on the corners, legs, and feet of the object, causing them to crack or break.
SURFACE PROTECTION. If the surface of the furniture will be used, ensure it’s protected. Soft fabric, drink coasters, or glass tops can prolong the life of a furniture’s finish. If glass is used, use felt or rubber tabs between the furniture and glass to prevent the glass from affixing itself to the furniture finish.
LIGHT. Like most antiques, wooden furniture is highly susceptible to damage caused by exposure to light. Wood finishes and stains may become brittle, crack, darken or fade due to prolonged exposure to light. To minimize this risk, furniture should be displayed or stored in dimly lit areas.
TEMPERATURE AND HUMIDITY. Since wood is porous, it absorbs water when humidity levels are high, causing it to swell. On the other hand, when wood is exposed to a dry environment, it shrinks. Both extremes can lead to cracks, joint distortion, separation of veneer and inlays, and other types of damage.
To minimize damage from temperature extremes, display or store furniture in areas far away from sources of heat―fire places, windows, lights, etc.
It’s strongly advised to purchase a humidity sensor that will monitor both temperature and humidity levels. To minimize the swelling or drying of wood furniture, the recommended temperature and humidity levels are as follows:
CLEANING ANTIQUE FURNITURE
WARNING. Do not attempt to over clean, repair, or refinish antique furniture on your own! Such activities should only be done by a professional conservator!
The beauty and value in antique wooden furniture often lies within its original finish and aged patina. Original finishes are a significant part of the historical value of an antique and should not be over cleaned, stripped, or refinished.
The following suggestions are provided to minimize the risk of over cleaning and to help prolong the life of your wooden antique furniture. These instructions should only be applied to antique furniture that’s in good condition―no cracks, separation of veneer or inlays, brittle finish, etc.
DUST REMOVAL. To clean antique furniture, first start by dusting it with a soft brush. For hard to reach corners, consider using a vacuum with an angled, soft brush attachment. Oftentimes, these methods are better than using a soft cloth, as a cloth has a tendency to snag unfinished surfaces, splinters, and hardware.
WET CLEANING. For starters, unfinished wooden furniture should never be wet cleaned! Also, it’s advisable to avoid the use of store bought, “cleaning aisle” furniture cleaners and polishes. Instead, if wet cleaning is necessary after dusting, the safest method is the use of a diluted cleaning detergent, such as Triton X-100.
If using a detergent such as Triton X-100, it should be diluted to a concentration of approximately 1% in water. Dampen (not soak) the large cotton balls in the diluted solution and gently apply them to the surface. To clean hard to reach areas, use a Q-tip.
After cleaning, dampen fresh cotton balls in distilled water and gently apply to the cleaned areas to remove detergent residue. Keep a soft sponge handy to blot excess water from the surface, as water should not be allowed to sit on the surface as it could damage the finish and/or wood.
WAX. Once the furniture surface has completely dried, consider applying a high quality wooden furniture wax such as Renaissance Wax. To apply, use a soft rag or brush. When dry, the waxed surface should then be lightly buffed with a soft shoe polishing brush.
As previously stated, repairs should be left to a professional! If inclined to take on the repair yourself, it should be made as inconspicuous as possible. If adhesives are needed to flatten loose veneer or inlays, hot glue should be used in place of other more caustic adhesives. The use of metal attachments, screws, and nails should be avoided at all costs as they may splinter or crack the aged and fragile wood.
The two most destructive pests known to attack wooden furniture include carpet beetles and powder post beetles.
Carpet Beetles. This form of beetle typically feed on adhesives. As such, they’re commonly found burrowed in joinery and drawers. If tiny black beetles or furry carcasses (gross) are visible, the wood may be infested with carpet beetles.
Powder Post Beetles. For as tiny as they are, powder post beetles pack a destructive punch! These little critters bore small holes into wooden materials. These holes are typically the first, and only sign of a powder post beetle infestation!
In either case, it’s time to call a professional!
It’s our hope that this guide will assist you in the care, cleaning, and handling of your prized antique wooden furniture.