Caring for Furniture
Topics discussed here are intended to aid the owners of fine furniture whether the item’s value is monetary or sentimental. The majority of historic furniture is in private hands. Proper care and maintenance is the only way to ensure its preservation for future generations. Although some objects may eventually become part of a museum collection, it is nevertheless incumbent on the current owner to provide proper care. As discussed below, many aspects of furniture care are straightforward and can be carried out by an educated owner. Problems that are beyond an owner’s capabilities should always be referred to a trained conservator or antique restoration specialist.
Fine furniture, like works of art, must be protected against environmental damage. Light, especially ultraviolet (UV) light, will not only fade finishes but can break down woods and fabrics over time. For this reason important pieces of furniture should be placed out of both direct and indirect sunlight, preferably in a room lit only by incandescent bulbs which emit the lowest amount of UV light. UV filtering film can also be applied to windows. Certain types of furniture, most notably wood, can be especially sensitive to temperature and humidity. Humidity should stay between 40% and 60% and temperature should be around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Furniture should be periodically inspected for damage, especially insect damage. Insect larvae can burrow into wood creating tunnels along the grain and as adults leave exit holes to lay their eggs. Active exit holes contain small grains similar to sawdust. Any such material found near furniture could be signs of infestation. If you are certain that there is an infestation, the furniture should be isolated and encased in a large plastic bag if possible. This should be followed with fumigation conducted by a licensed exterminator or furniture restoration specialist since chemicals can cause damage to finishes and textiles.
A popular misconception is that woods need to be fed with oils to maintain their luster; however, many polishes and oils can attract dirt and cloud the wood grain. The best protection and maintenance for wood furniture is an application of high quality paste wax. Wax will not discolor overtime and it seals the wood against airborne pollutants. Furniture wax can be found at most hardware stores, is easy to apply and only needs to be applied once a year. Wax should not be applied to furniture that has been painted or gilded or has flaking or chipped finishes.
Dusting should be done periodically with a dry soft cloth. Feather dusters are not recommended as they can catch in cracks and crevices, pulling and causing damage. Care should be taken around loose or damaged hardware and veneers. Hardware, especially brass, should not be cleaned or polished with ammonia-based products as this can cause corrosion. Ideally hardware should be removed so that polishes are not in contact with wood surfaces.
Prior to moving furniture, examine it for loose or missing parts. Make sure all joints are secure and remove any unsecured drawers, shelves and doors. If these elements can not be easily removed, they may be tied down using soft cotton straps, especially in the case of doors. Tables should always be lifted by the apron or legs, not by the top which could detach. Chairs should be lifted by seat rails, not by arms or back rails. Make sure that you do not drag pieces across the floor as this causes excessive pressure on the sides and legs which may break. When loading into a vehicle, furniture should be placed on its top or back, not on its legs. Mirrors and marble or glass tops should be removed and transported vertically.
It is no longer a standard practice to strip and refinish furniture. An original finish is considered as important as any other element of a fine piece. Maintaining an original finish not only makes a piece historically accurate, providing patterns of wear and use, but it also helps a piece hold its monetary value. If the decision is made to refinish furniture it should be known in advance that this process is not reversible and will diminish the value of the piece. Even if the original finish is not necessarily pleasing, any changes made to it will have monetary implications.