The Care of Antique Furniture
The most important aspect of caring for antique furniture is to ensure that pieces are used on a regular basis as this will give the owner the opportunity to observe at first hand any changes to the condition of an item so that any potential problems can be dealt with at the earliest stage to prevent the worsening of any inherent conditions.
As these pieces were all originally made for homes in the days before central heating when most rooms would have had an open fire or a stove as the principal source of warmth, we need to avoid placing furniture close to or in front of any radiators, blow heaters or convector heaters. When originally constructed, the timbers used would have been naturally dried or seasoned over a period of years in contrast to today s much faster kiln-drying.
The retained moisture level within antique furniture was higher than in the modern counterparts which then means that if they are placed in a dry atmosphere the remaining moisture in the woods can be drawn into the air drying out the base timbers and causing them to shrink slightly. In veneered pieces this may manifest itself by the veneers tearing and lifting along any joints and any pieces which become detached must be retained so they can be re-applied onto the piece itself.
Conversely, if placed into an excessively damp atmosphere, timbers can absorb moisture and swell causing doors to stick, drawers to jam and carcasses to warp. The ideal humidity for most types of Antique Furniture is around the 50-55% relative humidity level and a suitable hygrometer can be acquired from most hardware stores for monitoring this.
Regular cleaning, dusting and burnishing with a soft cloth will help you to see any changes occurring as well as helping to build up a hard wax finish and patina or surface colour. Wax polishing is recommended a couple of times annually or more frequently if needed and here at Harvey s we are happy to supply clients with the same wax polish as we use in our showrooms. Spray polishes which contain silicones and spirits should be avoided as these can easily compromise the finish on pieces causing a sticky build up etc.
Care must be taken if owners want to polish the brass handles etc. on furniture to avoid getting metal polish onto the polished wooden surfaces as the metal polish will eat into the finish of the wood if allowed to remain on the wood for any length of time. Care must be taken to remove any such drips immediately they occur. The same is true of glass cleaners when glazed bookcase doors need cleaning. It is better to spray the glass cleaner onto a cloth and then apply it to the glazed areas rather than to spray the glass and risk the fluid drifting onto the polished wooden areas.
The homes of the 17th., 18th. and 19th. centuries had much smaller windows than modern homes with French doors and sliding doors so the amount of sunlight coming into modern houses is far greater than the pieces may be used to and care should be taken to ensure that whilst a little fading may be attractive, the finish on a piece should not be compromised. Rotating items within a room can help as can drawing curtains to protect against direct sunlight when not in use.
A most important aspect when buying furniture is to remember that the craftsmen, cabinetmakers etc of previous centuries understood the materials and construction methods to an extraordinary degree and ensured that these pieces were made to be used on a daily basis whether it is a chest, chair, table, desk or cabinet so they were constructed in ways which mean that they can almost always be restored should the need arise. Most of the work which we have been involved in over the past 6+ decades is merely taking away the wear of everyday use. Drawers were made to have the runners replaced, joints were made in chairs to be re-glued when loose and so on. The same cannot be said of modern furniture.