DAILY CARE OF ANTIQUES
Care & Restoration of Antique Furniture
During the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, nearly all furniture was commissioned to order and consequently great care was taken in the selection of timbers and veneers as well as the quality of the cabinet-making, carving and gilding. It is testament to the excellence of all those involved that so many pieces have survived the test of time and have been either inherited or bought by successive generations. The following suggestions should enable current owners to preserve, and even improve the appearance of such pieces for the next generation.
One of the most important aspects to furniture is that of patination. Patination is the name given to the build-up of wax, grease and dust that, when combined over a period of many years, gives the timber a "skin" and can be best described as the furniture's history in it's surface and is therefore very desirable.
Waxing & Cleaning
To keep and improve patination, furniture should be waxed with a natural-wax based polish (never a silicon-based one) and indeed we now sell our own clear and dark waxes that are ideal for antique furniture. Pieces should be waxed no more than once a month. More frequent waxing is actually counter-productive as wax will soften previous layers of wax and if frequently applied, the furniture will take on a smeary appearance. The best technique is to apply a thin layer of wax, allow it to harden for a short while, then burnish with a soft, clean cloth. Always rub in the direction of the grain and if leaning over a table or other large piece of furniture, pay attention to buckles, rings or buttons which may scratch the surface.
A mixture of vinegar and water should never be used to clean the surface as the vinegar acts as a solvent and can remove generations of patination in a matter in minutes. It is essential to place mats on the furniture before putting hot or cold dishes on to polished surfaces, and it should be remembered that cold water in a flower vase can reduce the temperature of the polish and produce a white "chill" mark. As with any surface damage, such a mark needs the specialist's hand. A French polished surface is made up of many layers of shellac polish which has been applied with a "rubber" - a linen cloth enclosing a wadding material inside. The "rubber" is coated with shellac polish which is applied with the aid of linseed. With an area no bigger than a finger nail actually being in contact with the surface, numerous thin coats are built up over a period of time that enhance the grain and colour of the timber.
When water damage or the like occurs, if the polish and not the timber has been affected, a skilled polisher can remove one layer of polish at a time until he reaches the undamaged surface. He will then carefully reapply polish to the localised area, binding it to the original untouched surface, thus eradicating the water mark. Such a technique takes many years of training and application and should never be attempted by a novice as inexperience could result in a dark area which actually looks worse than the original mark.
The cleaning of brasses is very much a case of personal taste. Some people like brass handles to develop a bronzed patination and therefore will never clean them, whilst others will clean handles until they shine like a soldier's button. I prefer the middle ground, with only the highlights being cleaned, leaving a natural build-up of wax around the backplates and knobs. Should traces of original lacquer or fire gilding be in evidence use just a damp cloth to lightly wipe them when required. A wadding cleaner is best used when cleaning handles as a liquid spillage on a patinated surface will remove all traces of patination. When cleaning brassware it is better to do a little bit at a time as once they have been over-cleaned is impossible to return them to their previous state.
Great care must be taken with gilt furniture and mirrors. There are two types of gilding, water and oil. Water gilding appears more yellow in tone than the deeper orange appearance of oil gilding. Most English 18th and early 19th century furniture was water gilded although oil gilding was favoured with continental furniture. Layers of gesso were applied to the carved wooden base and then recut to define the carved decoration. A liquid clay base, or bole, was then applied and gold leaf laid upon it. With oil gilding, the gesso was applied with an oil size to which the gold leaf was then stuck. It is not a good idea to try and clean gilt, should water be applied to it the gold will wash off and expose the bole beneath.
Gilding restoration is best carried out by an experienced gilder and as the finish can vary the final look is best discussed with the gilder in question. Gesso is plaster based and therefore highly susceptible to water and moisture damage. Once the gesso becomes damp it will perish and the piece of furniture will have to be both regessoed and thus regilded. Do not hang gessoed mirrors on damp walls, in bathrooms or in rooms with a high degree of humidity. When dusting elaborately carved gilt furniture use a light feather duster rather than a cloth to avoid breaking off pieces of decoration and gilt. With painted furniture a damp cloth can be used, but never solvents. Afterwards a light coat of clear wax should be applied, but pay attention to any flaking decoration.
Restoration & Repair
At some time you may need the services of a restorer as all furniture will need to be put in a workshop at some stage of it's life. Drawers that do not run easily may have worn runners but their life can be prolonged by applying candle wax to the runners and sides of the drawers although there will be a point when they will have to be replaced. Every forty or fifty years, due to normal wear and tear, chairs will become loose and need to be knocked apart, the old glue cleaned off and the joints re-glued and re-assembled. This work must be undertaken once chairs become noticeably loose as at this stage it is a standard restoration task. If left, the chair will get worse, and eventually collapse, possibly breaking joints in the process and incurring extra expense as false tenons will have to be cut to repair the shattered joints.
Climate can affect furniture greatly although it is more to do with very dry air than soaring temperatures. Should table leaves warp they should be put in a damp atmosphere and hopefully they will straighten themselves. If card or tea tables develop a "smile" open them up overnight and by the morning they should have hopefully flattened. If this does not work they will have to be straightened by a qualified restorer who will remove the core material from the inside down to the exterior veneer and then relay the old surface veneer back onto a new, stable, flat piece of timber. As this is a very costly process, it is wise to remove all furniture from direct and strong sunlight, allow a room a few draughts and, if furniture is beginning to move, invest in a humidifier.
By taking care in the day to day handling of furniture costly accidents can be avoided. When moving a chest of drawers, never lift by the top, as this can result in the top breaking away from the base. Be aware of drawers in side tables which, if the table is tipped forward when being moved, may crash to the floor. Never rock back on chairs as this puts great strain on joints. When transporting furniture always wrap it in a clean blanket to avoid unnecessary damage and scratches. To avoid damage to yourself it is important when lifting furniture to bend the knees and not the back. Finally, when lifting a bookcase, never put your hand on the glass doors which can easily break.
Always put small felt pads under the feet of clocks, caddies etc to stop them scratching the furniture. Never lock a bureau fall, as the resulting damage to the furniture, should a break-in occur, could be more than the value of the goods taken. Also never lock a piece of furniture when in transit, as a jolt can jam the lock resulting in a major operation to release it. If small piles of sawdust appear, live wood worm is likely to be present. The best remedy is to contact a reputable company and arrange for the piece to be pressure fumed for 48 hours. This will not damage the timber or upholstery but is guaranteed to kill the worm.
Antique furniture was here before us and will be here after us. To enable future generations to enjoy it as much as we do, it is our duty to cherish and care for it throughout our own lifetime.
For further information please contact us!