Looking after the dining room table you inherited or the early 19th century chest of drawers you bought from an antique shop involves a combination of common sense and occasionally some simple DIY. It's a matter of knowing what to do and what not to do – and when to admit defeat and send for a restorer.
Apart from accidents, there are three main dangers that will adversely affect antique furniture and any wooden items in general use. The first is sunlight – even in Scotland. Direct rays from the sun will start to fade furniture in a surprisingly short time. And if it’s a table with a tea caddy or a vase on top, you’re liable to be left with an unsightly dark mark and a lighter surround in just a year or two. Even more difficult to repair is sunlight damage which causes wood to split or warp – this will require the services of a good restorer and will generally be quite an expensive repair,
Remedy: always be aware of where the sun enters a room, especially in the danger period between 11am and 3pm each day. If necessary, move the furniture around in the summer months or cover exposed furniture when the room is not in use.
After sunlight, temperature and humidity are the main culprits that cause damage to furniture. Humidity tends to be low in centrally heated homes and dry atmosphere will, in turn dry out the timber which can result in various problems; glue fails to stick causing joints to come loose, veneers suddenly spring loose or even fall off, or splits appear. The two situations to avoid are: violent changes in temperature e.g. where a damp unheated house is suddenly subjected to central heating at full blast, or moving an item perhaps from an unheated store or room into a centrally heated atmosphere.
Remedy: don’t have the central heating on at too high a level, or place a bowl of water in the room and replace the water as it evaporates – this adds moisture to the atmosphere. Humidifiers, which can be hung on the side of radiators, are also available. Less elegant but very practical, dry your washing over the radiators!
The third culprit is worm or insect damage At its most extreme, it can cause an item of furniture to collapse so it’s important to act quickly before the problem spreads. Some woods are much more susceptible, eg soft woods such as pine and deal, but also some harder woods such as walnut and beech.Remedy: if you find live woodworm (usually tracked down by small piles of wood dust), don’t panic. Woodworm attack can be cured quite easily. Place the affected piece in a garage or outside away from children and pets and spray/squirt each hole with a proprietary treatment fluid. Remember – if you are unlucky enough to find woodworm, it is unlikely to infect or destroy your whole house unless you were to leave it undisturbed in a damp loft for several years.
Damage to polished surfaces is a common problem with antique furniture. Shallow scratches can be easily covered up with special scratch polishes and filled in with waxes - both of which are available from most hardware stores. If the scratches aren’t shallow, ruing the restorer!
Water and whisky: providing water is wipes off a polished surface with in a few minutes no harm will be done. The same cannot be said of whisky and other spirits which, if not wiped off immediately, will cause a white mark which is difficult to remove. Beware of also placing hot items on the dining table or sideboard. The polish will mark very quickly.
Finally, a word of warning about French polishes. French polishing is a 19th century invention and while it’s satisfactory for more recent antiques, it can ruin a Georgian piece of furniture. This is because French polishers strip back to the wood, removing all the existing surface history (or patina) which is part of the character and value of a piece of furniture and should be preserved, before re-polishing. Check beforehand that French polishing is appropriate.
A little care and maintenance…
As with most things in life, it’s better to have damage sorted out early rather than later. A loose joint is far cheaper to have restored than a broken joint. And it’s quite easy to stick back bits of veneer which fall off, but do use a woodworker’s glue.
Stiff drawers should be attended to. Often it is due to a piece of wood coming out of alignment, or the wood expanding in a changed atmosphere. The application of wax, or even chalk, to the runners on the base of the drawer will often be enough. If not done early enough, it’s usually the handle that breaks rather than the drawer.
Sticky finger marks and general dirt on furniture can often be removed by using a little diluted vinegar on a cloth and rubbing off. Furniture benefits from a good polish once or twice a year. Don’t apply too much but use a good brand such as Antiquax or Whytock & Reid’s furniture polish. The actual deep shine comes from regular buffing, that is, simply polishing the dust off once or twice a week .
How to choose a restorer
The names of some reputable restorers are listed below. However, if you have any item of furniture that’s out of the ordinary, especially if it has marquetry (geometric or floral veneer decoration), it’s advisable to make sure a restorer has worked on similar pieces before. Always ask for a quote first. And don’t be in too much of a hurry – even relatively simple repairs take time because of the skill involved. It’s also worth asking your local antique dealer for the name of a good restorer as they may know others in your area.
Anselm Fraser Myreside Grange, Gifford, East Lothian
Tel: 01620 810680
Whytock & Reid Sunbury House, Belford Mews, Edinburgh
Tel: 0131 226 4911
Siller & Donaldson 58 Grove Street, Edinburgh
Tel: 0131 299 5870
Jocelyn Restoration 332 Glasgow Road, Paisley
Tel: 0141 882 5896
John Whitelaw 120 High Street, Auchterarder
& Co Antiques
Tel: 01764 662482
David Rose Nairnside, Culloden Moor, Inverness
Tel: 01463 794235
Jeremy Gow BAFRA, Pitscandly Farm, by Forfar
Tel: 01307 465342