How to Care for Antique Furniture
How to Care for Antique Furniture
Care and preservation of precious, antique furniture is entirely different than that of modern furniture. Polishes, adhesives, fasteners and finishes can all dramatically affect the look and value of antiques. Antique furniture instills a warmth and beauty modern furniture can’t quite replicate, not to mention the memories and meaning behind heirloom pieces. Keeping your gorgeous antiques in the best condition is as important to you and they deserve the best care. We can help you ensure they continue to withstand time and wear.
Prevent future damage or further damage.
As the owner of antique furniture, knowing when, how, and why to prevent damages to your antiques can influence how a piece lasts as well as keeping it preserved. The number one cause of antique damage is generally caused by poor caretaker choices through a misunderstanding of wood and the caring of wood. Where you keep your furniture, how you handle it, how you clean it, and how you pack it if you are moving can all contribute to issues and damages to precious antiques.
Your furniture’s environment.
Where are you displaying your antique furniture? One of the easiest fixes to preserve the look, luster, and condition is to check any natural light sources that may be near it. Sunlight carries radiation. You know how painful it is when the sun is shining directly into your eyes? That’s called electromagnetic radiation, which is a source of energy. That energy or light is directly responsible for discoloration, bleaching, and degrades common components found in antiques, wood, and especially the fabric in the upholstery. When light damage happens, it is generally irreversible as well as permanent.
The best way to protect your prized antiques is to keep it in out of the sun or in the dark when not in use. Though keep in mind: during the day if it is in use and near any light source you can lessen or slow the harm sunlight can cause.
- Window tints that prevent UV light
- Refrain from having fluorescent bulbs in the room or area the antique is displayed.
- Outfit any windows with screens, shades or curtains that block light.
If there is sunlight, or light with UV shining on an antique, there will be some sort of damage that is equal to how long it is in light and how bright it is.
Make sure your furniture is not exposed to very hot temperatures as well. Hot items, like teacups or coffee cups could melt the antique’s finish away!
Never use fingernail polish, nail polish remover on a wooden antique surface. They, as well as drinks with alcohol in them, can remove paint or varnish.
Wood is incredibly absorbent. Anyone who has accidentally placed a sweating, cold drink in a glass, leaving a water ring behind on a piece of furniture can agree. The more humid the environment a wooden antique is in, the more the wood swells. When it dries out, the wood shrinks. Swelling and shrinking wood does this unevenly and it is different for every wood type, every wood grain, and wood grain direction. Wood never stops expanding nor contracting with humidity no matter how new or how old it is.
Extreme levels of humidity to no humidity can and will warp a beautiful antique. Pieces that once fit flush and perfectly no longer will, finishes will begin to crack or flake and more damage will be noticeable.
If you know you live in a humid environment, purchasing a dehumidifier for the summer months and a humidifier for winter. Heating systems in homes often dry the air, so you will want to keep humidity as balanced as possible where your antique furniture is kept. A margin of 10% either way is the preferred balance for humidity.
Insects and Rodents.
Wood, leather, cotton, linen, wool, silk, fur. These natural fabrics are unfortunately very inviting to several insects, not to mention mice, rats and other rodents’ attraction to materials for nest building. These animals can cause so much damage as to destroy an antique.
The signs of an insect infestation should be looked for carefully and as often as you can do so. Signs of insect damage can be difficult to spot, so by the time you notice something going on it may have been infested for a very long time.
What to look for in an insect infestation.
- Living or dead insects. Carpet beetles, fabric moths often gather beneath window opening. Move your antique to see if you expose any movement of insects or see if you catch a moth taking flight as you do.
- Wood beetle larvae eat wood from the inside out, destroying the structure of your antique furniture.
- Powderpost beetles are so small and the holes they make the same. So you are looking for very small piles of sawdust around the antique to see if you are infested.
- Borers leave holes in wood the size of dimes. If you see these holes and notice a clicking sound, you most likely have deathwatch beetles, or furniture beetles.
- Shed shells or feces. If you find no movement, but what seems to be many very small brown flecks that on closer inspection are brown shells, you probably have an infestation of carpet beetles.
- Roaches feed on body oils that can build up in upholstery. Their droppings can resemble tiny pepper-like specks to the size of a rice grain, or small, brown stains. Roaches leave droppings wherever they go, but they tend to accumulate in floor corners, tabletops, and wherever there may be crumbs or food.
- Egg casings. Roaches leave grey, or light brown egg casings behind. If you spy an empty one in place, you should take steps immediately to control the issue.
- Termites. Termites are not only a danger to your antiques but the entire home or environment it may be in! Signs of a termite infestation may include clicking sounds coming from the furniture. Soldier termites bang heads against wood to alert a colony to danger. Worker termites eating wood also make sounds. You may actually be able to hear them eating by pressing an ear to the antique. Termites can also fly. If you spot one, then you are infested. The flying termites also discard their wings after finding a mate. Termites are light in color, the antennae are straight not bent. If you see these, or something that you think is a white ant—there is no such thing as a white ant. Like the wood beetle, termites leave behind what looks like sawdust after devouring wood.
- Carpenter bees. Carpenter bees do resemble bumblebees, but they are lacking yellow markings on their abdomens. If the bee you spot inside or near the area your antique is in is mostly black, it very well may be a carpenter bee. Male carpenter bees behave aggressively if threatened but lack a stinger. Females are less aggressive but do sting. Piles of sawdust while seeing bees is also an indication of infestation. Perfectly round holes that are nearly perfectly smooth and deep are made by females to lay eggs in. Look for half-inch diameter holes and of course, if the wood or antique furniture begins to make noise.
It’s not just insects either. Rodents are well known for their love of tearing fabric to create nests and their constant chewing.
What to look for in rodent infestations
- Droppings. Droppings are always a sign of rodent infestation. Size, shape and where you find them can indicate what kind of rodents you are dealing with. Mouse droppings look like sesame seeds, rat droppings are dark and spindle-shaped.
- Odor. Rodent urine has a very strong, musky scent. The more rodents, the stronger the smell.
- Gnawing damage. Mice that chew furniture will leave small, clear cut holes the size of a dime. Rat holes are large, around the size of a quarter and have very rough, torn edges.
- Nests. Shredded piles of paper, string, fabric and pliable materials indoors is most probably a rodent nest.
- Night scratching. Rodents are mostly nocturnal, meaning they are more active at night. Squeaking and scratching may be noticeable during nighttime.
Mold, mildew, and fungi are everywhere. Furniture, walls, and in the air. Fungal infestations, however, occur in the presence of external moisture or extreme humidity. Still air and high temperatures create the perfect atmosphere for very fast growth.
Never let the humidity of your home or storage environment where your antiques are reach over 70% humidity. Make sure to never soak, or have your antiques get unusually damp. Avoid storing antiques in basements or attics as these areas in a home are most prone to flooding or leaks.
There are three well-known types of fungi that can decay wood. Brown rot, soft rot, and white rot.
- Brown rot is identified by shrunken wood that discolors to brown with cracks that resemble square shapes.
- Soft rot resembles brown rot very closely in the same discoloration and cracking pattern. Soft rot infected wood becomes very pliable and spongey to the touch.
- White rot makes wood spongey and soft to the touch as well, however it lacks any of the cubical markings of brown or soft rot.
Handling and moving
Planning carefully before handling or moving your antique furniture is the best course of action. Before attempting to move, study your antique piece carefully. See if you can note or determine how it was put together and where it is strongest. Where the antique is strongest is where you should hold it to carry it.
Double-check the room you are moving it to, or from, is clear of any obstacles. Before moving, wrap your antique in soft padding or a padded blanket which will help you avoid bumping which can lead to scratches or gouges.
Take your time! Rushing can lead to scratches, dents, and damage. Don’t slide or drag your antique along the floor. Even the vibration of doing so can loosen joints, chip feet, break antique furniture legs, and so on. Trolleys and dollies are excellent for moving very large pieces.
Lastly, do not wear gloves that do not have non-slip surfaces. Cotton gloves may make the pieces slip out of your grip.
Modern wood cleaners and modern polishes.
Stay away from using modern spray furniture polishes for antiques! Not only do they leave an oily residue—the lemon oil, orange oil, and mineral oils especially. These oils have a slow dry rate, meaning they may stay semi-liquid on your antiques for weeks at a time, creating a surface that smears with the slightest touch. The build-up also ends up attracting even more dust and dirt with these kinds of spray polishes.
On the opposite end, tung oil and linseed chemically change as they dry and will attempt to bond with your antique’s surface. Then, they can become hard through oxidation, becoming very difficult to remove not to mention creating a shell over old finish that will darken.
Dealing with Dust
Heavy accumulation of dust can be dealt with a vacuum. However, caution must be used. The lowest suction available and the round bristle brush attachment should be the only thing coming anywhere near your antique. Avoid letting any plastic or metal parts of your vacuum touch your furniture.
The best way to clean your antique is with a very, very soft, clean, undyed cloth that is lightly damp with water. This works for dusting as well. Make sure to go over it quickly with a dry cloth of the same make to remove any traces of water as water may stain.
You should dust your antique once a week and use nothing but a very small amount of hard-paste wax for buffing and shining once a month if needed.
Softness is important
Never use feather dusters or cleaning cloths that aren’t soft. Broken feathers or rough fabric can cause little scratches that build up over time. Try to avoid using fraying cloths for dusting, as the little threads can catch on veneer and pull it off.
It can be very tempting to take polish to a rag and then attempt to clean up metal brackets, hinges or nails in your antique. That isn’t recommended. You want to preserve the fine patina, the finish on your antique. The chemicals in a metal polish cleaner could ruin it.
If you absolutely must polish a metal piece on your antique, you should remove it from the wood as gingerly as possible and polish it apart from the wood structure. A 50/50 mix of acetone and alcohol can remove dirt and oil residue with a soft brush on most metals. After drying finish the polishing with a lint-free cloth with a superfine abrasive, such as a jeweler’s cloth with a mix of alcohol or mineral spirits, as commercial metal polishes contain harmful cleaners that may corrode.
Upholstery and fabrics
Delicate fabrics should only be dry cleaned. Antique upholstery requires patience, delicacy, and smooth movements. You can try dry cleaning yourself, but you will need a few things first.
- Vacuum cleaner.
- Dry extraction foam.
- Foam sponge.
- Lots and lots of time and patience.
Start by cautiously vacuuming the upholstery. In many cases this single and simple step removes almost all of the stain. When finished, apply the foam to your sponge and be very gentle with testing a spot not easily seen. This helps avoid unpleasant surprises such as a poor reaction to the cleaner. Test first. Follow the instructions on the bottle of dry foam to the letter. Place a towel against the upholstery you’ve cleaned to suck up as much residue as possible. While it is still damp, vacuum a second time. Annual deep cleaning of antique upholstery can extend its lifespan.
With patience, time, and care, the upkeep and preservation of your antiques can be easy. Saving you your most adored heirlooms and safeguarding your antique investment for a lifetime!
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