An Interview with the Experts
I think we can all agree that the thin layer of dust and dirt that seems to accumulate on our furniture, seemingly overnight, can be frustrating; and the temptation to pull out that can of furniture spray can be strong. But fight that temptation. Caring for your fine antique furniture requires just a little more consideration if you want to keep it in optimum condition.
We sat down with our own restoration experts, Sam Fuller and Rob Skinner, and asked them what it really takes to maintain the beauty of our most precious antiques and collectibles.
Sam and Rob, in your opinion, what is the number one mistake people make when caring for their antique furnishings?
We think that one of the primary mistakes would be that people confuse maintenance with restoration, and they try to tackle a full on restoration without the proper expertise. Not everything can be fixed with a cross head screw and some sticky tape. In truth, some things just don’t need to be “fixed.” Remember, maintaining the integrity and patina of your piece is really important. Original finishes should be kept intact to maintain value. So, when it comes to addressing issues outside of general cleaning and maintenance, it’s always best to consult with a professional before you do anything that may do more harm than good.
Speaking of maintenance and general care, what is the best way to clean and polish antique wood furnishings?
The best way to maintain a nice finish on most furnishings is to keep it lightly dusted and to wax periodically with good quality beeswax using a microfiber cloth. Waxing once or twice a year is fine for heavily used furnishings. You could go even longer - three to five years - if the piece gets little use. Unlike many commercial cleaners, wax is stable over time and protects against moisture, builds a rich patina and won’t damage the wood. It can also be easily removed if that is required.
Routine dusting with a soft dry cloth is all that is generally needed to maintain your piece. Take care when dusting to avoid snagging your soft cloth on any loose veneers, hardware or mounts. When you wax, apply a very thin coat with the grain of the wood, allow it to dry and then buff with a clean cloth. A second buffing after a few hours can further enhance the wood.
Are there any types of cleaners on the market that you would advise to avoid?
It’s best to avoid any kind of spray wax (wax in a can) or polish. Most have a high level of harsh chemicals in them, including silicone, which can soak into the wood and leave a film. In general, it’s best to avoid oils that can also penetrate the wood and, over time, turn it black. In the past, it was touted that your wood furniture needed to be “fed.” This is simply not true.
If your piece of furniture is painted, lacquered or gilded, or if it has exotic wood, ivory or tortoiseshell inlay, it is highly advisable to consult a professional before applying any type of cleaner or paste wax.
Are there any special considerations when cleaning or caring for furnishings with bronze or brass mounts and hardware?
First and foremost, do not use metal cleaners which can damage and remove the finish of the surrounding wood. These cleaners can also settle into crevices and turn white, and that can be very difficult to remove. The same is true for metal polishing cloths that can actually over-clean.
It is also advisable that you wear gloves when handling any item with bronze or brass mounts as the acid and oil secreted from your skin can actually corrode the metal and leave marks that are very hard to remove. If you see that there is discoloration, it is best to consult with a professional.
Generally, your routine dusting and periodic waxing should be all that is required to keep brass and bronze mounts in good condition.
Are there special rules for cleaning intricately carved furnishings or pieces with inlay work…specifically ivory or tortoiseshell inlay?
For intricately carved pieces, don’t use a dry cloth as it can snag carved edges and cause damage. Instead, use a good quality feather duster. If really delicate items need a dusting, you can use an air duster (air in a can) or a very soft, fine bristled brush, like an artist’s brush.
Great care needs to be taken with items that have fine inlay work. Over the years small pieces can become loose, especially some types of wood, tortoiseshell and ivory as they tend to move with fluctuations in temperature. If you use a coarse cloth, there is a risk of catching the loose sections and ripping them off, sometimes never to be seen again. A soft bristled brush is very useful here as well.
What is the best way to clean marble found on furniture?
How you clean marble depends on its condition. If it is just a bit dusty and dirty, simply use a small amount of beeswax and give it a light going over with a soft cloth. If the marble is scratched or stained, it will require specialist work. This might involve cutting back the surface with varying grades of abrasives and slowly bringing it back to its original finish. As with wood, you should avoid using any harsh chemicals or abrasives.
Do you have any tips for maintaining furnishings to combat against damage from light exposure, humidity, and temperature?
Wood furniture is very sensitive to all of these factors and maintaining a steady environment can go a long way in preserving the beauty and integrity of your piece of furniture. Large or rapid fluctuations in humidity levels and temperature can cause wood, particularly wood veneers, wood inlay and ivory and tortoiseshell, to expand and contract. Over time, this can lead to damage to your antique furniture. Try to keep your most precious pieces away from heating and air conditioning vents.
Air conditioning tends to dry the air, so you may find that a humidifier can keep the humidity at a more optimum level. Conversely, highly humid and damp conditions may require the use of a dehumidifier. Optimum humidity levels would be between 50% and 60%, and temperature levels should range between 70 and 75 degrees.
Also, it’s best to keep your furnishings out of direct sunlight, which can cause cracks and fade the color. Try to remember that if you are placing the item near a window, at some point during the day it may be in direct sunlight, which can get pretty hot.
Other simple steps such as displaying your piece on a level surface, keeping sharp edges from contacting the wood’s surface and taking care when placing beverages or food on your piece will also go a long way in preserving its beauty.
What are a few rules of thumb when it comes to storing antique furnishings?
You want to make sure that the area where the items are being stored is dry and kept at a steady room temperature. As we pointed out earlier, antique furniture, especially timber, moves (expands and contracts) when exposed to big changes in temperature and humidity, and this can result in cracks appearing.
If you use a covering over your pieces to protect from dust or dirt, be sure that those materials are acid free and breathable. A well-worn bed sheet should work just fine.
Do you have any other advice when it comes to caring for antique furniture?
When caring for your treasured antiques, if you are ever unsure about how to clean them or make a repair, it is always best to consult a professional restorer. These items have incredible history and you’ve made a significant investment in them. It’s always a shame to see pieces that have been ruined by improper cleaning or a poor restoration.