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Regular Maintenance for Antique Furniture – a List of ‘Should Do’s’

by Fred Taylor (09/22/09).

Over the last 30 years of repairing and restoring antique and collectible furniture, many questions have come from my customers about the little things that should or should not be done on a regular basis to care for their prize possessions. Much of this information is just “common sense,” but many of us are so busy in our everyday lives that we don’t have time to worry about the details. Here’s the first installment (of two) of a short guide to remind you of the “little stuff” that may help prevent your having to spend money on the “big stuff.”

Things you SHOULD do:

Custom made table pads have a heat resistant core, a soft “meet the furniture” side and a waterproof upper crust.

Custom made table pads have a heat resistant core, a soft “meet the furniture” side and a waterproof upper crust.

• Wax your furniture. The basic care of furniture in relatively good condition includes cleaning with mineral spirits (paint thinner to remove old dirt, wax and oil—no it won’t hurt the existing finish, different chemistry). After wiping down with spirits allow the piece to dry overnight. Then apply a thin coat of paste wax; BriWax or Howard’s works well. Use tinted wax to enhance the color. After that, dry dust only. Reapply wax once a year. Do not use any other polish and do not use product that contains oil of any sort or silicone—nothing but paste wax. Period. Also remember that the grocery store does not sell any product that has to do with furniture maintenance.

• Rotate your dining room table once a year. Pick a date, like your birthday or a holiday and turn the table around. You can also do this with your breakfast table, kitchen chairs, even the family room coffee table. Remember that furniture exposed to strong light will fade and the finish may even start to disintegrate. Excessive wear from using one spot more than another, on a dining table or coffee table for example, will decrease the life of your furniture and may require you to spend big money to repair the damage. Also consider covering your furniture with sheets or closing curtains or blinds in bright rooms that you are not using, especially when you are going to be away from home for awhile.

• Put felt cloth or discs beneath lamps, vases and other decorative items you set on your furniture. Since the bottoms of brass lamps etc. are rarely silky smooth, the felt may save your furniture from being scratched and the finish damaged. Felt can even be purchased in pre-cut shapes so the whole project may only take a few minutes. This also works to protect hardwood floors from the tips of your furniture.

• Use two people to move the bed. Sometimes beds have to be moved to clean under and around them and at that time they are at risk. Over the years, we have repaired many beds that one person had attempted to move alone. The usual outcome is a broken or severely weakened bed frame. The bedposts usually crack or break where the side rails fit in to the headboard or footboard. Sometimes the rails themselves break or lose the metal fittings embedded in the ends. It is very difficult if not impossible for one person to move a bed without stressing the joints.

A piece of glass almost always has a microscopically thin layer of moisture on the surface. This moisture will “grow” to the finish on furniture sticking the glass to the piece resulting in finish damage when the glass is removed. Allowing air to circulate under the glass using spacers like this clear disc eliminates that problem.

A piece of glass almost always has a microscopically thin layer of moisture on the surface. This moisture will “grow” to the finish on furniture sticking the glass to the piece resulting in finish damage when the glass is removed. Allowing air to circulate under the glass using spacers like this clear disc eliminates that problem.

• Purchase glass cut to size for the tops of your night stands, end tables or coffee tables. This is especially important if you tend to set glasses on your furniture or entertain frequently. You can make a pattern or have a glass company come out and make a pattern. This will add years to the life of the furniture. Also, don’t forget to use clear plastic discs (about the size of a nickel and available from the glass company) between the furniture and the glass so that the finish can breathe.

• Invest in proper table pads to cover your dining room table. Put a tablecloth over the pads and THEN you can use placemats or other coverings if you choose. Lots of folks think that putting a table cloth directly on the table is enough protection. Unfortunately the moisture from a glass or the heat from a casserole dish will go right through the tablecloth (or a placemat) and into the finish on the table. Remember that your guests are there to enjoy your company and not to look at the dining table so cover it and protect your investment.

• Purchase a can of silicone lubricant. If possible try to find “food grade” silicone from a fabric or hardware store. (You can find it here.) Use this spray when you have a dresser drawer that is giving you problems each time you open and close it. Pull out the problem drawer and make sure that the wooden runner is not completely worn down or that a part isn’t missing. Then by simply spraying the bottoms of your drawers on the runner and the corresponding case runner(s), you will find the drawer will open and close more easily. Beeswax works as well for this application but once you buy a can of silicone you will find 1,000 other uses for it.

• Take a video or photographic inventory of your household goods. Hire someone to do this for you if you have to. This way you will have a record of your belongings should you have a personal emergency. Keep a copy of the video or photos on a disk in a safe deposit box or family safe. Also consider having any valuable furniture appraised by a certified appraiser. Keep a copy of the appraisal and pictures in a safe place. You may need to consider purchasing additional contents coverage on your homeowner’s policy based on the appraisal results.

• Visit the craftsman. If you are considering having a piece of furniture repaired or restored, go visit the location of the business you are planning to use. Ask to see some of the work in progress and ask for and follow up on references. Always give the shop a match drawer, door or whatever you want your piece to resemble when it is finished. This will help the shop determine the color and sheen for the restored piece.

• Number all the drawers in a chest of drawers, dresser or buffet. That way the next time you move, you won’t have to worry about where each drawer fits. Also remove keys and pack in a safe place.

Most good libraries have an abundance of furniture reference books. Take advantage of them but don’t believe everything you read. Be selective.

Most good libraries have an abundance of furniture reference books. Take advantage of them but don’t believe everything you read. Be selective.

• Read all you can to learn more about your furniture. The library is full of books covering periods, styles and ages and learning the history of how, when, where and what materials were used to make a piece of furniture can add to your enjoyment of the piece. A suggested antique furniture reading list is posted on my Web site: How To Be A Furniture Detective. Just scroll down half way.

• Find someone knowledgeable about furniture and let that person be your guide. That person may be a dealer you trust, a craftsman who has done good work for you or just a friend but whoever it is make sure they know more than you do about furniture. That way when you have an important decision to make, you already have a place to seek guidance.

Next time a list of DON’TS.

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Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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5 Responses to “Regular Maintenance for Antique Furniture – a List of ‘Should Do’s’”

  1. Dora says:

    Wow, Fred, wonderful and very helpful site! A friend recommended your site to me and others. I recently purchased a vintage/antique bedroom set which includes dresser with beautiful mirror, armoire, vanity with tripoid mirror and its stool. When I purchased it it was missing a drawer pull. The backplate of the drawer pull has “KB CO F946″ imprinted on it, and the pull/drop has
    “KB CO F344″ imprinted on it. I have not been able to find any information on “KB CO”. Any idea where I can obtain information on this hardware or the history of this company? Thanks! Dora

  2. Fred Taylor says:

    Dora – Since the set is “vintage/antique” you probably will never find the company and even if you do they won’t have the hardware.

    YOur best bet is to find a new reproduciotn reasonably close at a place like Van Dye’s Restorers, http://www.vandykes.com. You can also ask local restorers and local dealers if they have any pieces in storage or a junk pile. You never know.

    Good luck.

    Fred Taylor
    http://www.furnituredetective.com

  3. Millie O'Reilly says:

    Love all of your helpful hints! I am just learning so I treasure what you have to say

  4. Sandi says:

    Love your site Fred and all of your advice. However,as furniture restorers, we never advise our customers to wax their furniture, because they will often do more harm than good if they are untrained. We have many people bring tables to us that have wax build ups that we have to remove. We advise our customers to use orange oil, preferably Howards to polish their furniture. Just wondering what your thoughts are.

    • Fred Taylor Fred Taylor says:

      Sandi – There are no magical properties in orange oil that will help maintain a finish or restore a worn scratched finish. The only major asset with regards to furniture is that it smells better than most things in current use and will help dissolve old grime and dirt but it will not remove scratches or improve the finish nor protect the finish as a result of the oil.
      Orange oil is derived by squeezing the skin of citrus products. The resulting concentrate is fairly acidic and has great value as a degreaser. It is frequently used with good results in such cleaning preparations as hand cleaner and general household cleaners. It is a good substitute for other degreasers such as mineral spirits and naphtha when there are sensitivity questions or allergic reactions. It does have a place in some furniture polishing applications as a substitute for other solvents but that is as far as it goes.

      Some of the claims for some of the products that contain orange oil are simply absurd and defy common sense. One such product, which extols itself as 100% orange oil, claims to “replace natural oil” in the wood. It claims to be especially formulated for antiques. If it is 100% orange oil what’s to formulate? It doesn’t say how the orange oil penetrates through the existing finish to replace the lost natural oil. But then most wood isn’t naturally oily to start with. It also claims to be preferred by antique dealers because it contains no harmful wax!! Another product, an orange scented furniture polish, claims that “natural orange oil penetrates wood and protects against deep staining.” The same product also claims to be “Excellent for formica, appliances, vinyl, ceramics, leather, plastics and metal finishes.” That’s the one I want to use on my antiques. I wonder if it does the dishes too.

      In short orange oil, nor any other kind of oil for that matter, has nothing to do with furniture maintenance.

      The problem of the over use of wax is an educational problem and I used to spend a great deal of time with my customers discussing the proper steps for the maintenance of a piece I had just restored.

      The basic care of furniture in relatively good condition includes cleaning with mineral spirits (paint thinner to remove old dirt, wax and oil – no it won’t hurt the existing finish, different chemistry). After wiping down with spirits allow the piece to dry overnight. Then apply a thin coat of paste wax, BriWax or Howard’s works well. Use tinted wax to enhance the color. After that dry dust only or use Swiffer dusters. Reapply wax once a year. Do not use any other polish and do not use products that contain oil. Also remember that the grocery store does not sell any product that has to do with furniture maintenance and that includes Pledge and any other product that contains silicone. Use no oil or polish other than paste wax – no lemon oil, no Pledge, no Old English – nothing but paste wax. Period.

      Thanks for writing.

      Fred Taylor

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