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Creative Solutions to Furniture Problems: Use What’s Available

by Fred Taylor (10/07/13).

This small bottle of cedarwood oil from a health food store restored the original smell to my cedar chest.

In a fit of Spring cleaning, never mind what time of year it was, my wife decided to clean out her old cedar chest. When she got the chest emptied she realized that it didn’t smell like cedar anymore. This was not some cheap import chest with a fake aroma. This was solid cedar chest, circa 1925, that we bought in an antique shop many years ago. Not long after we bought it, I refinished it the proper way, with a sealer coat of three-pound cut shellac before the final lacquer finish layers.

In my many years of restoration work I have often done cedar chests—solid cedar or cedar lined—that needed a refreshment of the cedar smell. I have always used the old water method of wiping out the inside of the chest with a wet rag. As the water evaporates the osmosis action draws cedar oil closer to the surface to renew the pleasant cedar smell. It has worked every time I have tried that trick in the last 30-plus years. This time, on my own chest, it didn’t work. We even did it twice without success.

On to fallback position two. The next traditional method is to sand the inside with medium grit sandpaper to loosen up cedar dust that will release the cedar smell. After sanding the inside with 120-grit sandpaper, we got the same result as with the water treatment—nothing.

Fallback position three—apply cedar oil. Great idea if you can find it. The guy at Home Depot said they don’t carry it. The local craft store didn’t, either, so time for some creative thinking. A little free-association with terms like “smell” and “aroma” finally led me to the concept of aromatherapy, where smells influence your attitude and your health. That, of course, led me to a health food store where we acquired a one fluid once bottle of 100-percent “Pure & Natural Cedarwood Oil” (juniperus virginiana) for about $6.

One ounce didn’t seem like very much to do an entire cedar chest but we decided to start small and work our way up. About three or four drops on a cotton pad, wiped across the inside of the lid, was the first step. Immediately, the entire room smelled like a cedar saw mill so we quickly closed the lid and decided to let it sink in overnight. The next morning the chest had a delightful cedar aroma that, while quite distinctive, was not overwhelming. Turns out we didn’t need to apply cedar oil to the entire inside. Glad we started small. With that stuff it is true that “a little dab’ll do you.”

So, we solved a furniture problem using a non-furniture related approach. Are there other problems or situations with furniture that can be resolved with a non-furniture method or approach? You can bet on it. 

Magic markers and colored wax will go a long way in touching up furniture.

A common household furniture problem is the random nick or scrape on the base or edge of a piece. Regular stain won’t quite solve the problem. The solution? A felt-tip marker. In fact, furniture supply houses sell entire sets of felt-tip markers in clever colors called red mahogany, American walnut, Salem maple and, yes, even cedar. But you can get the same effect by using plain old felt tip markers from the office supply store. Red and green equal brown if you can’t find a brown marker, which covers almost any shade of wood. A little yellow can tone down a wild red while blue and yellow will give the green tone found on many modern pecan pieces.

Another handy touch up tool is a tube of artist’s oil paint, such as that sold by Grumbacher, but the brand names are too expensive. Use a house brand from the local art supply store if there is one. These colors are usually sold by color names, not furniture names, so you need to know a few basics. The color “burnt umber” is medium reddish brown that covers most mahogany. Raw umber is a more basic brown leading to the green side. The two can be mixed for a fairly neutral brown. Just buy or find a basic color wheel to learn what colors make up what other colors like red and green makes brown, yellow and blue makes green, red and yellow make orange. Pretty basic stuff, but it can get to be fun. Anyway, once you have the artist color you need, just use your finger tip to apply a slight amount to a burned edge or a scraped panel. Again, start small. It’s much easier to apply a little more than to remove a little.

While you are at the art supply store, check out the supply of artist wax. This wax comes in small round containers and usually is available in a number of metallic tones like bright gold, copper, aluminum, etc. Use these metallic waxes to provide a quick pick me up for dull brass hardware. It’s a lot quicker than tediously polishing all the brass especially with an impending family event or holiday. Just wipe a light coat of brass or gold wax across a drawer pull and then buff it slightly with a soft cloth. This will highlight the brass and brighten it significantly until you have time to do it right.

What if you have a problem with a painted piece? The odds of finding a marker or an oil color to match are pretty slim, but today’s somewhat off-the-wall fashion colors will work to your advantage in this case. In today’s market, you can find almost any color of fingernail polish you desire and you desire one to match your painted furniture. Just find a fabric swatch or a small drawer that you can use as a sample and go shopping for fingernail polish. A don’t forget about clear polish. The clear version can be used to touch up a nick a clear finish where color is not involved.

There are a great many other household products and methods that apply to furniture care and repair. Just think “outside the box” for a solution.


Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable “Common Sense Antiques” columns in .pdf format. 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, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 shipping and handling) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 shipping and handling) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377 (Monday through Friday only, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time), fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com. All items are also available directly from their website, www.furnituredetective.com.

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