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Illuminating Antique Furniture: Let There Be Light… with Caution

by Fred Taylor (08/15/13).

If left in place long enough, this table runner and centerpiece will protect the center of the table while the exposed sections fade around it. The table should be uniformly covered in the long term.

Have you ever stopped to think how important light is to your antique furniture? A good place to start is the fact that without the right light, the trees that were used to provide the lumber of your furniture would never have grown. That’s easy and obvious enough.

Another less obvious but equally important aspect of light is the effect it has on the color of the wood in your furniture. The general rule of thumb is that wood lightens over time with exposure to light, even without the effects of moisture. A piece of lumber left exposed in the desert eventually bleaches out to almost white.

An exception to that rule is how certain woods change color over time with exposure to light. For example, walnut generally has a brown appearance when properly cured, but after 100 years or more of exposure to light, the walnut begins to take on a slightly reddish hue.

Conversely, the “red king”—mahogany—starts out in a blaze of red glory, but after long-term exposure to light, it begins to “brown out” and look an awful lot like walnut.

That’s why, in addition to similar grain patterns, mahogany and walnut can be hard to differentiate after 200 years.

In some cases, the possibility of light damage is so severe that extreme measures are employed. In one case, a notable museum with a fantastic collection of American 17th- and 18th-century furniture allows no large natural or artificial light source to shine on any of the objects. The rooms are kept in darkness, illuminated only by the flashlights of the docents who lead the guided tours.

A more drastic example of light damage can be seen within a single lifetime. I once had the pleasure of being hired to refinish a Depression-era mahogany extension dining-room table and the matching set of chairs. The good news was that the set was in good condition structurally, needing only finish work. The bad news was that, with the exception of the occasional holiday family meal, the set sat more or less undisturbed in the dining room for many, many years.

The chairs that had their backs to the window had never been moved. The chairs that faced the window suffered a similar fate. The backs of half the set were lightened by exposure to a significant degree, as were the fronts of the other half of the set.

After I removed the doily and the mirror-based epergne from the center of the table, I was rewarded with a matching-size area of wood that had the original finish color. It contrasted greatly with the rest of the table, which had quietly lost its color without notice by the owner.

It happened over the course of less than a single lifetime due to exposure to the light from the large picture window in the dining room. The problems were fixable, but it wasn’t easy without showing a “shadow” on the table top.

Another case where light can influence the color of your furniture, especially when seen in photographs, is the actual light source. When taken under a fluorescent light, a photograph will show your furniture with a more greenish tint than it actually has. Under incandescent light, the tendency is for the furniture and everything else in the photo to have a dark-reddish warm tint.

This can present a problem in a shop when the furniture craftsman must match a color to an existing piece. Of course, filtered northern morning light from the sun is the preferred light source, but that is not always available or has the right intensity, and it varies by time of day.

The solution is the constant-output light source provided by “daylight” fluorescent bulbs. That light is almost neutral—very cool and not harsh.

A raking light source easily picks out the furrows and ridges of the plane that smoothed this 19th-century drawer bottom.

Light can also influence the way furniture is made. Have you ever carefully examined the carving on an elegant 18th-century piece? If so, you no doubt have noticed the crisp detail and the high relief of the carving. It stands proudly above its background. Is that the craftsman’s pride or an exhibition of his art?

Neither. That is so that the carving can be seen in the low-light conditions of most 18th-century residences. If the carvings were rounded with low relief, they would disappear into the background in the low light.

But for all the potential for harm that light provides, it also offers some very beneficial features. Of course, it allows us, with the use of portable light sources like flashlights, to explore the inner regions and the shadowed portions of an antique piece of furniture. One of the greatest benefits of exploratory light is realized when the light source is placed at an extreme angle to provide a “raking” light.

The raking light acts like a sun at sunset, emphasizing elongated shadows and variances in a surface. A raking light can be used to determine how a drawer bottom was made. It can reveal the rough furrows and ridges made by a scrub plane, the parallel-but-uneven kerf marks of a pit saw, the parallel, matched strokes of a gash or mill saw or the curved kerf marks of a 19th-century circular saw.

A raking light can also reveal anomalies in a veneered surface, such as lifts or wrinkles. It can show inconsistencies in a finish, such as crackling, wear patterns or loss of adhesion, and it can even be used to spot sagging springs across a large upholstered surface.

All of this, of course, is in addition to the use of extra light that just lets us see a piece better. Don’t forget to carry one of your basic antique-hunter weapons: the small flashlight.


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

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, 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 availabe directly from their website, www.furnituredetective.com.

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