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Organic Threats Present Dangers to Your Furniture

by Fred Taylor (09/06/11).

The most commonly known beetles are the so-called “powder post” beetles. Their ability to render the insides of a nice piece of wood furniture into a substance the consistency of baby powder is the reason for their name.

There are lots of things in the world that are good for your older and antique furniture—controlled temperature and humidity, regular cleaning, careful use and loving attention. But there are also lots of things out there that are bad for your furniture—flood water, excess light, inappropriate polishes and fire are the most common—but there is another classification of harmful elements that you must be aware of; the organic kind. Other than you, there are no organic creatures that are beneficial to antique furniture and some are downright destructive. Now that you know this little fact, you may need to adjust your defenses.

One form of destructive organism is insects. They are not all harmful, of course, but there are some that are deadly to your antiques. They are particularly dangerous because they are small and mostly work quietly out of sight, living in your furniture and usually digesting part of it along the way.

Harmful insects fall into two broad categories, beetles and termites. The most commonly known beetles are the so-called “powder post” beetles. Their ability to render the insides of a nice piece of wood furniture into a substance the consistency of baby powder is the reason for their name. These little beasties are small, brownish, dry wood-eating insects ranging in size from one-twelfth to one-fifth inch long. You won’t know you have them until they are gone because the main evidence is the exit hole as they leave the furniture. The adults mate and the female lays her eggs in cracks, crevices or old exit holes where they hatch into larvae and eat their way through the yummy cellulose before they pupate and emerge as beetles to start over again. You can treat the area with insecticide but you are better off asking a professional exterminator for help.

Another pesky beetle is the carpet beetle, small, oval-shaped beetles about 1/8 inch long, usually shiny black in the most common form. Here too the destructive phase is in the larvae, which may grow to a half inch long. They have a voracious appetite for any substance that contains keratin, a principal protein found in animal hair and feathers. Upholstery and carpet are the main targets, especially those that contain wool and horse hair. Vigilance and cleanliness are the best routes for detection and disposal.

The damage to this 18th-century table pedestal was done by drywood termites.

In southern regions of the country dry wood termites, known in the 19th century as “furniture termites” because of their propensity to eat furniture regularly, can be a constant problem. The only solution is fumigation by an exterminator.

So much for the wild critters. So much for intruders. Now let’s look at some of the invited domestic pests.

In the invited category of furniture pests are our loving and loveable pets. They don’t do it intentionally but they can be quite destructive. Dogs come immediately to mind because in their early stages they have needle sharp teeth and they like to gnaw—on anything, constantly—and that can include furniture, especially while you are not in the room. As the mature they generally are better behaved, but most dogs never outgrow their penchant for gnawing on something, perhaps just out of boredom, and that has spawned an entirely new industry, rawhide bones. But if a chewable toy is not available, place a sharp look out on chair stretchers and bed posts. Other domestics can do the same. I once had to repair a wooden picture frame shredded by an ill tempered parrot.

Upholstery can also take a beating from pets. There are the rare “outside” accidents that occur inside for both dogs and cats and the undiscovered incident can result in an unpleasant odor in a day or so. Not to mention the staining involved. And of course some pets will try to nap on a couch whether you are there or not. Finally, cats do love to stretch their claws hooked into a textured fabric. It’s good exercise for the cat but not so good for the fabric.

The final and ultimately most destructive threat to your furniture is people. That primarily involves kids, maids and jerks. Kids, of all ages, don’t always relate the things they play with to their environment. To a 4-year-old, a crayon, a hammer and a toy truck are not destructive, they are fun. But the unsupervised application of any of these to your antiques can have dire consequences both for the furniture and for the 4-year-old.

While they may be considered pets, dogs like to gnaw—on anything, including this table—especially while you are not in the room.

Maids can be a threat despite their best intentions. The main danger is the application of some greasy kid stuff to the furniture because it makes it look nice and shiny for the time being with little effort. If they do this on their own, providing their own polish, you need to get involved. If you are providing the greasy kid stuff for their use, you need to do some research on furniture care. Most furniture has some heft to it and the quick way to vacuum is to run the vacuum around and between the legs of chairs and tables. It takes too long to move everything, vacuum the space and replace the furniture. This leads to nicks and dings on legs and bases.

The final human threat is the jerk. These are the ones who don’t know or don’t care about what damage their actions, like leaning a chair back on two legs, may cause. Then there is the house ape. You have seen him many times. He is the very large person who inevitably gravitates to the most fragile, delicate chair in the room and makes himself very comfortable. Don’t be shy about posting your “NO Furniture Jerks Allowed” signs.

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

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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, 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 “Organic Threats Present Dangers to Your Furniture”

  1. Mrs. Jane Corson says:

    Thank you Mr. Taylor. Your article is fabulous as usual. I especially appreciate your mention of the “human pests” since they are the greatest problem in my household.

    I look forward to reading your articles each time they appear.

  2. Barbara says:

    What is considered “greasy kid stuff” and what is best to treat wood with?

  3. Fred Taylor says:

    Barbara – “Greasy kid stuff” is a refernec to the plethora of so called furniture polishes and creams that contain mineral oil and lemon oil. Think about putting that stuff on your car. It would be covered in alayer o grime in a day or two. Same with your furniture. You are trying to take care of a synthetic finish, just like on the surface of your car, not the wood itself. When you touch a piece of furniture you touch the finish, not wood.

    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 products that contains 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.

    Fred Taylor
    http://www.furnituredetective.com
    info@furnituredetective.com

    • Michelle Reichmann says:

      Hello Mr. Taylor,

      I found your article interesting but wonder if you have ever tried to apply paste wax to a highly carved piece of Victorian furniture? It would be difficult to get the paste wax into the 10,000 crevices on my bookcase, but I would find it impossible to get the paste wax back off. Do you have any recommendations for very ornate wood furniture?

      Thank you for your time.

  4. Fred Taylor says:

    Michelle – You have a good point and as matter of act I have applied wax to highly carved Chippendale, Rococo Revival and later Victorian pieces. I own several.

    The key to applying wax to any object is to use very thin coats. To apply to ornately carved pieces use a small cheap natural bristle paint brush to “paint” the wax thinly onto and into the carvings. Sometimes pipe cleaner works well here. Use a clean rag, another pipe cleaner or a similar clean brush to buff it back out. The stiffness of the bristles is a “trial and error” process and it is not quick and easy but it is better than doing nothing and way better than loading up a carved piece with a layer of oil or silicone.

    Thanks for a good question.

    Fred Taylor
    Worthologist
    http://www.furnituredetective.com
    info@furnituredetective.com

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