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Stupid Furniture Tricks: How to Avoid Accidental Damage

by Fred Taylor (08/13/12).

A centerpiece or arrangement will cause discoloration if moved infrequently.

You may have seen one of the occasional features on a late night television show called “Stupid Human Tricks.” Parts of it can be funny, but sometimes it looks cruel or hurtful. People can be like that—thoughtless or just unaware of consequences. There are a number of things that people do to furniture that could easily fall into this category, but I would hesitate to call them “stupid tricks.” I prefer to think of them simply as actions of the unthinking or uninformed.

The following are several examples of common activities that can cause long-term harm to your furniture or at least decrease the longevity of family or potential heirlooms:

My all-time favorite uninformed activity is the application of any type of oil to a furniture finish, be it lemon oil, English oil, Danish oil, Scandinavian oil, linseed oil, tung oil, antique oil or motor oil. The results are all the same—no good, and lots of bad effects. There may be room for discussion on the subject when dealing with raw wood, but never when dealing with a finished surface unless the original finish was oil of some sort. Neither the wood nor the finish needs feeding or moisturizing. What the finish needs is a light coat of paste wax and less loving attention.

Custom made, relatively inexpensive table pads will decrease the probability of table top damage, even if you leave them in place for extended periods.

Much abuse is unknowingly heaped on the centerpiece of many homes: the dining room table. Speaking of centerpieces, that can be one of the major mistakes. Too many times I have gone to look at a vintage or antique table for possible restoration or touch up and the first task to get a look at the table was to move the lovely floral or crystal centerpiece in the middle of the table. Sometimes it appears that the centerpiece has not been removed regularly in many years, only for the occasional dinner party or special occasion. Then it goes right back in place. That means that the finish and the wood under the decoration are not exposed to the same amount of light and ambient air as the rest of the table. That usually results in a drastic color difference under the flowers. The protected area does not gradually fade and mellow at the same rate as other exposed parts of the table will. If the resident head of household requires the centerpiece to be in place at all times for appearances, then the table should be constantly covered with a soft table cloth.

And speaking of covering the table, have you ever been tempted to protect the table just a little bit more for an upcoming event like a big family dinner or party? The temptation might be there to place a plastic sheet or liner under the pretty table cloth. . . just in case. That’s probably OK, as long as the plastic is removed promptly at the end of the event, or during the next day for sure. If the plastic remains in contact with the table for a long period, the plastic will have a tendency to “grow” to the table. That’s because some of the solvents used to make the plastic sheet are the same as the solvents used in the finish and over time these solvent remnants like to migrate between surfaces. A prime example of this can be seen in many office situations where a vinyl- or plastic-clad minute book or note book is left on a desk top for a long time. Eventually, it becomes part of the top.

Leaves stored upright against a wall or in a closet will eventually bow in the middle.

The final indignity visited on the dining table is the storage of the extra leaves. The easiest thing to do is to prop them up in a closet along a wall, conveniently out of the way. The problem is that unsupported wood has a tendency to bend and the leaves will develop a gentle curve over time. Leaves are best stored flat wrapped in a cotton blanket under a bed or similar out of way place. If the leaves have skirts don’t store them upright because they will still sag in the middle. Store the carefully wrapped leaves upside down under the bed.

Another type of furniture subject to uninformed activities is the arm chair. How do you move an arm chair? Grab it by the arms and move it, right? Wrong. The arms on chairs are made to resist downward pressure, not the upward pressure generated by using them as handles. Reach a little further and grab the chair around the edges of the seat of under the frame to lift it and move it.

This Depression-era chest of drawers has wheels but that doesn’t mean it can be rolled, especially over deep carpet.

Lots of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century pieces of furniture have wheels on them. Is that so you can roll them out of the way to clean around them? No. The original 18th-century use of the wheel was a protection against wet mops. The wooden legs were capped with wheels made of brass so they didn’t rust after getting mopped by the cleaning crew. The brass was replaced by porcelain on the 19th century and by wooden wheels in the 20th century. By that time, they were strictly ornamental since most case goods sat on carpet that never got mopped. A good way to severely damage a fully loaded case good—like an in-use chest of drawers—is to try to roll it aside to vacuum under it. There is a good chance of breaking a leg (not yours, the chest’s) or even cracking the structural frame. If you must move it remove the drawers first and then get some help to lift and move the chest.

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


Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or

Visit Fred’s website at 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

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One Response to “Stupid Furniture Tricks: How to Avoid Accidental Damage”

  1. Jane Ellen McDow says:

    What a great article! Love reading your stuff.

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