A Beginner's Guide to Restoring Antiques
The charm and character of antique furniture develops over time, and can never be emulated by modern replicas. However, antiques that become dull, chipped or damaged quickly lose their aesthetic, functional and market value. Sympathetic restoration can undo this damage but needs a degree of care and knowledge, which is why many owners leave it to the professionals.
Antique restoration is the process of returning a piece of furniture to its functional condition, while conserving its antique character and beauty. This does not mean ‘good as new’ condition; no true antique will ever look the way it did when it first came out of the workshop, because it takes decades, if not centuries, to achieve that warm, burnished glow so prized by collectors.
The importance of patina
All wooden antiques have a natural patina, a mellow darkening of the wood that develops through years of polishing, dusting and exposure to the elements. Removing this can drastically reduce the value of antique furniture, but is easily done if a piece is stripped and repolished, for example, to repair scratches, scuff marks and other blemishes. Remember, it is natural for antique furniture to show signs of wear and tear, so think carefully before reaching for the stripper and sand-paper. Often, a good clean and polish is all that is needed to restore its natural lustre and beauty.
Cleaning and polishing can reverse the dulling effects of sunlight and artificial lighting, remove stains and burn marks, and remove years of grime and product build-up, restoring beauty and life to fine furniture. If the finish is very worn or has developed a ‘crocodile skin’ or bubbled texture it will need to be refinished, which means removing the old finish, sanding down the surface and then restoring it as it was originally, using methods and materials in keeping with the period.
First stages in restoration
Before starting a restoration project, research the piece thoroughly, taking photographs and notes for reference. Determine the era it was made and the finishes and materials used in its construction. This is important, as it will affect the restoration methods used later on. If the piece is to be stripped, identify the finish and research the various paint or varnish removers to find one that is compatible.
Next, give the item a thorough clean inside and out to remove all loose dust and cobwebs, removing any drawers (if fitted). As you go, check which parts are broken or missing, and note what tools and materials are needed to carry out repairs.
Next, remove all the hardware, being careful not to accidentally scratch the wood or damage the fixings. Use wood glue or similar reversible adhesive (in case of mistakes) to carry out any simple repairs such as refixing veneers or replacing mouldings. Some restorers prefer to do this prior to cleaning, as the repairs stand out less afterwards and it avoids water and other fluids getting under the veneers. With mouldings however, it is easier to polish the furniture first.
Use a wax or shellac stick to fill in any chips, holes or deep scratches. For larger repairs such as cracks, old broken furniture can be ‘cannibalised’ to provide wood to effect repairs. Once the glue is dry (some repairs may need to be clamped) the furniture can be cleaned and polished.
Tips on cleaning antique furniture
Over the years, even the best antiques can build up a thick layer of grime, dirt and old polish. This can be removed quite simply using a proprietary wood cleaner or soap, after which the furniture can be waxed, polished or re-finished as needed. Be careful, however, of using oil or oil-based products on furniture that has been stained, as it can turn the wood black if it seeps into the grain. Furniture made from home-grown timbers such as oak or cherry was often stained to look like the more exotic imported mahogany during the 18th and 19th centuries, and it isn’t always easy to tell the difference. On no account should off-the-shelf household cleaners and polishes ever be used, as they encourage a build-up of synthetic waxes and other harmful products.
Start with a small area that isn’t on show and apply the soap solution using a damp, lint-free cloth. Leave for a couple of minutes and then wipe off using a clean cloth and water. Repeat, remembering not to use too much water or rub too hard, especially in veneered areas. Check the finish has not lifted, and if all is well proceed with the rest of the piece, working on one small area at a time. Turpentine or vinegar will help lift deeply ingrained dirt, but test a small area first.
After cleaning, the finish will probably look quite dull and uneven, but once dry it can be polished to bring back the lustre. How this is done will depend on the original finish. A waxed oak cabinet would respond well to a product like Minwax, applied thinly then buffed with a soft cloth. An antique chest coated in shellac (in other words, French polished) would generally need refinishing, especially if it was kept in a sunny spot, as sunlight causes shellac to become brittle and flake away. Many people believe the golden rule for shellac is to ‘leave well alone’, but if the surface is badly worn or damaged it will need to be sanded and renovated with fresh polish, which these days isn’t that difficult to do.
The secrets of French polishing
French polish was in common use from the 1820s until well into the 20th Century. Originally it was a very labour-intensive process but today, ready-made French polishing kits are available, making things much easier for the beginner.
Briefly, the original shellac surface is sanded down, with care taken not to go into the wood itself, and then a thin layer of polish applied using a polishing rubber. After this is dry, further polish is applied using a little oil on the cloth to aid the movement.
The aim is to refresh the piece, returning it to its former lustre without creating a ‘freshly polished’ look, and is a short-cut to the French polishing techniques that an antiques restorer would use.