Care of your antique furniture

Gallery Manager Alice Freyman asks Mark Fitzgerald, who specialises in the conservation and restoration of patinated surfaces, some basic questions about how to care for your antique furniture.

Imagine the scene. Your Apter Fredericks dining table is laid immaculately, and the candlelight from your recently acquired candelabra is glowing magnificently on the warm mahogany table top. The flowers are fresh, the ambience is perfect. You are filling your water glasses as a finishing touch for your dinner party when suddenly, you lose your grip.  Help! Disaster!  You accidentally spill the whole jug of water all over your beautiful antique table. What do you do?

markThe trick with any kind of spillage is to dry it up straight away, preferably with something like a clean dishcloth. When cleared up immediately, water is not usually a problem.

If the water is left on the surface for only a short length of time, it may be possible to fix this yourself with the addition of new wax. Use any commercial wax, such as Town Talk Polish Luxury Furniture Wax, and apply with a lint free cloth such as a duster.

However if water has been sitting on a surface for some time – for example a friend putting a glass with a wet bottom down and leaving it on the table overnight, then it would need professional attention. Be aware that drinks with ice can sometimes cause condensation on the outside of the glass.

A worse problem altogether would be if you spilt alcohol or a hot drink, because these liquids could perish the wax and damage the patinated surface or dissolve the shellac varnish.  This would be a problem that you couldn’t deal with yourself, and you would need to seek professional restoration. 

In order to retain the colour and to protect a piece for the future, what technique should the housekeeper / mother-in-law / small-child-after-some-pocket-money adopt when cleaning the furniture and how often should it be done?

Apart from dusting with a soft cloth, how often you wax a piece would depend on how often you use it.  A dining table which is used regularly could be waxed once a month. Just use a commercial wax as described above.  You should never use a spray cleaner as they contain a silicon ingredient which takes the surface off.  For furniture which isn’t used regularly just use a plain duster. Don’t over think it.

My grandmother said you should always keep a bowl of water near or inside furniture. What’s that all about?

This has to do with the moisture content in the air and is to do with the timber splitting or warping.  The problem is caused by modern-day heating systems which dry the air. The bowl of water is just a rudimentary form of humidification. It won’t do any harm so by all means if you’d like to keep one in your furniture then do – just make sure it doesn’t spill!

If you notice signs of the furniture drying out – for example lifting veneers or cross-banding, the doors not closing properly, or the locks not throwing the bolt so smoothly, then the best option is to buy a proper humidifier. You should aim for about 50% humidification.

Mahogany Chest with Swags

Mahogany Chest with Swags

 Is there anything else we should be aware of with regards to the care of antique furniture?

UV light and sunlight can be a problem. Whilst a bit of light can really give a wonderful colour to furniture, direct sunlight can over-fade the furniture and more importantly it can heat the wood which can then be in danger of splitting or warping when one would need professional help to restore them. I believe you can buy a clear plastic film to go on windows which can stop UV light if you are really worried.

As a final, very important point, antique furniture is valued for the surface that has developed over 200 years of history and usage.  The marks on the surface can be those very spillages that we have been discussing and an assessment must be made as to the whether more damage would be done in removing those marks than by leaving them to become a further part of the story of the antique.  Sometimes it is better to merely improve the mark than to remove it and the entire old surface along with it.  Be wary of a restorer who does not at least entertain the possibility of improving the mark before suggesting refinishing the whole piece.