How to Care for Antique Furniture

Antique furniture restoration

Regardless of whether you’ve fallen for a Queen Anne footstool, a Ming Dynasty Huanghuali couch-bed, or a Directoire desk in prime condition or that presents as a diamond in the rough in need of restoration, antique furniture requires some special care to ensure its longevity. Where, though, should you begin when considering an antique furniture restoration? Learn here some of the basic best practices for restoration, repair, and reupholstery along with insights on how the restoration of your piece could impact its value.

Features of Antique Furniture

The lineage and legacy of antique furniture spans centuries and incorporates an incredible variety of styles, which is part of the reason why collecting and restoring antique furniture can become captivating. While there isn’t space here to highlight all of the major styles, like Queen Anne or Chippendale, there are several key features that can help identify a piece of antique furniture:

  • Material: most antique furniture will feature woods like mahogany, oak, or pine with rich texture and patina.
  • Joinders: rather than glue or screws, antique furniture is most often held together using the time-testing techniques of mortise-and-tenon or dovetail construction.
  • Marks/Stamps/Labels: popular makers of furniture would often mark their works in an inconspicuous place – within a drawer, for example – with their name, monogram, or, in the case of these magnificent chairs designed for a friend of Marie Antoinette, an inventory number.

If such markings are found on your antique furniture, it would be best to first research your piece’s maker and style so that any restoration you perform maintains the integrity of the piece.

Antique Furniture Restoration and Repair

One of the most satisfying experiences is to repair and restore antique furniture to its peak brilliance. Doing so, however, requires specific care and attention. Let’s look at best practices to follow when embarking on antique furniture repair and restoration.

1. Survey Surfaces

Before you start any restoration work on your antique furniture, you should first assess the state of your piece. This step is particularly helpful if you are uncertain as to the type of wood or finish used in your furniture. This also makes for a good opportunity to note any damage, such as scuffs or chips, or loose hinges or antique furniture hardware that will need to be addressed later on.

One of the best ways to begin this review is to start by gently cleaning the surface of your antique furniture. Wipe down each surface to ensure that there is no grime or buildup of material that might mar efforts to refinish the surface. You should also work to remove any hardware and also extricate any upholstered components to not to damage these elements during the cleaning process.

You can try out store-bought cleaners – always making sure to test them in a small area first to ensure they do not damage your furniture – or you can make a homemade mixture of one part boiled linseed oil to one part turpentine and one-third parts white vinegar to wipe away excess grime or wax polishes. This combination is effective because the vinegar helps to dissolve dirt while the oil contributes initial conditioning to the wood.  

2. Buff or Strip

Antique furniture restoration
If cleaning brings your antique furniture back to life, then a finish coat of beeswax and a thorough (but gentle) buff should complete your task at hand. If, though, you determine that your antique piece requires refinishing. When preparing for such a task, keep these helpful tips in mind:

  • Separate your workspace: stripping is both messy and odorous, so you’ll need to cover your work surface and surrounding footprint to avoid unintended damage.
  • Be patient: the timeline to strip, neutralize, clean, sand, and restore can easily take up to two days, and it is best for your antique furniture that you respect that timeline.
  • Look for the lint-free: in addition to preparing your workspace, you should also acquire lint-free cloths and brushes to use during your project. Since your goal is a mirror-like finish following your project’s completion, you don’t want to run the risk of errant fibers being left behind on your wood surfaces.
  • Consider your stripping agent: you should also select a stripping agent with which you are comfortable working. All-natural strippers can take exponentially longer to strip away years of seal or paint but can be gentler on antique surfaces; stronger strippers can work more quickly but are also often noxious to inhale (regardless of which you use, always ventilate your space). 

3. Repair

Reupholstering furniture
With your antique furniture restored to its natural brilliance, now is the time to repair any issues that your piece might have. These types of repairs might include:

  • Filling cracks with sandable wood filler
  • Hammering in any loose nails
  • Replacing any stripped screws
  • Freeing any stuck drawers
  • Reinforcing loose joints, like those in chairs

These types of repairs can be essential to the functionality of your antique furniture and are best completed before the final staining and conditioning of the piece.

Refinishing Antique Furniture

Once your antique furniture has been stripped, sanded, and repaired, you are ready to restore and condition your wooden surfaces. One of the most common issues that plagues antique furniture is wood bleaching, which is caused by prolonged exposure to light over time. As the color leaches from the surface, your antique furniture will assume an uneven tone.

To remedy this issue, you can apply a wood stain to the surface that matches the unbleached portions of your antique furniture. Allow this to saturate the surface fully and evenly before wiping away any unabsorbed liquid.

Following this step, you can seal and amplify the shine of your antique furniture. One route to accomplish this is with a sanding sealer followed by capstone coats lacquer or polyurethane. Another is to rub down your antique furniture with finishing oil, then sand it and buff it with furniture wax until you achieve a perfectly polished surface.

Antique Furniture Hardware

Another hurdle often faced by those undertaking an antique furniture restoration is determining the best hardware for the piece. Sometimes antique hinges are damaged beyond repair or knobs are missing, which can require you to search for (near) exact replicas; in other instances, original hardware may have been removed entirely by a misguided previous owner, meaning you might need to find a completely new set with which to work.

It is fine if you prefer more contemporary hardware on your antique furniture, however, if your goal in undertaking this antique furniture restoration is to restore your piece to its original glory, some research may need to be done. You can seek books and other sources that illustrate pieces from the same period so that you can get a sense of how the hardware should look; you can also reach out to a furniture restoration specialist who might be able to help you acquire an actual set of antique hardware that matches your piece.

How to Reupholster Antique Furniture

If your antique furniture sports any kind of cushion or slipcover, you’ll also need to think about reupholstery. In some cases, like this twentieth-century Greene & Green dining set, original upholstery remains intact. Over time, however, fabrics and cushion materials can more easily break down, so depending on the age and condition of your piece you may need to factor reupholstery into your plan.

Generally speaking, you should consider the following factors when preparing to reupholster your furniture:

Modern versus Classic

One of the biggest trends in interior design these days is to reupholster antique chairs with fabrics featuring mod patterns and vibrant colors. This combination of past and present can transform your antique furniture into a fun conversation piece, but there is also something to be said for pairing original fabric types with each furniture style.

Functional versus Fancy

It can be hard to resist a delicate damask or scintillating silk charmeuse, but you should also think about the function of this antique furniture. If it will be featured primarily as an object of beauty in your parlor, then definitely select a luxurious fabric. If, though, this piece will be used heavily, you will want to stick to a more durable fabric option.

Antique Furniture Values and How to Sell a Piece

While restoring your antique furniture might be purely a labor of love, when done correctly it can also increase the value of your piece, which might be beneficial in the future. Of course, restored antique furniture rarely if ever will surpass the value of original pieces in exceptional condition. When a quality piece of antique furniture is restored well and in keeping with the style and accents of others of its generation, though, its value on the resale and auction market can increase. There is no guarantee you will see such a return, and every antique furniture restoration comes with some risk. That said, pursuing an antique furniture restoration project can prove beneficial for the longevity of your pieces and for the overall value of your collection.

Looking for more? Explore antique furniture available now on Invaluable.