What make a person a true antique lover? If you feel like the antiques in your home are more like good old friends instead of just things that’s a pretty good sign that it’s official… yes, you’re an antique lover. Unique older pieces, just like old friends, are so nice to have around the house. They keep things interesting in your home. How dull would things look with just generic mass produced furniture everywhere?
Each and every one of the antiques you have welcomed into your home has characteristics that appealed to your sensibilities in some way. Some antiques appeal more to your sense of style and become eye-catching interior accents in your home. Other more functional pieces appeal to your practical side… pieces that are capable of doing more than their fair share of the work in your home by providing comfortable seating, sturdy work surfaces, ample storage, etc. Sometimes it’s the value of a rare, high quality antique that makes it desirable. When you find an antique that combines all three… the decorative, functional, and rarity… that’s a special piece indeed. Along with an antique’s good qualities there are usually some age-related quirks as well. A true antique lover usually just considers less-than-perfect traits to be part of an antique’s unique personality.
The antiques that live in your home have survived to the age of one-hundred plus years. They’re probably still in pretty good shape and showing every bit of the classic charm they’ve had from the start. How did they do it? Part of the reason is that of they were made with good quality materials by craftsmen using time-tested expert construction methods. But, a major boost to longevity has been the continual TLC… the tender loving care… received through the years from previous generations of antique lovers… homeowners and museum specialists alike… who made the effort to maintain the well-being of the fine old pieces in their care. That’s what friends are for, right?
So, now it’s your turn to take care of the antique pieces that live in your home. How do you insure that your “good wood” furnishings will survive to be enjoyed by future generations of antique lovers? It is mostly a matter of making the effort to care for your antiques on a routine basis to prevent damage. Natural aging will continue of course, but most major problems can be avoided by using the successful, time-tested methods of leading restorers, antique experts, and interior specialists. Preventative TLC…. that is the key. So let’s focus on how to keep your furniture in good condition rather than on the fixes and repairs that would be needed once the damage is done.
Understanding and dealing with the preventable causes of damage are well within the abilities of nearly all caretakers of valued antique furnishings, whether that person is a collections manager at a major museum or an individual safeguarding family heirlooms. So here are some TLC tips to use that will stop problems and prolong the life and beauty of your favorites at home.
By far the most predominant damage to furniture is caused by a poorly controlled ambient environment… light, humidity, and temperature. Let’s talk a little about each of these Bad Guys.
IT’S TOO BRIGHT IN HERE
Think of all those beautifully sunlit interior shots you see on Pinterest or Instagram. That dramatic look is fine for a photo shoot… but it’s all for show. The reality is that professional interior designers are very aware that bright light is the enemy of so many of the fabulous things in the rooms they design. So, remember that most of your furnishings, not just “good wood” pieces but also upholstered seating, rugs, art, etc. should be kept away from bright sunlight.
The ultraviolet rays and heat will accelerate the aging process causing all sorts of deterioration. Furniture finishes will fade or become cracked or brittle and aged solid wood can warp and crack. So, select a sensible “shady” spot for a fine piece of furniture to live. Of course, it’s impossible to place every piece of your furniture away from windows. Blocking the light that streams in at certain times of the day is the best plan. To control the sun’s harmful rays choose one of the many trending minimal window covering options available today… like sleek sun-filtering shades that look good up or down.
Or, for that timeless classic look use simple, straight, lined drapery panels to draw across windows when the sun is shining through.
If you really want your windows to stay bare, have the glass professionally tinted to block those harmful rays. In most cases light damage is cumulative and permanent, so it pays to take the time and make the extra effort to prevent it.
THE GOLDILOCKS RULE: JUST RIGHT
Just like people, antiques don’t like to be too hot or too cold. Air that’s too dry or too damp isn’t comfortable for humans or for furniture either. Fluctuations in temperature and humidity as well a pollutants (smoke, fumes, and just plain old dirt in the air) can damage furniture as well. Inlaid or veneered pieces are especially vulnerable to changes. So, think like Goldilocks… try to create a cozy indoor setting for your antiques that is “just right.” Your antique furniture will appreciate your efforts to manage the air quality in your home. Keep it fresh, comfortable, and consistent.
An efficient well-maintained HVAC system, working to circulate and filter the air, is your best friend when it comes to keeping your home’s air quality at a happy medium. Change the filter as needed to keep the air in your home fresh and clean. Never place furniture over, under, or in the direct flow of air from HVAC vents or returns. Heated air in the winter can cause wood to dry out and crack, and a blast of cool air in the summer can dampen wood resulting in possible water damage or mold. If furniture must be place close to a heating and AC source don’t block the air flow. Try using a deflector to channel the air flow in a different direction.
Your antiques shouldn’t sit too near the fireplace either. The same goes for radiators if you live in an older home or wood heaters in your cozy mountain vacation cottage. Old aged wood is like dry kindling… very flamable.
Healthy potted plants in your home can make a measurable difference in air quality by naturally cleaning the air and modulating the humidity. Not only is that good for human health it’s good for our furniture’s well-being, too. So consider developing your indoor greenthumb.
KEEP IT CLEAN
Wooden furniture needs special care to remain in good condition, but “less is more” when it comes to surface cleaning. Don’t be one of those people who goes overboard with polishes and special treatments. There are so many different products available that it’s hard to know what is best for your antiques. That’s especially true when you are not sure if the original finish is oil, wax, lacquer, varnish, shellac, paint, etc. The wrong choice could actually do more harm than good… messy build-up, discoloration, and worse. There are sad stories of well meaning antique owners who have accidentally removed painted or stained decorative details by using the wrong restorative “beauty treatment.”
Antique wooden furniture really just requires a light regular dry dusting (no spray “wax” or “polish”) with a clean, soft synthetic microfiber or cotton cloth, or microfiber duster. That’s right… do not use products like Pledge on antique wood. It contains harmful chemicals that antique finishes do not like at all.
For dusting intricate details, a soft bristled artist brush can be used to reach inside joint corners and in the crevices of carved features. Museums sometimes use a soft brush attachment on a vaccum cleaner to remove dust instead of just moving it around. To clean fragile areas of fretwork and other delicate areas museums vacuum more carefully using the soft artist brush method with a vacuum held close enough to take in the dust once it’s brushed away from fragile spots. Do not use feather dusters, as they can scratch and pull off loose fragments of veneer, paint, or gilding.
Try to avoid wet cleaning your antique, especially if the wood is unfinished. Water soaks into wood finishes causing water marks. Damp bare wood is an ideal place for bacteria to breed. If you must use a damp cloth to remove spills or dirt make sure to use a very mild soap and water mix, rinse with clean water, and wipe off all moisture immediately. When cleaning glassed doors on cabinets or framed mirrors and prints never spray cleaner directly onto the glass. To prevent moisture from getting onto the wood itself it is best to dampen a clean lint free cloth or soft paper towel rather than spray onto the glass. Quickly wIpe away any drips before they can escape onto the wood.
During your cleaning routine is a good time to check for any problems, and make a note to call a professional restorer or exterminator if you notice any signs of serious deterioration or damage. It may be tempting to try quick DIY fixes if you find problems, but if you really love your antiques you’ll call in the pros. They know what they’re doing and have the right tools for the job.
ALL THAT GLITTERS
Brass mounts and handles should not be polished with metal cleaners which can harm the wood around them and remove any gilding on the metal. A light buffing while dusting should be enough to keep them bright. The gold finish on ormolu (gilded bronze) is very delicate and should not be polished. It should be handled as little as possible, as the acid in fingerprints can damage gilding, but it can be dusted gently with a soft brush.
Uneven floors are more often the norm than the exception to the rule in all homes regardless of their age. Make sure your antiques sit squarely on the floor to prevent stress to the joints and and allow doors and drawers to fit properly. This is especially important for tall clock cases, so your “grandfather” can keep on ticking. Keep a small bubble level handy to check to see if your furniture is in alignment. Make needed adjustments with felt furniture pads under the feet and legs. Wedge shaped shims can be nudged underneath as well.
RESPECTING THE ELDERLY
The elderly should be treated with care and respect, right? That’s just what your antiques are… elderly. If you think about them that way it’s much easier to remember the Dos & Don’ts of using, moving, and storing your fine old “friends.” All antiques, from the most delicate pieces to the big sturdy ones, require extra special care to prevent surface blemishes and serious damage to their joints. Make sure that every member of your household (spouses, kids, cleaning service crew… everyone!) understands and uses The Rules of how to deal with your furniture. Let’s start with the To Do List:
TO DO LIST
Always add protective felt pads to the bottom side of items that can scratch or gouge wood surfaces. That means pretty much everything except books. All amps, dishes, bowls, vases, bookends, statuary, trays, and baskets need the sticky pad treatment… the addition of stick-on felt to the bottom surface. Keep a pack or two of dots, squares, and strips in various sizes at home to pad the bottom of any new accent pieces you bring home.
Here’s an idea! Let the next generation of antique lovers at your house help out with this… kids love stickers! And, you’ll be teaching them about ways to “take care of our nice things.”
Always set the table with attractive tablecloths and pads, placemats, and runners at mealtime to protect your tabletop. Good looking trays and trivets (with sticky felt added, of course) are useful as well. There’s no need to settle for tacky hot pads from the kitchen drawer when there are so many gorgeous table-protecting options available in the shops. Make it a habit to clear the table ASAP afterwards to check for water rings and such.
Always include attractive, useful accessories like coasters, trivets, or trays liberally in your decorating scheme. They should be carefully selected accents that are features, not afterthoughts, for each furnture surface in your home. Make sure there’s a safe place to put down a drink glass or coffee cup within easy reach of every seat in a living space and at every bedside. Trays under pitchers, decanters, vases, and floral arrangements, as well as beneath warm dishes of food and candles helps keep moisture, wax, and excessive heat from your ruining beautiful wooden finishes. And, once again, sticky pads on everything is a must.
If you opt for actual coasters, go for something that looks nice with your decor. They should be large enough to support the base of your largest glassware, mugs, drink bottles, etc. Look for stylish vintage sets in the shops and online. New coasters with corked bottoms are good, too. And, by now you know what to do if padding is needed on the bottom… stick on those dots.
The nicest coasters are classic vintage and antique ones in various sizes. Brass, porcelain, and silver, never go out of style.
There are other unique alternatives to real coasters. A small china plate or dish on a tabletop will provide a place to put a drink and add more of your design personality in the room as well. Start a collection of mismatched vintage patterns that feature the colors of your home’s decor. Keep an eye out for these when you’re antiquing. It never hurts to pick up a few extras for your stash so you can mix, match, and rotate your accessories.
So, what is not a coaster? A book… a book is never ever a coaster. Let’s be kind to our books and our favorite gorgeous design magazines on the coffee table, too.
Well, that’s it for the To Do List. Now let’s go to…
THE LIST OF DON’TS
Never tilt back on a chair. Someone’s going to get hurt and it isn’t just the chair.
Never stand in the seat of a chair, sofa, or other seating. They’re not meant to be step stools and ladders. You can prevent folks from standing on your antique pieces or from roughly plopping down on them with a decorative stack of books on the seat. Most people won’t mess up “the look” you’ve put in place. Top it off with a small decorative accessory such as a dish or other unusual trinket for extra emphasis… it says that you mean for your artistic stack to stay put.
Never open a drawer using only one of two handles. And don’t yank if it gets stuck. If a drawer gets out of alignment while opening it, gently work it back “into square” until it moves smoothly. Avoid stuffing the drawers to the point that they are overflowing or too heavy to open and close with ease.
Never tug at “stuck” cabinet doors. More often than not doors are actually securely fastened, not stuck at all. If a door refuses to cooperate make sure it is unlocked and any hidden safety latches have been unfastened. You can damage the piece and even hurt yourself if you pull hard enough to topple a tall secretary, bookcase, or armoire. Be firm but gentle. Brace against the body of the piece with one hand while pulling steadily and evenly on the door with the other. Remember that your antique is not trying to be ornery… it’s doors can often swell due to high humidity and unlevel floors bother their joints causing all the working parts to be out of alignment. If a cabinet door absolutely refuses to cooperate you might want to call an antique doctor to give it a check-up.
And, while we’re on the subject of doors and drawers, let’s talk about the trend to use them as display areas… just don’t. To keep your furniture strong and in good alignment doors and drawers should stay shut most of the time. If you like to show off the inside of your gorgeous chinoiserie secretary that’s fine, but give those old hinges a rest now and then… like maybe a two week vacation in the closed position? And, don’t be surprised if you actually can’t close a cabinet door after using it to show off your vintage quilts and linens. You’ve pulled things out of joint.
Never drag furniture… lift instead. Dragging is bad for the furniture, the floor, AND your back.
Never lift a table or chest from the top surface. Lift from underneath on the lowest part of the main frame. Pulling up on the top can pop it completely off… oops! Moving most large, heavy pieces requires at least two strong people with excellent teamwork skills. Don’t overlook the teamwork part… working together is what works. If you’re in doubt about being able to manage the maneuvering of a piece of heavy furniture through the house safely then call an insured professional moving firm that specializes in handling antiques.
Never lift a chair or any seating by the arms or the back but from under the seat. An easy way to remember is to ask yourself “would I want someone to lift me up by the arms?” Probably not.
Never put stress on antique bedposts or rails. Remind your children not to swing around the bedpost or crawl over the foorboard. Sure, playing on the bed is fun for the kids, but it’s usually not for the bed. Those narrow wood turnings are sure to crack if abused.
Never store antique wood furniture in attics or basements, or in outdoor storage buildings, sheds, barns, etc. Any place that is not protected well from outdoor temperature and humidity extremes is a torture chamber as far as antiques are concerned. Fine old things just can’t tolerate staying in places where heat, cold, dampness, dust, and mustiness are out of control.
Now you know lots of good preventative measures that will help you maintain the beauty and structure of your antique wood furniture. To see how much you’ve learned take another look at all the photos in this post to see if you can spot where good TLC is going on as well as where there’s room for improvement.
Let’s end on a positive note… all these guidelines are based on the simple concept of being kind to our antique furniture. Yes, it’s a bit extreme to think of chests, sideboards, and tables as if they were people. But it’s a valuable and fun mental tool that can help you make well thought out, considerate choices when it comes to using and caring for your antiques. So, antique lovers, be kind to your “old friends.” Provide a safe comfortable home for them. Use your antiques and enjoy them. But, consider that their age affects how much they can really tolerate. By adding expert methods and tips into your regular routine at home you can keep your antique furniture in great condition and extend its longevity. The next generation of antique lovers says “thanks you!”
Montgomery Antiques & Interiors