Furniture care; What you really need to know to keep your furniture looking good and to revive that tired looking antique buy.
Sound furniture care requires at least, a rudimentary knowledge of the characteristics of natural timber. Timber is a natural organic material that reacts to all atmospheric conditions; even well seasoned timber will continue to move with the different humidity levels that will be present through the different seasons. Timber will swell in conditions of humidity and shrink in dry conditions. All good furniture makers know this and construct furniture in a way that minimises this phenomenon to the structure and apply appropriate finishes to lessen effects to surfaces; this has the added benefit of enhancing the furniture’s appearance. However, to remain looking good, furniture requires regular care and thoughtful attention throughout its life. We, today, have a problem that didn’t arise in our forebear’s time. The combined effect of double glazing and central heating; we could call this a clash of cultures, the past with the present. When cultures clash, there are generally casualties and in this particular case it is our treasured heirlooms.
All wood, as you know, needs to be seasoned and dried before it can be used. Air drying of timber was traditionally carried out by placing the timber outside, after it was cut into planks, with spacers called ‘stickers’ between each level. A temporary cover would then be placed over the stack, but not at the sides thus allowing the free movement of air. Later, after at least four or five years though often much longer, the timber was brought inside the workshop or factory to condition before being converted into furniture. This whole process reduced the timber moisture content to about 11 or 12 %. This was fine because the ambient moisture content of most homes was the same and furniture remained perfectly happy for hundreds of years, except for the occasional accident and untreated woodworm. By contrast, modern homes with central heating and double-glazing are about 8% ambient moisture content. This differential can be represented by a large crack in panels, loose fitting doors or draws and loose joints. The later problem will be exacerbated if the furniture was subjected to moisture before your acquired it, which will have degraded the hide glue. Chairs are particularly susceptible to this kind of degrade.
The worst effects of dryness can be offset by the use of an efficient humidifier. This will also have the added benefit of being really good for your own and the family’s health into the bargain. Ideally relative humidity should be maintained at 50 – 55%. Adequate ventilation is also essential. We are encouraged to consider the odd small draught as a mortal enemy, this is not so as a supply of fresh air is vital for the health of every one and everything in a home.
Direct sunlight is extremely harmful for furniture’s and can cause all kinds of severe damage over extended periods. It most definitely will lead to the breakdown of finishes and will also cause irreversible discolouration of the timber below if not worse. Even diffused light will have an effect; this generally goes unnoticed, unless for instance you habitually keep an ornament, or similar, in the same place on a surface. Eventually you will find a lighter, or in some cases darker, mark the same shape as the ornaments base. Keep ornaments by all means however, move them to different positions on a regular basis. Never ever place a piece of wooden furniture near a heat source, damage is inevitable; damp will cause a different type of damage and possibly rot in the extreme cases. The latter is unlikely in a modern home; however I have seen too many fine pieces damaged like this through bad storage.
Now that your heirloom is happily situated in a suitable position what could possibly go wrong now? Not too much to the structure it’s true, unless that is, you have a large marble statue precariously balanced above it, or your house is infested with woodworm, prone to flooding or earthquakes. That still leaves the finish and this is really the first thing most people notice about a fine piece of furniture. Most makers will have put a lot of effort in bringing out the timbers natural beauty to best effect and you will naturally want to keep it looking that way.
The method par excellence is simply dusting; this may sound too simple to be an effective furniture care tactic, but if done regularly, makes much else unnecessary.
However innocuous dust may seem, it can quickly damage a finish, especially the type of finish you will find on antique furniture. This is because it will attract any moisture that is in the air, mobilising any impurities trapped in the dust and helping them to migrate into the finish. Dust will also penetrate wax deposits left in corners or mouldings and form an unsightly build-up over time. Regular dusting helps stop this and, contrary to what the manufacturers of furniture care products tell you, it is not necessary to wax or spray furniture every time you dust, in fact this can work against you, by resulting in a greasy looking build up which will eventually mask the surface as it attracts even more air born dust and other pollutants. I have to mention here, it is impossible to feed or nourish wood, it’s dead and even if it were not, the finish, if it is doing its job properly, provides a barrier preventing the wax from actually getting to the timber. It is never the less better to dust with a damp cloth, rather than a dry one. Dust has microscopic particles of grit within it and a damp cloth helps lubricate and lift these without scratching. A polishers “tack cloth” is ideal for this, I shall describe how to make one at the end of this article.
You of course will have been scrupulous in the care of your furniture, but what if you have just acquired the piece and the previous owners were not as diligent in their duties. You may be facing some serious grime or even scratches.
Furniture with traditional finishes, may at first appear difficult and even daunting, because knowledge our grandparents used every day has been lost or forgotten and attracted a certain mystique. Especially French polish and most antique furniture and furniture produced before the 2nd world war will probably have been finished with shellac, better known as French polish. This is the finish I use on all my new furniture, using different methods of application to suit the piece, shellac does not necessarily mean a high gloss finish, shellac is also completely non toxic, so much so it is used by the pharmaceutical industry to coat pills. You may occasionally also find an oil finish and some rustic pieces may have a burnished wax finish. All are relatively easy to care for if you follow a few simple guidelines.
Generally if your furniture is looking dull and dirty it is probably as a result of a grime and wax built up over many years. The safest and surest way to deal with this is to carefully wash this build up off. This may sound alarming at first, but if done properly, will remove 95% of all accumulated dirt. If necessary the last 5% or so can be removed with a solvent based cleaner and reviver, I’ll give the recipe for a first class one later.Or if you would prefer a ready to use version my Popote is an excellent alternative.
To wash, place a little soap liquid VULPEX LIQUID SOAP is by far the best for this, and many other tasks in a shallow dish. Fill a small bowl, with warm water, choose a clean piece of cloth and have an old towel or similar to hand. Now dip the clean cloth into the warm water, just enough to dampen it. Then take a little soap liquid onto your dampened cloth squeezing out any excess on the edge of the dish. Then gently wash your piece of furniture using small firm movements, work only on one small area at a time. Dry thoroughly with the towel before moving onto the next area. You will be surprised how much dirt this removes. Some old heavily masked, or very large items may require several changes of water and cloths, so it’s a good idea to prepare these in advance. Although cleaning like this will be enough to revive most furniture, you may find some persistent stains like ink, water or oil that require further treatment, I’m a bit reluctant to describe the treatment for these here as it is easy to make mistakes if a defect is wrongly diagnosed. If you do have a particular stain that needs attention, contact me by email and I shall be happy to advise.
Next choose a good quality furniture wax work the wax polish into the surface very sparingly in a circular motion with a clean cloth (use a small brush for mouldings) it is advisable to wait a 15 to 20 minuets before buffing with a clean duster (use a clean brush to buff mouldings).
The results can be truly amazing. Frequent dusting, with waxing no more than once a year, will keep your heirloom looking good in the future. On pieces that are lightly used once every five years is enough to keep them looking good.
An old Waxed finish may be revived and cleaned by simply applying new wax ( a natural beeswax paste polish ) with 0000 grade wire wool. The new wax will soften the old wax and the wire wool will effectively remove blooms or marks, leaving enough wax behind to build a shine. As with all restorative work proceed lightly and slowly, testing results in an inconspicuous area, before proceeding with the whole project. Do not cut right back to the timber unless absolutely necessary and not before seeking further advice as necessary. Fill dents, holes etc as described with the appropriate colour wax filler stick.
If oil finishes have been waxed you may find that you can proceed as above. If however a more robust solution is called for, cut back the finish gently with 0000 wire wool and turpentine, then let dry thoroughly, as before do not if at all possible remove all the finish. Reapply a new coat of linseed oil ( boiled dries quicker or you can add a teaspoon full of driers to raw linseed oil mixture ) diluted to about 1 part turpentine and 2 parts linseed oil. Apply with brush or cloth, whichever proves easier, and leave for thirty minutes, then wipe off any excess with a clean lint free cloth and leave overnight to dry. It’s difficult to say when an oil finish is finished; Old timers say that oil should be applied once a day for a week, once a week for a month, once a month for a year and once a year for the rest of your life. So I shall leave you to deicide when it is ready. Oil will if built up over years give one of the most beautiful and deep shines, the secret is to give many light coats and let them thoroughly dry, before proceeding. Otherwise you will only achieve a soft dullish skin that will eventually wrinkle and crack as it dries. Oil, done well is also one of the most resistant finishes and easiest to repair, it can be waxed if you wish to take the shorter route to a shine. Soak all used rags in water before disposing and lay them out flat when not in use, while working.
Don’t use any commercial oil based scratch remedy, ever. Their reparative quality is temporary and disappears as the oil dries, however the dye they contain will have permanently stained the timber, marking the position of the scratch even after a proper repair has been made. The right way to repair a scratch is to first apply a little shellac into the scratch if it penetrates to the timber, quickly wipe off any that may have gone onto the surface. Now work a little appropriately coloured wax filler stick into the scratch and smooth with the flat of your finger nail. Allow to harden for a while before buffing. Wax filler sticks are available from finishing suppliers and here.
One final word of warning; don’t drag furniture when moving it, especially if it is on carpet. Damage of some kind is almost inevitable even if it may not be immediately evident, not to mention damage you may do to yourself.
I know there may be a lot of precautions and don’ts in the above that may make for dull reading, however it’s my intention that you avoid costly mistakes and that you have many years of trouble free enjoyment from your furniture.
Furniture Care Recipe’s
Take about a 12’’ square of mutton cloth (if you pull a thread to start a hole 12’’ into the roll, then open this out into a tear, rather than cutting a piece off, you will find you do not get all those little bits of thread falling off) Wash this in cold water and wring out as much as you can. Next mix about an ounce of linseed oil with a similar amount of turpentine, white spirit will do the same job, but does not smell nearly so good, especially in the home. If you have it you could add a small amount of orange or lavender oil if you wish. Dip the cloth in this and take up as much liquid as possible then wring out and repeat, making sure to wring the cloth as hard as you can. Your tack cloth is now ready to use, you may at this point notice how clean and soft your hands are. Simply pull the cloth over your furniture to take up the dust and not rub the cloth into the furniture, used like this and stored in an airtight tin or plastic tub, it will last for months. Don’t omit the water; in fact all cloths that come into contact with organic oils should be soaked before disposing of after use. This prevents the chance of accidental combustion.
Recipe for reviver and cleaner:
Pure turpentine 200ml
Metholated spirit 100ml
Acetic acid B.P. 50ml
Soap liquid (Teepol or Vulpex is best although not necessary) 25ml
Brasso or similar 25ml or 15ml of Pre-Lim
Ammonia ½ teaspoon
Place all the ingredients into a half litre bottle with a secure top, starting with the turpentine and mentholated spirit.
Give the bottle a good shake to emulsify the ingredients. You will need to continue shaking the bottle during use.
Start by putting a small amount of reviver onto a clean cotton cloth and work in much the same way as you did when washing.
Use only on shellac or varnish that is in good condition. Cracks or gaps in the finish may cause you to work dirt into the timber below, which will then be extremely difficult to remove. The same applies to washing. Always seek further advice if you are uncertain about the condition of your furniture.
Phew! now you need to put your feet up