The Care of Antiques

One of the things we are constantly being asked at BADA is how to care for antiques. In the following pages are some basic recommendations.   Alternatively BADA's popular publication The Care of Antiques & Works of Art is available to download as a PDF file below.

Furniture

Furniture should be positioned at least two feet from any heat source, never directly in front of a radiator or heater. If the furniture has to be placed near a heat source then some sort of protection should be put in place, such as an insulated or reflective barrier.

Dust frequently with a soft cloth, and rub up your furniture often to encourage a hard skin to form and build up a good surface colour known as patina. Once or twice a year polish thoroughly using a good beeswax based polish, polish sparingly, and preferably leave overnight, before rubbing well.

Do not use spray polishes, as although they give a good initial effect, they contain silicon which builds up a sticky surface and a large proportion of spirit which evaporates quickly, taking with it some of the natural oils in the timber.

Antique furniture needs to be protected from fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity which can cause a great deal of damage and is costly to repair. Many fine pieces of furniture which have survived for centuries in unheated conditions can suffer major harm in just one or two winters of central heating.

The reason for this is that antique furniture is constructed from air-dried timber and has a far higher water content than modern furniture, which is usually made of kiln-dried wood containing far less moisture. When subjected to low levels of relative humidity, it gradually gives up moisture to the dry surrounding atmosphere and starts to shrink and split along the grain.

This is aggravated when underlying pieces of wood used in the construction are laid at right angles to each other and then veneered on top. The carcass wood moves and the veneer consequently tears and lifts and pieces may become detached. If this should happen it is vital that these pieces are kept carefully, ready for replacement.

Other typical dry air problems include cracking, loosening joints (where animal glues dry out), drawers sticking, and doors warping and no longer closing properly.

Prevention is always better than cure and it is possible to safeguard antique furniture from dry air damage by investing in a good humidifier which will help maintain a constant level of relative humidity in the air during the winter heating season. For a normal comfortable, indoor temperature you should aim to maintain 50-55% relative humidity. A cheaper alternative, but much less efficient, is a hang-on radiator humidifier, or even a bowl of water nearby, with a simple hygrometer to monitor the humidity in the room (see product suppliers).

Another aspect of prevention is monitoring the amount of sunlight that reaches furniture. A degree of light over a long period can mellow the colour attractively, but too much will dry it out, perish the surface polish and can lead to uneven fading. Where possible, turn pieces of furniture around occasionally to even the fading process and keep curtains drawn on sunny days when rooms are not in use.

It is wise to make periodical inspections of furniture for lifting mouldings or veneer (which will sound hollow if lightly tapped), loose joints, water damage or fresh furniture beetle (woodworm) holes (particularly around May/June). If repair is required, do go to a reputable restorer: BADA dealers will be happy to advise. BADA dealers who themselves carry out restoration are listed in the BADA List of Members (obtainable free of charge from the BADA — see Contact). Good restoration takes time and is unlikely to be cheap, but a botched repair will not last, will never be satisfactory and could reduce the value of your antique.

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