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Conservation of Furniture

By Ian Fraser, Peter Winsor and Stephen Ball

We tend to think of tables, chairs and other everyday items as simple wooden objects, whereas most pieces of furniture are relatively complex structures composed of several different materials.

'Wood' is the dominant material, but the term covers a huge variety of species, cuts and conditions of a once-living substance that continually changes with age and environmental circumstances. Woods are jointed, glued, bonded and veneered, finished with polishes, lacquers and varnishes, and in the modern era undergo forming or reforming processes that create further useful materials such as plywood, blockboard, and fibre and particle boards. In turn, woods may be supplemented and enhanced by leather and textiles, or inlays and mountings of metals, ivory, ceramics, bone and other widely differing materials, using adhesives or jointing techniques that further contribute to the complexity of the piece.

This complexity has implications for both display and cleaning. One reason is that the different materials making up a piece may have slightly different environmental needs, or that a cleaning regime suitable for one material could harm an adjacent material. Another is that different orientations of the same materials, or composite components such as veneered surfaces, may come under distorting or destructive stresses when environmental conditions change.

All that Glisters . . .

Fine furniture designed for well-to-do households, with its complex inlays and veneers and elegant construction, attracts the attention of expert and public alike. Its aesthetic and craft qualities ensure its high value for the museum and the private collector. However, dazzling pieces should not detract from the importance of other, less showy, works.

Locally made and 'country' furniture may be plainer to the eye but can be no less valuable in a museum collection. Its cultural 'load' may be as high as that of a gilded and inlaid piece designed for a palace. Nor does 'plain' necessarily mean crude - though even the crudest rustic item of furniture demands the same conservation standards as its grander counterparts.

Remember too that the principles of furniture care and conservation extend to other objects around the museum. Many items have wooden cases, structures, frames, bases or covers whose materials, construction and finish are shared with furniture. For example, many musical instruments, particularly those from the keyboard family, are heavily dependent on wood construction.

Cleaning and Polishing

Simple polished surfaces and brass fittings only need a light dusting with a clean, dry,
lint-free duster. Never use feather dusters; they scratch the object's surface and are difficult to clean. Damaged or fragmenting areas demand special care. Where dust is brushed towards a vacuum cleaner use a muslin filter over the nozzle to prevent the loss of fragments or flakes.

Complex surfaces frequently have uneven areas where even a slight projection is enough to snag a duster and leave unsightly fibres. Worse, a piece may bend or break off as the duster catches. Surfaces at risk include marquetry, boulle (or buhl, an elaborate form of marquetry using precious metals, tortoiseshell etc., dating from the time of Louis XIV), inlays, and lacquered, painted, gilded or carved areas.

Use a soft brush rather than a duster on complex surfaces. Wrap the brush ferrule with a non-marking tape to prevent any metal edges from scratching the surface. Some water-gilded surfaces are highly vulnerable, and only if sound should be cleaned with a soft pony hair brush. Never attempt to wet clean furniture.

Many furniture items have been rubbed in use and wax polished over decades or centuries, creating a patina that is both aesthetically and historically important. Variations, irregularities and even defects in this finish are part of an object's past, so never be tempted to 'correct' them by cleaning, abrading or polishing. Such a finish needs no more than occasional careful dusting, and light buffing to remove any recent marks in the polish. New polish should be added infrequently, and it may be wise to take specialist advice when planning a polishing programme. Use a good furniture wax (with beeswax); apply it sparingly with a clean duster and buff
with another. Again, take advice if you are unsure about the suitability of a polish - many on the market have plausible-sounding brand names.

Never use a spray or silicone based polish; these will damage historic finishes and change their character. And make sure, perhaps with the aid of specialist advice, that you have identified the surface finish before applying any polish. French polish, for example, is based on the expert application of multiple coats of a shellac-based varnish, and is not the same as a wax furniture polish. Some woods, such as teak, are often oiled rather than polished; and the occasional piece may have been created and used with no finish at all.

Using furniture

Nearly all furniture is functional, so it is important to remember that even the simple act of placing something on a table is a form of use - and the use of museum objects requires forethought and planning, and where appropriate some form of documentation.

There are advantages in displaying furniture in its intended use. In particular, pieces of furniture grouped with other objects to simulate a room from an historical period will create more impact than an isolated example. In such a group, the horizontal surfaces of tables, desks, cabinets will carry ornaments and everyday objects from the period, and doors or drawers may be opened to show interiors.

Always take advice from a specialist conservator when planning to use items of furniture. The main sources of risk to furniture in use are: excess weight or bulk, abrasion or similar physical damage, spillage or contamination, and wear of moving parts.

Excess weight should not be judged solely on the immediate consequences of placing an object on the item of furniture. A large and heavy vase presents an obvious threat to a delicate side table, say, but a lighter object may compromise its integrity over a period of months or years. Even the sturdiest of surfaces may imperceptibly - and irreversibly - adapt their shapes to applied weights.

A clear case of excess bulk is an overstuffed drawer, typically one overfilled with textiles or papers. The stresses set up when the drawer is closed can distort surfaces above and below - drawer bottoms are sometimes lightly constructed - and the contents will abrade these surfaces whenever the drawer is opened or closed. If the drawer jams, this may tempt an impatient user to force it, creating further stresses on the joints and materials.

Abrasion risks can be subtle - perhaps no more than a slow build up of scratches in surface patina whenever a small vase or clock standing on the surface is moved for cleaning. Place a soft buffer layer of brown felt or chamois leather between the surfaces, and ensure that staff keep this in place when the object is moved about. Where an object standing on furniture is awkward, take great care that its movement does not scratch or knock against the furniture surface - if necessary, stipulate that two or more people must move the object.

Spillage or contamination may result where, say, a potted plant or vase of flowers rests on a piece of furniture, or where a reactive (perhaps metal) item is in contact with a surface. Flowers drop organic matter as they fade, and the regular watering of plants carries a high risk of spillage - even plain water will mark a polished surface. Protect the surface with a secondary solvent-proof layer, such as a generously sized mat under a flower vase or an additional cover between a table-cloth and the table-top.

Wear can be a problem where drawers, doors, folding mechanisms and other moving parts are used over long periods or without due care. Most mechanisms involve wooden surfaces (in drawers and extending tables), brass or ferrous metal devices (such as hinges and locks), or combinations of the two. Metal mechanisms will require periodic lubrication, but this may need to be referred to a specialist - especially where there is a high risk of lubricant reaching vulnerable materials and surfaces.

A white candle rubbed on the runners is an effective and traditional remedy for sticking drawers. Never force a jammed door, drawer or other moving part. Refer the problem to a specialist conservator, who will investigate the cause and suggest possible solutions.

Storage and Display

Furniture is a familiar presence in every domestic space, but this familiarity must not breed contempt for conservation issues. Items of furniture - however solid and durable they appear - deserve the same high standards of conservation and environmental management applied to other museum objects.

Managing the environment

Extremes and undue variations of the connected factors of temperature and relative humidity may have a marked effect on woods. Very low relative humidity will cause most timbers to dry out and shrink, leading to damage or distortion if the resulting movement is constrained by adjacent parts of the structure. For example, a veneer may split or come loose if it moves at a different rate and/or in a different direction from the surface beneath. Woods tend to expand and contract across the grain far more extensively than along the direction of the grain, though the precise movement will depend on the type of wood and how it was cut and worked.

Central heating is notoriously bad for historic furniture. However, central heating is often an unavoidable element in modern buildings so its effects may need to be offset by humidification or some other form of control - but only after suitable monitoring and assessment. Other 'wetter' sources of heat can still produce locally dry zones close to the heater itself, so keep pieces of furniture well away.

At the other end of the humidity scale, damp will cause distortion and swelling in woods. A high water content promotes or accelerates rotting, mildew or fungal growth, insect infestation and glue failure. Furniture placed in contact with damp outer walls and floors is at high risk, because it will draw moisture from these surfaces. Position items away from external walls, and protect the bottoms or feet of furniture from direct contact with damp floors.

Do not store furniture in attics or cellars - the former are prone to extreme temperature variation and the latter are often damp - or display items in window recesses where the effects of the variable environment are compounded by high light levels. Sunlight may also generate enough heat to produce local shrinkage and glue failure.

Light, particularly the ultraviolet component, can cause colour changes in timbers and pigments and the eventual disintegration of textiles. The tops of cabinets and uncovered tables are often lighter and more weakly coloured than the rest of the piece. Try to reduce the exposure to light by reducing the intensity of the light and the exposure time of the object. Ultraviolet filters can be fitted to windows and artificial light sources, though they deteriorate with age and will need periodic checking and replacement.

Moving and handling furniture

In general, antique furniture should be handled as infrequently and gently as possible. Use linen or cotton gloves to protect surfaces from hands. The movement of furniture creates extra risks, so should only be undertaken where absolutely necessary and after careful preparation and planning. Remember that moving any museum object from one location to another can create environmental stresses as the object encounters new RH, temperature and light conditions within a short time interval.

Planning for movement needs to consider two related factors: the safety of staff, and the safety of the object. Staff safety is of course important. There should be enough people on hand to comfortably lift, steer and guide the object without subjecting any person to the risk of physical injury or strain. Personal safety is directly related to the object's safety - somebody barely in control of a heavy object is likely to drop it or knock it against other objects, door-frames and the like.

An accurate assessment of the object's weight and bulk is vital. Most furniture will need a minimum of two people to move it safely. Other staff can guide those lifting, who may not be in a position to see where they are going, or walk ahead to keep the route clear. Make sure that everybody is aware of their role in advance. Lift the item straight upwards, applying force to the lowest load bearing member, and co-ordinate the efforts of all those bearing the weight. All legs or supports should share the load to prevent excessive stress on joints. Avoid tipping or dragging, and be prepared to construct temporary supports for unwieldy components or objects.

Before moving anything, assess the surfaces that will be touched during the move. If they are vulnerable - water-gilded surfaces, for example - they must be protected from handling and abrasion. Remove anything that will slide off or that could become detached during the move. Marble and glass tops and mirrors should be carried vertically because they can break under their own weight. To lift a marble top first nudge it forward, then tip it on to its back edge, supporting the underside. At its destination, set it down vertically on battens previously set out.

Take out loose drawers and other (intentionally) removable items, but take specialist advice before unscrewing components or undertaking similar levels of dismantling. Ensure that separated items such as multiple drawers are clearly
identifiable so that they can be returned to their former positions. Lock any doors and drawers that will stay in place during the move.

Pests

Some timbers, such as softwoods, beech, walnut, lime, oak and ash, are at risk from attack by wood-boring insects. The damage these insects produce is nearly always disfiguring even where it is not structurally significant. Damp conditions - commoner in the milder, wetter regions such as the south-west of England - encourage insect activity and mould or fungal attack. Other pests attack furniture-related textiles such as those used for upholstery.

Inspect all vulnerable wood items in late spring for sharp-edged exit holes surrounded by dust and debris, or larvae or similar frass elsewhere on the object. (An exit hole may be a relic of a past infestation, so on its own is not conclusive evidence for a new attack.) If you discover evidence of fresh pest activity, consult a furniture conservator or pest expert. There are a number of treatments.

Restoration and Treatment

The restoration and treatment of furniture, especially of complex and valuable pieces, is not something to be undertaken by an amateur. This includes attempts at restoring a damaged or faded finish using well publicised dealers' 'tricks', such as staining with tea bags or cutting back finishes with steel wool. The effects of inappropriate treatment can be worse than if the piece had been left alone, and may also destroy important historical evidence.

The extent of restoration and repair will depend on your museum's collection policy and resources, but must always rest on expert advice. Consult a specialist conservator before undertaking any work.

Sources of information and advice

Robert F. McGiffin, Jr, Furniture Care and Conservation, 1983, American Association for State and Local History, 708 Berry Road, Nashville, TN 37204 USA.

Marc A. Williams, Keeping It All Together: The Preservation and Care of Historic Furniture, 1990, Ohio Antique Review, Inc., 12 East Stafford Avenue, Worthington, OH 43085, USA.

Hermione Sandwith and Sheila Stainton, The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping , London: Penguin/National Trust, 1993 (revised edition).

The British Antique Furniture Restorers' Association, The Old Rectory, Warmwell, Dorchester, Dorset DT2 8HQ.
Tel: 01305 852 104
Fax: 01305 854 822

For more information about private conservation work please contact:

Conservation Register
Tel: 020 7721 8246

Conservation Register (Scotland)
Tel: 0131 668 8668

Copies of this fact sheet can be provided in alternative formats. Please contact Viola Lewis, Information Officer at MLA for further information.

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