Restoration and Conservation of Antique Furniture

Fergal Grogan, Director of Daly Antique Services Limited
As property prices take a nose drive and speculative investments lose their gloss, there has never been a better or more apt time for antique owners to look after and maintain their antiques, which function as beautiful additions to your home.

An antique furniture piece may be a priceless asset; however, given its age and condition, it may also be damaged, broken, or simply not in a suitable condition to function for the purpose it was designed for. It is in our interest to look after these items, as the beauty of antique furniture is that it has lasted generations and this is proof and testimony to the cabinetmakers of the period. The cabinetmaking, workmanship and materials used in these items of furniture are of a superior quality and, in many cases, are extinct or protected specimens. The prolonged existence of these items is testament to their strength and quality. Living in today’s throw-away society, surrounded by excessive production of short-lived or disposable items reinforces the fact that antiques are an investment that will stand the test of time and lives. As fashions come and go, future generations will inherit an even rarer and, as a result, more sought after and valuable antique.

Restoration and conservation are imperative to antique furniture for many reasons. Firstly, to keep the piece maintained, secondly, to prolong longevity and finally, to retain and, in many cases, increase the value of the item. Restoration and conservation often cross over when it comes to antiques and both elements are invaluable in the correct treatment of a piece. For example, a pod dining table may need a castor replaced to keep the table level and functional which constitutes restoration while the table top has a lovely patina and may just need a wax to preserve it against wear and tear which is conservation. It is essential to conserve all of the original features and finishes of an antique.

Although many items of furniture are given pride of place in warm and caring environments, we should be aware that there are many damaging elements that will accelerate the deterioration process of your antiques. The main causes of deterioration are environmental, ecological and believe it or not, ourselves, the humble human.

Environmental conditions include heat, humidity and light. If a room is too warm, over time this can result in the drying out of the timber creating splitting, desiccation and aridness of the original animal glue, lifting of the veneer, opening of joints and cracks and splits will occur due to lack of moisture. Having an environment that is too moist and damp will also contribute to the decline of the furniture as it dissolves the glues expands and contracts the timber, resulting in splitting. Natural light can also contribute to the damage but it will also bleach the wood, degrade the finish and make the polish cloudy. It’s best you keep your antique furniture away from any windows that get direct sunlight.

Ecological elements can be many but the most common one in Ireland is woodworm, which bores through the wood and feeds upon it. The main woods it attacks are walnut, pine, beech and its partial to the animal glue that is used in the bonding of structure and veneers in antique furniture. Woodworm is an all year round problem, but particularly prevalent in the warmer months of May to September, during the flight season.

People themselves tend to be the main perpetrators of damage to furniture through various means such as neglect, misuse and mishandling. This can include surface damage due to excessive heat; scratches, dents and bruises; and spilling of liquids. Structural problems can occur from dragging and moving furniture and not using the item for the purpose intended in its design. Most damage occurs when moving furniture due to lack of understanding of the structure and where the items core strength lies. The misplacement of hands on the decorative parts of carvings or mouldings’ can lead to breaks while placing excessive weight on the item of furniture also causes the weakening of joints and will result in severe cracks and breakages.

When it comes to restoring and repairing antique furniture – caution is key and always enlist the advice of your local antique dealer or restorer as poor and inferior work and repairs can lead to a defective antique and one of severe diminished value. One should always, where possible, focus on restoration rather than a quick fix, especially with valuable pieces of furniture.

Notes to bear in mind for restoration: it best to use materials from the period and timber of similar quality, texture grain and colour, therefore always matching existing as closely as possible. Good restoration companies, will have over time, amassed a large supply of old woods, veneers and screws – not to mention knowledge and skill base – which will assist in the restoration of the piece, as close as possible to the original. We recommend you always choose the least invasive method for repairing a piece of antique furniture – as DIY refinishing will lessen the value of the item. However, before restoring an item it is advisable to let the item acclimatise to the environment in which it will be located in – especially if it’s a newly acquired piece or if coming from a location of extreme warmth or coldness.

In terms of the ecological elements, it is recommended to inspect furniture for active infestations once a year in May/June for woodworm – as early detection is imperative and it is easily treated with an insecticide.

Damage to furniture can be easily avoided by never dragging or pulling the item – always lift the piece at its strongest point. Use coasters and protectors where possible on the surface of the piece to prevent ring marks and the discolouring of the polish/patina. Also, do not put items of excessive weight of your table or sideboard as this can cause movement or warping of the piece of furniture.

As with all trades it is always advisable to use a professional for their expertise, knowledge, materials and facilities. By using a recognised antique restorer this will guarantee optimum results and ensure the item is restored to its former glory. Your antique restorer will always apply the rule of “less is more” when it comes to restoring your furniture – as often the item can be devalued by excessive restoration.

Quality advice and understanding of furniture is key to the restoration and conservation of furniture projects. In the end when it all boils down to carrying out some research and using your best judgment; taking into consideration the period, age and finish of the item and when that’s not enough, seek the advice of the professionals! Visit the Daly Antiques website:

Terms commonly used in restoration include the following:

The shaping and paring of wood with chisels or other sharp tools.

French polishing:
The lengthy and repetitive process of applying many thin coats of French polish using a cloth or pad resulting in a very high gloss and deep colour. The finish is obtained through circular motions building up layers of polish over considerable time. French polishing was commonly used on mahogany and other expensive woods, and was considered to give the best possible finish to furniture.

A pattern designed by an interlaced decorative design, carved in low relief on a solid background.

Covering a piece with precious metal such as gold leaf.

Created by carving grooves in the wood for fitting exotic woods, metals or stones, popular choices include ebony, brass, ivory and mother-of-pearl.

An Oriental derived process of layering lacquer on wood giving the piece a glistening and shiny finish.

Sheets of fine wood applied over the surface of a piece.

Wood turning:
A process that allows the wood to turn while a fixed or static tool is used to shape and cut it.

The ageing process, which occurs over time on both wood and metal to give the item a particular lustre, once stripped and removed it can never be recovered. The original finish and patina should be retained on all items including handles, knobs, hinges, and escutcheons.

Different woods are veneered to create a design or pattern on the surface piece of furniture. Killarney furniture is a prime example of architectural and foliate surface decoration in contrasting wood colours.