How to Care for Your Furniture
Improper handling of furniture is one of the main causes of damage and deterioration. Lifting or moving a piece improperly can cause joints to weaken and thin legs, rails, or arms to break under pressure. In addition, natural skin oils, perfume residues, lotions, and dirt on your hands can transfer onto surfaces and then chemically alter the material—this is especially true with unfinished wood. Even in everyday use, jewelry, loose clothing, and ID badges can scratch and abrade a surface. Use the following handling guidelines to minimize damage:
- Visually inspect an object before handling it to ensure that the piece is stable enough to move. Remove drawers and loose shelves before moving the piece.
- Remove any jewelry you are wearing or loose clothing prior to moving the object.
- Wear cotton or nitrile gloves to prevent slippage and to keep from damaging the surface with the oils on your hands. Be careful not to catch your gloves on splinters or loose veneer.
- Always lift a piece of furniture, never drag it. Legs can be fragile. If a piece is too large, use straps and dollies to assist in the moving.
- Use both hands and, for larger objects, employ two or more people.
- Never lift a piece of furniture by its top or built-in handles, by any decorative appendages, or by its legs and never move it using original castors—doing so can cause stress and damage to those areas.
- Lift chairs using the bottom of the seat and rails, not by the legs or crest rail on the back of the chair.
- Carry glass and marble tabletops and shelves vertically whenever possible.
Visible and ultraviolet light from sunlight, as well as light from artificial sources, can harm furniture by damaging wax finishes and shellac and causing crazing and embrittlement. Light can also fade dyes, paint layers, and stains. Furniture should be displayed out of direct sunlight and away from strong artificial light. If furniture is placed under windows, UV window film (bought at any hardware store) and shades or curtains will help reduce the amount of light to which your piece of furniture is exposed.
Temperature and Humidity
Over time, especially if left in one place, furniture can become accustomed to the rise and fall of relative humidity (RH) within the room it is placed. Unexpected and sudden changes in RH, such as moving a piece of furniture from a controlled environment (for example, an interior room that has an HVAC system) to an uncontrolled environment (like a garage or screened-in patio) or vice versa can result in significant damage. When the RH falls, wood shrinks and splits, and joins can fail due to widening gaps. Conversely, given a rise in RH, wood can swell, causing drawers and doors to jam, glues to fail, veneer to loosen, and joins to break down. An increase in RH can also cause corrosion and the formation of mold. Fluctuations in temperature and humidity over time can cause moderate to severe damage to furniture.
- Temperature and humidity should be as stable as possible, especially for objects that have marquetry and veneer. Furniture should not be placed near heat sources, air vents or returns, or areas where large fluctuations in temperature and humidity can occur, such as near windows and exterior doors.
- On a regular basis, open sections of furniture that are closed off with doors and panels, and allow the carcass of furniture to air out. In addition, remove drawers occasionally, and place them on padding (such as blankets or a sheet) to prevent damage to surfaces. Doing so will prevent mold and fungi from forming on areas with poorer ventilation.
Regular housekeeping and monitoring will reduce the amount of dust and debris in the air and reduce damage caused by pests.
- Dust furniture as needed, but only when you can visually see the dust—too much dusting can lead to abrading the surface.
- Use a clean, soft, dry dust cloth or Swiffer®, but take care not to catch fibers on any loose moldings, veneer, or marquetry or on splits in the wood. Remember that the action of dusting can also loosen pieces.
- When necessary, use a bristle brush made from natural hair and a vacuum to remove dust. Cover the end of the vacuum nozzle with cheesecloth or panty hose to prevent any fragments from being sucked into the vacuum.
- Do not “wet clean” without consulting a conservator.
- Avoid using Pledge® or a similar commercial polish on antique furniture. Solvents and silicones present in modern commercial polishes can cause long-term damage to original finishes and can leave a “bloom” of opaque whiteness that does not fade with traditional waxing.
- Apply wax to surfaces only every three to five years and use only traditional furniture paste wax, not a cream or spray. Make sure that the wax does not contain silicone. When waxing, apply sparingly and in small batches. To restore a shine between waxes, buff with a clean, dry duster or chamois.
- Avoid removing the patina on brass fittings if possible. To clean them, gently buff with a duster or chamois. Do not use metal-polishing creams—they can stain the wood around fittings and leave white deposits that will prove very difficult or impossible to remove. Metal-polishing cloths also should not be used, as they can over clean. If you wish to protect brass fittings, you can use the same wax used for your wood finish.
- Dust glass shelves and fronts with a duster. If they are very dusty or dirty, remove them and clean them with cotton wool swabs slightly dampened with a 50:50 mixture of water and rubbing alcohol. If the glass cannot be removed, protect surrounding wood with a piece of cardstock to prevent the wood from getting wet.
- Monitor furniture for signs of insect or mice activity, especially on the back of furniture and in drawers. If you think you have an infestation, isolate the object immediately (by sealing it in clear plastic) and monitor by placing a white or black sheet of paper in a place where it could gather sawdust, droppings, or remains (if an object has separate pieces, remove them and place them in their own plastic “environments” for monitoring). If you begin to see such frass, contact a conservator immediately for recommendations.
Warping, dents, and surface wear—scratches and abrasions, stains, and excess wax from candles—are examples of damage caused by use or improper display. A simple wine stain, alone, can remove a polished surface almost immediately, due to the alcohol content. Care needs to be taken when using and displaying furniture.
- Ensure that furniture sits level on whatever flooring is in the room so it doesn’t warp. Use wedges underneath as needed.
- If furniture is placed on a stone or brick floor, consider placing a rug or carpet underneath. This will reduce changes in temperature caused by the flooring.
- Avoid situating furniture near heat sources, such as radiators or air vents to reduce rapid fluctuations in temperature and humidity.
- If placing smaller objects onto a surface, consider inserting a barrier between the object and the furniture. This can be a textile but also can be a piece of Mylar cut to shape. The barrier will prevent scratches and abrasions to the finish of the wood and damage due to spillage, such as wax from a candle or liquids.
- To prevent loss of original keys, store them away from the furniture piece.
When storing furniture, protect the piece with acid-free materials or well-washed, breathable materials—such as old bedding—that will not collect humidity or transfer dyes to the object should it get wet.
- If at all possible, do not stack furniture or place furniture directly onto stone or brick floors. Stacking can lead to undue pressure on joins and limbs, causing breakage and failure of joins.
- Wedges should be used to obtain an even distribution of weight in storage.
- Do not use bubble wrap directly against high-polished surfaces—the bubbles will form marks. If you need to use bubble wrap, place clean bed sheets or another barrier as a protective layer between the bubble wrap and the wood.
- Stored furniture should be covered with dust covers or clean bedding to reduce the amount of dust that collects on the surface and protect upholstery from damage.
References and Resources
To find a conservator in your area, a great resource is the Find A Conservator tool that is offered by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. Another part of the Resource Center on the AIC website to look at is Caring for Your Treasures. These are guides about how to take care of a variety of family heirlooms based on the materials they are made of. The guides are free of charge and can be downloaded and printed from the website.
- Landrey, Gregory J. The Winterthur Guide to Caring for Your Collection. Wilmington, DE: Winterthur Decorative Arts Series, 2000.
- Long, Jane S., and Richard W. Long. Caring for Your Family Treasures: Heritage Preservation. New York, NY: Abrams Books, 2000.
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