Repairing and restoring antique furniture

restoring antique furniture

Antique furniture can not only add great character and originality to your home; it can also be a great investment. If you have, or are considering buying, antique furniture but believe that your chosen pieces might benefit from some TLC, you might find the skills of a professional furniture restorer invaluable.

A skilled professional can often work wonders with ripped or faded fabrics, with damaged surfaces on wooden furniture or with seemingly entrenched stains and marks. Furniture restorers and repairers need not focus entirely on antiques. Most furniture repair companies also deal frequently with damaged modern furniture.

However, it is worth considering the value of your furniture before taking it to a professional restorer. The services of a professional will not necessarily break the bank - prices vary widely and depend on the extent of the damage and the amount of time and effort that will be required to repair it – but if it is likely to cost you more to repair an item than to replace it, you might want to think twice.

If you don't know very much about antiques it might also be worth checking, if doubt exists, that your piece is worth what you believe it to be before you enlist professional help. It is a sad fact that many people find out too late that they have been ripped off, and that a piece they believed to have significant value is in reality almost worthless.

Restorers are frequently approached to restore worthless items by people who have been misled. The best way to avoid finding yourself in this predicament is to seek the advice of a professional whom you trust before parting with your cash.

For items which have significant material or sentimental value, it is usually worth investing in the services of a professional. Bear in mind that professionals can often make even items in poor condition functional again.

What is the difference between restoration and conservation?

Furniture restoration focuses upon fixing existing problems. This might constitute something as minor as repairing a small scratch to a wooden surface, or as major as entirely re-building the structure of a piece of furniture. Restorers routinely complete work such as: the removal of scratches or ink and liquid stains from wooden surfaces; the repair of heat damage or restoration of faded surfaces damaged by long-term exposure to direct sunlight; and structural damage to chairs, cabinets or other pieces of furniture.

If serious damage is inflicted upon a valuable antique, it is likely to depreciate its value. However, professional restorers can minimise this devaluation and can often make a piece functional again, even if it appears at first sight to be unsalvageable.

Conservation work, in contrast, is usually aimed at preventing the decline of valuable antiques before any damage occurs. This type of work is usually reserved for pieces of furniture which are intended to be displayed, rather than used and is routine work in museums and stately homes. In short, if you would prefer to sit in your chair and fill your cabinets, you will probably be more concerned with professional restoration services than with conservation services.

Furniture Care

While home owners will usually be more concerned with the restoration services offered by professional restorers, this is not to say that preventive measures cannot be taken to protect furniture from damage. The following tips ought to help you keep your furniture protected for longer:

  • dust an unfinished, damaged wooden surface as loose parts can become dislodged. If you have a particularly valuable piece of furniture with such a surface, it is probably best to have it professionally cleaned. If the surface is intact, it can be carefully dusted with a soft cloth. Alternatively, dust can be vacuumed away with an ordinary vacuum cleaner. If you choose to use this method, however, make sure that you use the round attachment and the least possible amount of power to avoid damage. Direct contact between the vacuum cleaner and the surface ought to be avoided.
  • Dust in areas which are difficult or impossible to reach with a cloth, such as intricate wood carvings, can be carefully removed with a toothbrush.
  • Frequent fluctuations in humidity can be very damaging to furniture. It is not likely that you will be able to do much about this in the home setting. However, if you have a very valuable antique, you might want to consider purchasing humidifiers and dehumidifiers designed to ensure a constant level of humidity.
  • Exposure to ultra-violet light is also damaging to furniture. Fabrics and wooden surfaces can become faded after long-term exposure. The good news is that the risk of such damage can be minimised easily by avoiding placing furniture in direct sunlight. If you have no choice but to place your furniture near a window, draw the curtains when the sun is shining through the window.
  • Keep liquids (even water) far away from your furniture. Liquids can cause severe damage to wooden furniture, particularly if the moisture penetrates the finish and is absorbed by the wood underneath. If you do spill something, ensure that you dry it immediately with a soft cloth or an absorbent paper towel. If you spill a solvent, take extra care not to rub the stain, or you risk spreading the solvent and worsening the problem: pat the area dry and seek professional advice.
  • Take great care when moving your furniture. One of the most common ways in which people damage their furniture is through careless manoeuvring. Pieces of furniture should never be dragged across the floor, but always lifted with care. When lifted, they should be supported where the structure is strongest. Chairs, for example, should be lifted by the seat rails and never by their arms. Cabinets are best lifted from the bottom, and tables ought to be lifted by their legs or by the rails beneath the surface.
  • Never write on a wooden surface unless you have first put down something to protect it: pens and pencils can leave imprints in the wood.
  • Never put pot pourri on a wooden surface, even if it is on a piece of cloth, as it is likely to damage the surface.

Where can I find a reliable furniture restorer?

Professional furniture restorers can be found easily via a quick internet search. Always ask how much experience the individual you consider has. Accreditation with the British Antique Furniture Restorers' Association (BAFRA) is usually a good indication of competence and reliability. BAFRA is an organisation founded to protect the interests of buyers and owners of antique furniture.

Criteria for membership is strict: the organisation stipulates that members should have at least five years of experience (although most members have considerably more) and are expected to meet the high standards of BAFRA in finishing skills, cabinet making, skill at specialist techniques and knowledge of furniture and its history. Assessors visit tradesmen to ensure the stipulated conditions for membership are met.

You can also use the search function on BAFRA's website to locate a furniture restorer in your local area. It is also possible to search for a professional with the specific skills you are seeking on this page. If you would prefer to contact BAFRA by telephone, you can do so on +44 (0)1305 854822.

How much will it cost?

It is very difficult to offer an exact estimate. The cost will depend upon, to name only a few variables: the type of furniture you would like restored; the extent and nature of the damage; the materials that will be required to restore it and the amount of time it will take to complete the task.

Professional restorers can produce an accurate estimate on request. It is worth noting that it is common for restorers to charge you for the completion of an estimate. Whilst this might seem unreasonable, bear in mind that you are paying for a professional opinion, which will probably consist of advice about how to fix the problem yourself, or a suggested course of action and an estimate of how much this would cost. When you first contact a restorer, ask if they apply such charges for estimates.

What specifically do professional restorers do? Is there any way I could save myself some money by doing it myself?

Professional furniture restorers are trained to offer advice about whether or not furniture can be effectively restored, and, if so, what the best means of achieving this is. Some of the services restorers offer are:

Upholstery work

This can include repairs to the frame, replacement of broken springs, re-stuffing and recovering chairs. Chairs and arm-chairs can often be made functional, even if they are in quite poor condition. If repairs to the frame are necessary, this is usually done prior to work on the upholstery.

Re-upholstering is a more difficult process than it might seem. Professionals are not only concerned with restoring the piece to working order, but also with preserving the character and style of the furniture. Restorers will usually try to preserve the stuffing by cleaning and reusing it if it is the original. Otherwise, they will try to find a close match.

They will also attempt to preserve the original fabric, and find a close match if the original cannot be repaired. As this is such a skilled process, it is perhaps unrealistic to consider undertaking major repairs yourself.

Whilst it might be possible to remove small stains yourself using fabric stain removal chemicals that can be purchased in DIY stores and supermarkets, you ought to think carefully about attempting this on a valuable piece of furniture, as you might make the problem worse and make the task even more difficult for a professional later on. See our Upholsterer guide for more information.

Cleaning delicate antiques

If a surface is damaged or unfinished, it is often best to have it professionally cleaned to ensure that the correct cleaning substances and the correct tools are used, minimising the chance of damage occurring during the cleaning process. However, whilst it might be better to entrust particularly valuable or delicate antiques to a professional, it is possible to complete the routine cleaning of many pieces yourself.

You can carefully dust your own furniture by following the tips given above. A lacklustre appearance is often attributable to a waxy build-up which accumulates as result of cleaning products leaving a residue over time. It is possible to remove this yourself using a cleaner which dissolves wax and polish. Such cleaners can be easily purchased in DIY stores. Use a soft cloth to apply the cleaner. Wire wool can be used to remove residue which is more difficult to shift.

Structural repairs

Restorers can also repair loose joints and replace parts of furniture which have been displaced or are damaged. Even if you are skilled at DIY and would not hesitate to repair less valuable furniture yourself, it is worth hiring a professional for structural repairs on antique furniture. Professionals have the knowledge and experience to restore furniture to working order whilst still preserving the style of the piece.

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