Caring for Antique or Artisan-Made Wooden Furniture
Our Handy Tips for Maintaining the Quality, Preserving the Functionality and Extending the Lifetime of Your Raw or Finished Wooden Furniture
As previously mentioned in our post “Caring for Suede Furniture,” our “Caring for Artisan or Antique Furniture” series will address the best ways in which to protect heritage furniture. We at Living Deep hope to help you to prevent damage to your furniture -- from spills, pests and climate -- while allowing you to use it in your home. We also hope to provide helpful information in case of damage, instructing readers on how to safely address these damages. Sometimes this will include interventions the owners can conduct at home by themselves. However, in cases of extreme damage -- or in situations in which heavy solvents and/or specialized techniques are required for treatment -- professional remediation will be required. In this iteration of “Caring for Furniture,” we will discuss how to care for both treated and untreated wood furniture, from antique dining tables fed with oil to stained and sealed stools by contemporary artisans. As always, prevention is the best method of preservation. Keeping environments clean, maintaining a steady climate and keeping an eye out for issues are all best practice. Follow below for our do-it-yourself tips on caring for antique or artisan-made wooden furniture as well as indicators of when it is time to call on a professional restorer, conservator or other expert.
Pinning Down the Type of Wood
Beech, Oak and Maple
The most frequently featured species of wood in home furniture are ash, maple, oak, birch, beech, cherry, cedar, pine and poplar. In a recent article for Houzz, Laura Oglethorpe outlines ways in which to distinguish between the most common types of wood used in constructing household furniture. Beech wood -- writes Oglethorpe -- is a soft, reddish-blonde hardwood often used in the creation of dining and armchairs because of its surprising flexibility. Oglethorpe notes that beech is most commonly found in “Scandinavian-style rooms…[and in] inconspicuous places like drawer bottoms and sides.” Oak on the other hand is “valued for its hardness, strength, durability and wearability.” This type of wood will often develop a type of patina over time. Lastly, Oglethorpe describes maple wood. Maple, writes Oglethorpe, is like oak in that it is “a durable, dense and strong hardwood that’s a common choice for cabinets and furniture.” However, as opposed to oak, maple “has a fine, uniform texture with a generally straight grain, although there are interesting variations like curly, bird’s-eye or flamed.” Though maple is “among the lighter woods in its natural hue, ranging from white to off-white to light brown,” because of its fine grain, it is often also painted.
Ash and Pine
Another commonly used species of wood in household furniture -- though less so in recent years due to its lessening availability -- is ash. The properties of ash wood are explained by Elliot Walsh in his recent article for Sciencing. Walsh notes that ash wood “is commonly used in construction of furniture, cabinets, flooring, millwork and moldings” and can be distinguished by its “hardness rating of 1200” and its visual similarities to a pale version of oak. Because of its hardness and density, “ash wood is almost entirely shock resistant,” making it ideal for frequently used furniture pieces like dining chairs and kitchen tables. While ash is a soft golden color often confused with a pale oak, pine is a light brown, almost reddish color that is fairly easy to identify. According to a recent Kray Custom Furnishings blog post,” the heartwood of pine “tends to be a light brown color, sometimes with reddish undertones...while the sapwood is a white to pale yellow color.” Pine is often augmented -- whether desired or not -- with “dark brown knots and streaks” and is more often used in “less expensive furniture.”
Cherry, Cedar and Poplar
To round out the group, Kate Reggev explains the characteristics of cherry, cedar and poplar in her article “How to Recognize Different Wood Species: A Guide to the 10 Most Common Types” for Dwell. Cherry, notes Reggev, will typically feature a “reddish-brown tone, which starts out as a lighter, pinkish-yellow hue that darkens after being exposed to sunlight.” Cedar will often emit a strong, recognizable aromatic odor while the color will differ from species to species. For instance, writes Reggev, the heartwood of some species of cedar might be red or purple while the sapwood is yellow. Other species might have a pink or red heartwood and near white sapwood. An inexpensive choice on par -- or slightly above -- pine in quality, poplar is "often stained to mimic pricier hardwoods, making it particularly difficult to identify this type of wood in certain situations.” Poplar’s natural tone is “a creamy, light yellow-brown color, sometimes with streaks of gray, green, or even a gray-purple hue.”
Determining the Difference between Wood and Wood Veneer
Examine the Edges
Before determining which type of wood your desk, dining table, stools or chairs are constructed from, it is important to flesh out whether or not the furniture is composed of solid wood or if it has been treated with a veneer -- applied over MDF or another type of manufactured, faux-wood material. It is also fairly common for lesser woods to be covered in the veneer of a more desirable wood. From weight and heft to gloss and grain, each piece of furniture will present a number of clues by which to uncover whether or not the piece has been constructed of solid wood. To determine the makeup and construction of your wooden furniture, consider advice from Chris Deziel in the article “How to Tell if the Top of a Desk Is Veneer or Solid Wood” for SF Gate and the post “Is It Solid Or Is It Veneer? – Furniture Facts” from Bob and Ellen Tuttle of Vintage House.
Firstly, both the Tuttles and Deziel suggest examining the edge of your wooden table or desk, carefully sizing up visible contours and layers. If real wood was used, the surface of the table and/or desk will be indistinguishable from the sides and no “banding” will be present. Deziel explains that in the case of a veneer, “the grain in edge banding runs horizontally,” whereas “the end-grain of solid wood runs vertically.” It is important to note that some craftspeople do sometimes apply banding -- which is defined as a thin protective strip applied to the edges of furniture as a barrier -- to solid wood.
Consider the Underside and Grain
If you cannot determine the presence of a veneer simply by examining the sides of a table, the Tuttles suggest flipping the piece over and looking at the back. A veneer seam will be visible on the unfinished edge of the back of the table. This seam will distinguish itself as “a line about 1/8-inch below the surface of the piece running parallel with the top.” The Tuttles’ article notes that the most commonly veneered faux-wood or less desirable wood materials are particle board and plywood, both of which are fairly easy to identify and delineate between. Their article for Vintage House notes that “as most veneers are circular cut from a tree, they will normally (but not always) not have plank seams in the surface but rather appear as one big board.”
This is opposed to natural wood, which is often cut in planks, as explained by Chris Deziel. Deziel writes that a “solid wood table top comprises several boards joined together to get a single piece of wood that's wide enough” for a desk or dining table.” Joints between the panels will be visible as will the varied grain of the boards. Another dead giveaway, writes Deziel, is the alternating direction of the wood’s grain from board to board. Deziel notes that “the grain of adjacent boards usually runs in opposite directions, a technique that woodworkers use to prevent warping.”
Is Wood Veneer of Lesser Quality than Solid Wood?
While wood veneer is often considered an inferior product when compared to real, solid wood, this perspective is a bit outdated. According to Amanda Sims in her article “Here's the Truth About Wood Veneers” for Architectural Digest, “wood veneers, in fact, are a traditional and structurally significant aspect of furniture-making that still come into play in contemporary design.” Quoting designer Cate Caruso of Studio C, Sims writes that “‘wood veneers have been used in furniture-making and millwork techniques for over 200 years’” to great aesthetic and functional effect, achieving patterns and finishes impossible for solid wood. Surprisingly, wood veneer can outlast solid wood because it is not subject to the damages wrought by changes in climate or attacks by pests which solid woods may suffer from. As Sims explains, “solid wood expands and contracts as the temperature changes,” whereas wood veneer is far more stable. Contrary to popular opinion, quality wood veneer is not a cheap, plasticized knockoff of real wood.
Of course, budget-friendly options found in big-box home improvement stores are “‘actually not wood at all.” Rather, they are “a laminate material...made from plastic, paper, or even foil that's been printed with a wood grain pattern that often wears away at the edges.” These types of inexpensive, quickly degraded surfaces have given “all veneers a bad rap somewhere along the line.” True wood veneer, however -- writes Sims -- is a “‘paper thin’ cut of wood that's applied to both sides of a strong core surface, like furniture-grade MDF or substrate material, to seal and stabilize it.”
Comparing Treated and Untreated Wood
Determining if Wood is Finished or Unfinished
As Matt Goehring explains in his article “The Wonderful World of Unfinished Furniture” for Home Advisor, it is rare to find unfinished furniture in a home post-purchase. While some furniture -- particularly picnic benches and bar stools -- may be purchased unfinished in order to allow the buyer to apply their favored finish at home, it is unusual to find vintage, antique and/or artisan-made wooden furniture without an applied finish. As such, in the process of caring for heritage wooden furniture, one is often tasked with figuring out which type -- or types -- of finishing solution has been applied to the surface of their furniture. Determining the type of coating may not be possible in all situations without the aid and eye of a professional. While some woods might appear raw and unfinished, in reality they may have been treated with oil or some other sort of protective barrier.
Figuring Out the Type of Finish
In her article “Care Part 2- How to Identify the Finish and Why this Matters” for The Province, Meredith Nicole explains common finishes applied to household wooden furniture. While some owners prefer an unvarnished look to their wooden furniture, Nicole writes that in many cases -- particularly with heavily used furniture -- finishes can “not only safeguard wood from spills, stains, surface abrasion and moisture changes, they can also enhance the beauty of the wood.” Nicole warns that determining the type of finish applied to your wooden desk, dining table or favorite chairs is key to treating each piece properly. This is because “mixing up finishes can be disastrous.” Meredith Nicole explains that “a general rule is to not use wax products on oil and polyurethane finishes” and to never “use drying oils on non-oil finishes.”
Nicole lists the most commonly used wood finishes as “oil, shellac, lacquer, varnish and polyurethane.” To test for polyurethane, varnish, lacquer and/or shellac, Nicole suggests applying a semi-dry cotton swab laden with a small amount of acetone on an inconspicuous area of the wood. She writes that if the coating “becomes tacky,” it is likely a shellac or varnish, but if the coating “beads, it has a polyurethane finish.” A pure lacquer coating will likely “dissolve completely,” as would nailpolish in acetone. If one is caught between varnish and shellac, Nicole suggests dipping a swab in ethanol and applying it to a nondescript area of the wood. If the coating dissolves, it is likely shellac, whereas if it reacts slowly, it is likely varnish. One should always be wary of the possibility that vintage and/or antique furniture may have been treated with multiple layers and types of solution.
Establishing a Quality Environment for Your Wooden Furniture
Because wood is both organic and hygroscopic, it is very sensitive to both fluctuations in relative humidity and temperature. According to the NPS publication “Curatorial Care of Wooden Objects,” wooden objects are best maintained in stable environments in which “relative humidity, temperature, light and ambient air quality” are all controlled. Ideally, wood furniture will be kept in an environment with a stable RH level of “50% plus or minus 5%,” though “in dry climates, such as the southwest, 35% to 40% is acceptable.” Owners should avoid swift, dramatic changes in RH, as these may result in “splitting, veneer loss, and joint failure.”
High temperatures should also be avoided as they may “speed fungal and insect activity.” They may also encourage oxidation and “cause some old finishes to become tacky.” Those caring for heritage and/or artisan-made wooden furniture should also consider light exposure, limiting UV radiation as “light will change the natural color of heartwood, making light woods darker and dark woods lighter.” Lastly, owners of wood furniture should keep surfaces clean of dust and dirt, as undisturbed areas signal a safe space to live for beetles, spiders and other insects. If one suspects a beetle infestation, a professional should be called in order to treat the piece before it becomes unstable.
Safely Cleaning Your Wooden Furniture
Cleaning Unfinished Wood
Cleaning techniques vary amongst finish and wood types, with finished wood better able to handle moisture cleanings and household solutions than unfinished wood. The Canadian Conservation Institute brief “Care and Cleaning of Unfinished Wood – Canadian Conservation Institute” explains how to protect and care for unfinished wood furniture. The brief notes that “unfinished wood is relatively soft and can be damaged by some cleaning techniques.” furthermore, “wood degrades with time and use, so older wood surfaces may be even softer than new ones.” When cleaning bare wood, the CCI recommends against using moisture, instead opting for a combination of a “soft brush and vacuum cleaner [or] stiff brush and vacuum cleaner,” depending on the degree and stubbornness of dust and dirt, dry sponges and erasers for particularly stubborn marks.
Cleaning Varnished Wood
Cleaning varnished furniture is quite a bit more straightforward than cleaning unfinished wooden furniture. Nicole Bradley outlines a few safe techniques in her article “How to Clean Wood Furniture to Make It Look New Again” for Better Homes & Gardens. As a warning, while antique and vintage furniture can be cleaned and maintained, it will rarely look “new” in the way that fresh-from-the-store furniture appears. Happily, older furniture carries with it the character and memories of years of use and appreciation, rejecting the need for shiny newness and perfectly ummarred surfaces. As with unfinished wooden furniture, “to keep wood furniture in its best shape,” Bradley recommends frequently dusting as “dust can cause airborne deposits that eventually build up in a filmy layer and scratch the surface of wood furniture.”
It can also attract pests, as we explained in our article on caring for suede furniture. She suggests using a “lamb's-wool duster” or lint-free cloth -- with the grain of the wood, just in case -- for safe dusting. “A cloth dipped in mild soap or detergent dissolved in water and wrung nearly dry” can be used to remove mildew and other spot stains. When seeking to polish or oil one’s wooden furniture, determining the type of wood and coating should always be done first, potentially at the advice and identification of a professional.