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Furniture Care and Preservation
Wood is very sensitive to water and changes in relative humidity. As the weather changes from season to season, so does the humidity in your home and also the moisture content of your wood furniture. This situation causes the wood to expand and contract with every change in the humidity. The purpose of the finish is to minimize the effects of moisture changes by sealing the wood. Wood likes moderate conditions of around 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit with a relative humidity of around 45 percent to 55 percent. Most homes today have air handling systems that provide a humidifier in winter to add moisture when the air is “dry” and an air conditioner in summer to remove moisture when the air is “wet”. If you do not have this optimum condition but keep the temperature and humidity steady, even if they are to high or to low, it is much better than frequent and/or sudden changes. Furniture can deteriorate quickly if stored in a basement (high moisture), attic (high heat), garage or non -climate controlled storage units or warehouses (continual changing conditions). Excess heat and dryness can cause wood to split and/or crack. Keep your furniture away from all direct heat sources like radiators, wood stoves and air ducts. If you need to put your furniture near a heat source, use a shield or diverter to deflect or direct heat away. Wood is most likely to check (crack) when the climate in your home suddenly changes from hot and humid to cold and dry. Frequent and sudden changes in humidity and temperature are especially bad.
Here are a few suggestions for dealing with humidity:
- Furniture can best handle temperature and humidity changes when they occur gradually. Sudden changes like opening a vacation home, or putting items into non-climate controlled storage in winter directly from your warm home can be problems for your furniture.
- When air conditioning your home, it is best to keep the intake of outside humid air to a minimum. Don’t open the windows to “air out” the house on fair days.
- Add a humidifier or vaporizing unit to your heating system to help stabilize the humidity level during the cold dry months of winter.
- Use dehumidifiers in damp rooms and during prolonged rainy seasons to remove excess moisture from the air.
The ultraviolet light rays from the sun will damage finishes and bleach the stain and wood underneath. Prolonged exposure to sunlight can cause the finish to crack, sometimes in a pattern resembling the looks like cracked glass. Try to keep furniture out of direct sunlight. When that’s not possible, reduce the amount of light streaming on any piece of furniture. Use window shades, drapes or blinds to block direct sun light during the time of day the furniture is exposed. The use of UV screening films will dramatically reduce long term bleaching effect and are well worth the investment. Uniformly expose surfaces to light. Avoid letting the sun hit only part of a surface. Occasionally move lamps, doilies and other objects so the wood bleaches uniformly. Cover furniture with sheets or blankets if you leave your home for several months at a time. Move your furniture around periodically so that the same piece is not exposed to light all the time. However, some bleaching can be desirable. Antique collectors actually look for the rich, soft tones that fading can bring, particularly on Walnut and Rose Wood.
Carefully choose wood care products. There is a lot of confusion about what wood-care products to use. Store shelves are stacked with countless brands of wax, polish, spray and oil. Clever marketing techniques, tell us to use there product because it “feeds” the wood while it cleans and protects it too. Unless your furniture is unfinished, or the finish has deteriorated and worn off, when you clean your furniture you’re actually cleaning the finish, not the wood. There is absolutely no way for any cleaning product to “feed” or “nourish” the wood because the wood is sealed and protected by the finish. Proper care will prolong the life of a finish. Waxing the finish makes the surface of furniture slippery so that objects slide along it without scratching and dust will not stick. The wax protects the finish and the finish protects the wood. To clean, simply wipe with a soft lent free, damp (not wet) cloth. Be careful using water to clean wood. Water is wood’s worst enemy. Wood should never get wet or soaked. Water can cause swelling, warping or satins if it penetrates a finish. Most finishes are water resistant, not water proof. Use coasters, pads, cloths or runners to protect against spills and water rings. Consulting a professional before cleaning valuable antiques and heirlooms.
What’s the best way to care for my furniture? Ask five different people, and you’ll get five different answers. But most “experts” agree on a some basics. First of all, remember your mother is always right: Dust frequently. Keep away from feather dusters. They just move dust around, flinging it into the air, moving from one item to the next. Broken quills have sharp edges and could scratch the finish. Some types of dust are abrasive so infrequent dusting can create worn and dull surfaces over the years. Dust can accumulate in carvings, cracks and grooves and look an unattractive “gray”. This dusty buildup eventually becomes hard to remove. This “gray” look is often imitated by finishers using wax mixed with pumice or rotten stone powders to make an item look aged (Aren’t we clever!).
Use a clean, washable cloth made of soft, lint-free cotton. My favorites are cotton diapers, old T-shirt, or any soft cotton fabric. When using old clothing be sure to remove all hooks, snaps, buttons and zippers that could scratch surfaces. Don’t use a rag that has loose threads or unraveling edges. These can catch on wood splinters, moldings or loose veneer and pull them off.
Dusting with a dry cloth is abrasive and will ultimately dull the finish. A dry cloth will not really remove much dust. Sprinkling a few drops of water onto the dusting cloth. The trick is to moisten the cloth just enough to make dust adhere to it. The cloth should not be so damp that it wets the finish (leaving water streaks). If you can see any trace of water on the wood after you wipe, your cloth is to wet. Do not use any spray-on dusting aids or polish. Most of them contain water with an emulsifier to suspend some kind oil, or contain silicones. This type of oil is used in most commercial furniture sprays and polishes.
Wipe off dust using gentle, oval motions along the grain of the wood. Turn or fold the cloth often so you don’t just move dust and dirt from one spot to another. Lift, don’t slide, lamps and objects to dust under them.
Lift, don’t slide, objects on finished surfaces. Place objects on trivets, tablecloths, doilies or others covers to protect the finish. Use felt bottoms on lamps and other decorative objects. Especially ceramic objects as they are very abrasive. Avoid bright red felt because its color could leach into the wood through the finish. Use water based wood glue to stick the felt on objects. Some Chemicals in self stick adhesives used on felt can cause a reaction that softens or melts the finish. Use place mats or a table cloth to protect the finish from plates and silverware.
Keep solvents products like nail polish remover, alcohol and paint thinner away from furniture because they can harm the finish. Alcohol is in colognes, perfumes, medications as well as in wine, beer and liquor. Your perspiration and body oils can also harm a finish over time. Plants and flower nectar or pollen that touch the finish can also cause permanent stains. Over watering a plant can cause permanent stains when the fertilizers that dissolved into the water soaks through the finish to the wood. Placing hot items on furniture can cause a chemical change in the finish that results in white rings or spots.
Do not leave plastic objects lying on finished surfaces. Color from plastic tablecloths, appliance covers, food wrappers, plastic place mats and toys can discolor the finish and leach into wood over time. There can be a chemical reaction between some types of finish and cretin plastics that causes them to stick to each other, damaging the finish when it is pulled off. I once repaired an armoire after the customer placed a pair of leather-like gloves on the shelf in the spring and could not remove them next fall.
Lift, don’t slide heavy furniture especially on carpets. After a short time heavy items will flatten the carpet and padding under the legs or base. Pulling or sliding an item with some of its legs in these “craters” will often brake them. Sliding pieces on wood floor can damage the floors. Furniture legs may or may not have protective glides on them. The glides are used at the factory to make it easy to slide items without damaging the legs on hard surfaces. They are there primarily to aid in the manufacturing process not to protect your floor.
First, is it truly brass? A lot of modern hardware is a brass plating over a steel base. Take a small magnet off the refrigerator and see if it will stick to the brass. If it does, its plated and not solid brass. Heavy polishing of a plated item often will remove the plating reveling the steel base. Use caution and very light polishing for this type of hardware.
Some brass, solid and plated, was designed to have a dark, “antique” look. A chemical solution was applied to the brass to make it turn color. This is most often seen on the lesser expensive plated hardware.
Most solid and plated brass hardware on furniture today has a protective, tarnish resistant coating. It probably will not tarnish for a very long time and will only need to be dusted. If the brass is tarnishing and you want to polish it, first remove the brass so that the brass cleaner will not damage the finish. If your brass cleaner/polish does not seam to work, it may be that there is a protective finish covering the brass that must be removed first. After polishing it is best to apply a new tarnish resistant coating. Brass will tarnish quickly when exposed to air.
Wax build-up from past waxing is not often seen today. Because most people have been sold on the “benefits” and convince of spray polishes or oil. Very few people in North America use real wax today.
Wax build-up occurs over a long period of time. Its usually only seen in the crevices and corners where it can not be wiped off or when to much wax is used and then accumulates. The same areas where dust accumulates also. The built up mixture of dust and wax presents no real potential danger or damage to the furniture. It is a problem of aesthetics only. Some people however, prefer the patina of this aged look.
Removing old wax is done with solvents that dissolve the wax and then are wiped off with a clean cloth. The procedure is often performed several time to achieve a complete cleaning before a new coat of wax is applied. This procedure is best left to professionals who work in well ventilated work areas.
Also read: Wax, Polish, Oil: Which Is Best?
It is important to check your furniture’s drawer system for ware and damage every few years or when they stick or are hard to open. Pull out each drawer and examine the runners, slides, stops and guides. Not all drawer systems have all those components. Some will have metal drawer slides others have wood runners and some just slide on the frame of the cabinet. On metal parts use a small amount of light grease or petroleum jelly to lubricate friction points and bearings. On wood to wood parts use a candle or block of paraffin wax to lubricate all surfaces where wood rubs on wood. Some drawer systems have a center wood slide with a plastic or metal guide or just plastic guides at the right and left sides of the drawer opening. For this type wax only the wood that runs against the guides. If a drawer goes into the cabinet to far, then the drawer stops are broken or missing and should be repaired.
Don’t cram extra clothing into a full drawer. The drawer may be designed to carry the weight but the extra stress created by the friction or clothing catching on edges can brake the drawer’s components or chip off veneer. Use some discretion in the amount of weight you put into very large drawers. They may be able to hold a lot of volume but not excess weight. If a properly working and lubricated drawer is hard to open, you most likely have to much weight in it. Drawers that have two handles should be opened using both to prevent damage to runners and guides. Tighten lose, and replace missing screws that secure the hardware. Lose hardware mars the finish and gouges the wood. All lose joints and broken parts should be repaired as soon as possible to prevent additional damages. Drawers that stick in the summer months are swollen due to the extra moisture in the air. This occurs most often to drawers that are unfinished or not sealed on the inside. They should be adjusted to fit properly, then sealed to prevent recurrence. Don’t pry stuck drawers open or slam tight fitting drawers shut, as this often causes severe damage.
There are two types of doors on furniture. Sliding doors and hinged doors. A sliding door can be glass or wood. It fits into a slot or grove (top and bottom) which is sometimes lined with a plastic molding. These doors require little maintenance. If they do not slide easily they may just need a little lubricating. Most sliding doors, other than tambours, can be removed by lifting the door into the top slot so that it clears the bottom slot then pull the bottom of the door out and the top will follow. Lubricate the slots and door edges that fit into the slots with paste wax or paraffin for doors that have a wood to wood fit. A small amount of petroleum jelly works great for glass doors in a plastic track. Tambours are sliding panels made of small strips of wood with a cloth backing enabling them to bend around corners and slide in tracks that are shaped to fit the contour of the furniture (a roll-top desk is an example). The best way to lubricate these is to slid the panel all the way in, then lubricate the track (slot/grove). To remove a tambour it is necessary to remove at least the back and often other parts. Removing or repairing tambours should generally be done by a professional.
There are a number of things that can cause a hinged door not to fit properly. One of the most common problems is that the cabinet is not level and the top or bottom edges of the doors will bind or rub on the cabinet frame. This is simple to fix. Large wood cabinets are flexible and will conform to the shape of the floor or carpet. To check if leveling is the problem look at the top edges of the doors, if you have two doors the top edges of booth doors should be in a straight line with each other and have an even clearance gap from the frame of the cabinet. An out of level cabinet will have doors edges that slant (both doors in the same direction) showing a narrowing clearance gap from one end of the door to the other. To correct a leveling problem, shim the front leg on the side where the clearance gap is the smallest or the back leg where the clearance gap is the largest. I use a piece of cardboard as a shim, folding it over on itself several times (trial and error method) to achieve the proper thickness that will align the doors properly.
A door that will not stay closed is a nuisance. Here is a check list of things that cause this problem.
- The cabinet is leaning forward. Don’t laugh, it happens a lot. When you set a cabinet against the wall in a room with wall to wall carpeting make sure you do not set the back legs on the carpet’s tack strip. This will cause it to lean forward. Also check for adjustable levelers that are over extended on the back legs.
- The cabinet is out of level causing the door catches not to align.
- The door is “hinge bound”. This occurs when the mortis cuts into the door and/or cabinet frame to mount the hinge is to deep causing the hinged side of the door to hit the cabinet’s frame. The hinges need to be shimmed to correct this problem.
- The door is “screw bound”. This is similar to hinge bound in that the door can not close all the way. The screws in the hinges are to large or the wrong kind (round head instead of flat head). The heads of the screw(s) on the door side of the hinge and the ones on the frame side hit each other, not allowing the door to close.
- The door catches are broken, missing or worn out.
Loose and missing hinge screws also cause door fit problems. Double doors will hit each other in the center, single door cabinets will rub against the top side of the cabinet frame and both types will rub or drag on the bottom. Often wearing off the finish. To check for loose screws, open a door a short distance and hold it on the top with one hand and the bottom with your other hand. Gently tilt it up and down. If the hinges are loose you will feel the door move and may hear a sound also from the screws hitting the metal hinges.
One more thing. Be careful opening cabinets with large doors. The weight of the door(s) when open can cause the cabinet to fall forward! Newer furniture comes with a warning tag, but older and antique items do not. You can secure the cabinet to the wall or floor with screws or load it with heavy items to counter balance the weight of the doors. I have heard several reports of people being injured when they opened heavy glass doors and the cabinet fell over on them.
Glass and Mirrors
There is not much maintenance required for glass panels or mirrors. Just clean with your favorite glass cleaner as needed. The proper way to clean glass on furniture is to apply the cleaner to the rag, not directly on the glass itself. Spray type glass cleaners contain ammonia and some times alcohol. The over-spray that gets on the wood trim can damage the finish over time.
A few thoughts to consider about re-silvering mirrors and beveled glass. It is much less expensive to replace a mirror than to re-silver it if the edge is not beveled. Beveled edging can be expensive because not many glass shops do that kind of work. They will send it out to a third party and mark-up the price. There are a number of franchise type restoration shops that offer re-silvering in-house and some of them will sub-out the job. The “look” of an old glass that has been properly re-silvered has a beautiful gold colored hue which is very desirable on antique furniture. I have seen several re-silvered mirrors that have deteriorated in a relatively short time. Find out what warranty comes with a re-silvering job before you commit to have the work done. Re-silvering is a good choice if you have an old glass (the “wavy look” of old glass is from the type of processing. The molten glass was pulled from the oven and stretched to a thickness as it cooled. New glass is done much the same way, but goes through sets of steel rollers, thus a very smooth finish and consistent thickness).
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