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Preserving the Patina–and Value
–of Antique Furniture

by Bob Brooke


A 19th-century Eastlake walnut patina.It takes years of experience, observation, study, and training to differentiate between an antique piece of furniture and a faithful reproduction. Some characteristics, however, cannot be reproduced. Perhaps the most unmistakable one is patina. This is a mellowing of the surface acquired by wood through age, use, dusting, and polishing.

True patina is nonexistent on furniture only a few years old. Although fine mahogany, cherry, or maple, recently milled, may look handsome, they lack the glow that comes with a century or more of use. The tone or color of course varies with the wood, but the bloom grows with age and handling. Restoring and refinishing always must be done carefully to avoid damaging the patina.

The natural aging of wood contributes greatly to its patina. Backboards and drawers made of soft woods also color as they age. When they are taken out, the upper drawers may still be light-colored because they were protected. But the backboards and the bottom of the lowest drawer, which have been exposed, will have darkened and mellowed to a soft shade of brown. Again, this darkening cannot be reproduced or faked by applying stain.

An example of an original warm patina on an 18th-century sideboard.There’s some controversy when it comes to refinishing a piece of antique furniture. Purists, especially those collecting 18th and early 19th-Century pieces will argue that to touch a piece is nothing less than criminal. Others will argue that some pieces need cleaning and maybe some repair. Collectors of higher-valued furniture want their pieces to be in pristine–that is, absolutely original--condition. To them, even cleaning a piece takes away from its value.

Cleaning a valuable antique can be done, but it should be done by a professional. Off-the-shelf cleaners and polishes like Pledge do more harm than good, as they build up a layer of wax and hydrocarbons. For less valuable pieces, a simple washing mixture can be prepared using a capful of Murphy’s Oil Soap to about two quarts of warm water. This should be applied onto a small area at a time using an old washcloth, followed immediately by a thorough drying with an old terrycloth towel. The piece should be allowed to dry for about 24 hours before applying a coating of Minwax. By working on a small area at a time and working quickly, warping will be prevented.

The only kind of wax that should ever be used on antique furniture is Minwax paste wax, applied with a soft cloth such as an old sock or a cloth diaper. An annual waxing using Minwax preserves and moisturizes the wood.

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How to Recognize and Refinish Antiques for Pleasure and Profit

Book: How to Recognizing and Refinishing Antiques for Pleasure and Profit
Have you ever bought an antique or collectible that was less than perfect and needed some TLC? Bob's new book offers tips and step-by- step instructions for simple maintenance and restoration of common antiques.

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