This outline is the outgrowth of feelings that I have had for quite some time on the how's, and why's of restoring antique furniture and other old things. The restoration of things is what we do. Nor does it matter if these things are true antiques or fairly new. It could be converting an old gas sconce to electric, it might even be the reverting back to gas of a chandelier that has been changed from gas to electric and my job is to take it back to gas. Even if it is taking an old 1950's television cabinet with a family history and converting it to a wine cabinet. The surface of a piece of wood furniture can be refinished or restored as well as the tarnished surface of an old brass Aladdin lamp, why limit yourself or your business?? Solving the problems to repair, restore, renew something and give it a new lease on life as well as the ability to serve the next generation without destroying its historical integrity, is the goal of what we do.
How did/do we come to the techniques that we use and why do we have certain prejudices on some of the techniques that we use. Why is it OK to strip and refinish a high end piece from the early 1900's and are absolutely forbidden to strip something from the early 1800's. If we do our job properly those 100 years should not make all that much difference in what we are trying to accomplish.
My sense is that not everyone has stopped to think about what has happened within our industry during the last century. Is the prejudice against stripping true old antiques because back in the day the only way to strip was lye? Surely everyone has had experience with a hot tank systemâ where what was once a nice county chair is now a pile of sticks or that the nice old crotch mahogany veneer is lifted and loose all over the piece. If you had a quality true antique Philadelphia highboy would you want the life sucked from the grain by the lye or some of the other chemicals we used to use? Not to mention some of the health considerations, but that is another story. Some of the new stripping chemicals while removing the old finish do not destroy the beauty of the wood by bleaching the tar out of the grain.
Many of the "restorers" plying the trade today have only a coursey knowledge of true antiques and how to recognize them. By shear numbers of the types and ages of pieces that are out there today this is not a huge problem, we just do not get a true antique everyday, or even every week. But we all need to be able recognize a true antique so that we do not lead our clients to make a possibly very costly mistake. Generally, our clients turn to us because we are the "experts", they need help and guidance, which is why we exist. We do not see the volume of truly old things that we used to see. Times have changed. My grandfather used to throw Empire era crotch mahogany veneered chests of drawers in the pond behind the shop to soak the veneer off and then take the pine carcass, change the empire feet to a bun foot and have a piece of "country pine", which he could sell, the empire would not sell. He was a master of color and made the new shellac finish look old. How many other of these old restorers or antiques dealers did the same thing. There are dozens of documented cases of antiques dealers adding or removing details from old pieces to increase their value (take the antique blanket chests with unicorns that were added by a Reading, PA antiques dealer). I am sure other restorers have done like work, which accounts for some of the variety we end up with, to work on today. Even this does not take into consideration the pieces that were built, modified, or married together to satisfy the clients who had to have some antiques in their home during a time that was media generated around some historical event like the Centennial or the Sesquicentennial.
Anyone who has played with the finishes on really old furniture knows that if you can see the grain with ease, something has been done to the finish. Stripped, cleaned or realamagated? Really old finishes tended to be effected by heat and moisture, they absorbed dust, lint and even cigarette smoke. They slowly got darker and darker over the years (need to prove that to yourself - just lift an old brass pull and look at the finish under it, quite a difference). But if you remove the old finish and put back a new finish that is the same (remove shellac put back shellac) is that a cardinal sin ? I generally, tend to think not.
There is also the snobâ appeal of true antiques and the special care that they need. You do not treat an Ikea dresser like you would treat a curly maple colonial era dresser. And you surely can not show off the new Ikea dresser in the same manner that you show off great-grandmothers tall case clock. Or even tell your neighbors that you had to pay X-thousands of dollars to have the marble top dresser you inherited from Aunt Gertie totally restored. Never under estimate the effect of snobâ appeal on your restoration business.
While there is a lot of information out there on how to strip and refinish nearly anything, there is also tons of information missing - information on how to recognize a legitimate antique; information on how to do the repair; information on how to do the refinishing; and information on how to still maintain the historical integrity of any given piece. That is not to say that my assessment of the situation will not cause a huge string of comments from others on how and why to do something one way as opposed to the other way.
Even a piece that is only valued for it's sentimental value should be given the proper care so that it can last for many more generations. The techniques that are used for a 250 year old piece of furniture are not necessarily, or even likely, the ones that would be used on a 50 year old piece ( is hide glue proper and correct or can yellow glue be used). Even the owners personal preferences come into play ( do the original brasses need to be polished and lacquered or just cleaned and allowed to tarnish naturally again).
Over the years I think that I have tried to read nearly all of the books that are available on the restoration subjects and not tried to limit my reading or my business to only vintage/ antique furniture. Additionally, I have tried to find other restorers who would share their techniques and processes with me. My restoration company does things as diverse as furniture stripping, to repairing antique faux finishes, to cleaning and polishing a 1950âs lucite hand bag. We have tried most if not all of the techniques learned, either thru reading or conversations. Many, if not most times during these attempts it seems that some minor, though important step, ingredient or bit of information has been omitted. I would hate to think that this omission has done deliberately but more an issue that either the instructions were written by someone who had almost no experience and thus was omitted due to ignorance, or was written by someone who had many years of experience and took for granted that because they knew almost by instinct what to do that the rest of us would know the same. This is not to say that it was deliberate on the authors part, or even that it was not a lack of understanding on my part. But all too often the techniques failed.
Additionally, times and techniques change. What was the "proper" technique 40 years ago is not necessarily the "proper" technique today. We learn things and materials come and go as the laws and knowledge change.
The other issue over the years has been that we, as restorers, work in a field that causes us to always be solving problems on a daily basis. Problems that once we have solved, we are reluctant to share with others because knowledge is our stock in trade and makes us money. These solutions to problems are usually unique to each individual piece, just because a Sheraton chair broke one way for owner A does not mean that it broke that way for owner B, or even that owner C's Chippendale chair broke in such a way that what we learned on chair A or B could be used. Each break is unique and must be corrected in a way that is special for that single problem.
Additionally, we are always borrowing solutions and techniques from other industries which have absolutely nothing to do with the restoring of old things (in my shop we clean brasses in an ultrasonic cleaner (from the clock industry) and polish in a vibratory tumbler (from the ammunition reloading industry) and use an epoxy from the boat industry.
What I am going to attempt to do is present fully (with pictures where possible), the techniques, procedures, and processes that have worked and are working for me. I hope that we restorers can develop a running dialogue on how to best do our craft, demonstrate to the general public that we perform a service that is generally beyond their level of expertise, and maintain the historical integrity of the pieces that we work with.
Some of the procedures are exactly the same ones that I learned from my father and grandfather and others have had to be modified due to the availability of certain chemicals and new materials or tools.
If you have any comments on the outline or the information presented please feel free to contact me and I will be glad to put forward my logic and justifications for these procedures or publish a change for others to see.
At my shop we have three rules:
- Do not make the damage worse.
- Maintain historical integrity.
- KISS - Keep It Simple Stupid.