Antique Tips: Before You Repair Antique Furniture

Before repairing your antiques, check these important points. Tips for beginners, and ideas for fixing valuable old furniture.

Some antiques need very special care when you repair them. A few shouldn't be repaired at all. It's important to know what's safe to repair on your antiques, how to fix it, and what should be left alone.

First, research your furniture. Know what era it is from, and the materials, techniques, and finishes of that time period. Find out how valuable it is, and why.

Is the item worth thousands of dollars? If so, take no chances; have it professionally repaired or restored. Even if it is worth a few hundred dollars, you may want to hire an expert. Get some estimates. The cost may be lower than you expect.

If the piece isn't extremely valuable, this may be a fine way to learn furniture repair. But, whether you're repairing an 18th-century table or a 1930s kitchen chair, there are questions to ask yourself before you pick up a screwdriver or wood glue.

IS IT WISE TO REPAIR IT?

Sometimes, what looks like damage actually makes an antique valuable.

As with vintage cars, the original paint or finish on an antique desk might be prized, no matter what its condition.

Original hardware is almost always important to the value of antique furniture. In fact, sometimes the hardware--even badly broken--is more valuable than the furniture that it is on. Be sure not to damage the furniture or the hardware if you remove it.

A badly worn or discolored varnish should probably be removed. But, if the finish is shellac, it should be restored or left "as is," never stripped or replaced. If you aren't sure which is on your antique table or desk, find out before you touch it with a stripper.

LEARN ABOUT THE WOOD

Most antique furniture is made primarily of wood. Study the wood in the item that you'd like to repair. Soft woods should be handled differently from hard woods. Veneers and inlays require special treatment as well.

Unless the wood has been damaged by insects or repeated wear, you probably won't be repairing the wood itself. Wood is one of the longest-lasting materials in household items. Many ancient Egyptian furnishings and Scandinavian churches remain in excellent condition after hundreds or even thousands of years.

However, if surface damage is a problem and it's safe to strip the item, research paint and varnish removers. Some are safe, some are not, and some work well on only a limited range of surfaces.

START WITH EASY FIXES

When you begin repairing antique furniture, it's smart to learn with simple projects. For example, a loose stretcher on a chair is a good place to start.



Broken hardware can also be an ideal project for a beginner. If you're going to replace it with identical reproduction hardware, the repair can take just a few minutes.

Always try to learn with "reversible repairs." This means a process that can be reversed with little or no damage to the furniture. You can always remove a screw if its head looks too new against older wood. But, if you've pried wood veneer off a table and--too late--realized that the veneer was important, it can be impossible to restore it.

REPAIRING JOINTS

Furniture joints are usually held together with glue, pegs, wedges, screws, nails, or sometimes a combination of these. They're usually the first thing to fix on a chair or table. This is a good project for a beginner, and it often prevents further significant damage to your furniture.

If a piece is broken, you can usually replace it. This is especially true when a dresser drawer guide (also called a glider) is missing; that's one of the most common repairs to antique furniture.

Remove the broken piece. If it can be glued back together, do so. With less valuable furnishings, many auction houses use hot glue for this purpose. For other jobs, wood glue and some reinforcements may be necessary. And, in a few cases, you'll use a specialized glue that's correct for the time period of the furniture.

If a broken or missing piece cannot be fixed, a local carpenter or woodshop can probably make a replacement piece for you. But, take the broken piece to a home improvement store first; many of them carry standard wooden shapes and sizes that fit popular styles of furniture.

To repair loose joints, disassemble the pieces, sand off the old glue, and apply fresh glue. If the parts need to be held in place for hours while they dry, be sure to use a clamp that won't leave a mark on the furniture. Many antiques shops use a special web clamp; this is a smart investment if you expect to repair much furniture.

Otherwise, nylon rope or long strips of cotton (about two inches wide) can be tied, tourniquet style, to hold the parts in place while drying.

BROKEN HARDWARE

If you plan to replace broken antique or vintage hardware, remove it carefully. Don't throw it out; store it where you can find it easily. If possible, wrap it and label the package, and keep it in a drawer in the item.

If you can't find a suitable replacement for the original hardware, some metal shops can cast an identical piece for you. But, "old house" dealers carry reproductions of the most common styles of antique hardware.

You may also find replacement parts at antiques shops and auctions. Consider buying a similar piece of furniture--in worse condition--for parts.

LARGER REPAIRS

Before tackling a large repair, especially one that's going to be prominent when the furniture is displayed, be sure that you've practiced on easier pieces. If you're restoring veneer or inlay, or even paint or varnish, experiment with several less valuable pieces first.

Also, check your public library or bookstores for manuals that explain construction and repair of the kind of furniture you own. Many of them provide useful tips.

Above all, learn all that you can before you start any repair, particularly if the furniture has sentimental value. Start with easy fixes, and practice to build your knowledge and confidence before attempting big or tricky repairs.

No antique furniture will look "like new" again, and in most cases, it shouldn't. But, if you treat your antiques well, they will become more valuable each year, and be treasured by each generation that owns them.

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