Now that you have purchased your new antique English cylinder desk or mahogany armoire and gotten it home, how can you best care for it?
Here are some general care tips for any wood furniture regardless of age or condition. These tips relate to housing your treasured piece in the proper environment, looking for possible problem areas and keeping them from becoming big headaches and ways to make your piece easier to use. The best possible environment for a piece of wood furniture is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit at about 50% humidity and out of direct sunlight. In fact, pitch dark would be ideal.
Sunlight is likely to fade the beautiful finish of your special mahogany desk or the beautiful dark cherry table you inherited from your grandmother, so keep them out of direct sun. Even a shaft of sunlight across that tabletop day after day will eventually leave a faded spot. Sunlight damages the finish on wood furniture because the ultraviolet rays penetrate the finish and bleach the wood surface. Even light bulbs, however, give off UV rays, especially florescent bulbs so it is good to buy the shaded incandescent bulbs for use in areas where valuable furniture is displayed.
Moisture damage happens more quickly than sun damage. Everyone has left a water ring on a table surface at one time or another. The all too familiar white water rings or white haze is caused by water leaching into the finish changing the way light passes through the finish to the wood below. Fortunately, white water rings can usually be removed using fine steel wool, a good quality clear furniture wax like Briwax and a lot of elbow grease. Better to use a coaster or at least wipe up the moisture quickly before it soaks into the finish. Prevention is definitely the key to managing water damage because unfinished or badly finished wood will suck up water. The dark stain caused from the water leaching all the way through the finish and into the wood will need to be bleached and sanded, a job better left to a professional. Even then there is no guarantee of being able to fully restore the original look of your once beautiful English oak occasional table or mahogany end table.
Severe Water Damage
More severe kinds of water damage such as that from a flood may cause the glue in joints to dissolve so that the joints become loose or separate completely. In addition, since wood attracts water into its structure, the wood may crack or split as it dries if it dries too quickly. Setting your solid oak sideboard in the sun to dry after your basement where it was stored had twelve inches of standing water for a day or two, is not a good idea. Better to allow the sideboard to dry for several weeks or even months away from direct heat or sunlight. The drying place, however, should also be away from excess moisture as well to prevent growth of mold or mildew.
Veneer and Loose Joints
Veneered pieces are more difficult to salvage than solid wood water logged furniture. If the veneer has separated and the underlying wood or particle board has swollen it is nearly impossible. Again, drying out treasured pieces is a project that probably needs professional advice. Loose joints, however, whether from water damage or simple use can often be corrected by inserting a good quality wood glue into the joint and banding or clamping it together until it dries.
Another moisture problem that is relatively easy to fix is sticking drawers. Sometimes excess humidity can cause drawers to swell, making them difficult to pull out or more often hard push back into place. Sometimes just rubbing a bar of hand soap or a wax candle along the drawer tracks will be all that is needed to correct the problem. Stickier drawers may be helped by a little sanding and waxing of the drawer rails.
It would also be nice if you could keep humans, pets and insects away from your fine heirloom as well. Since this is not terribly realistic, periodic attention to possible damage from each of these culprits is a good preventive measure. Human damage is the most likely to occur simply because of normal use. If you have ever noticed a sticky black build up on the dark walnut arms of your easy chair, that sticky stuff is the accumulated result of sweaty hands and fingers. Sweat breaks down the wood finish and turns it to black goo. If you notice a color change in spots which frequently come in contact with exposed body parts it is time to clean those places.
Insect Varmints Woodworm infestation
Another easily corrected and, oddly, in some cases even a desirable problem is woodworm. There are several varieties of furniture pests that could infest furniture. The most common is the common furniture beetle. Their signature is clusters of small holes that look as if they might have been made by a small finishing nail. The woodworm holes, of course, will not lead to straight shafts like those a nail would create since the beetle larvae tend to move in a somewhat willy nilly fashion. (One way to tell the real worm holes from the fake ones on an “antiqued” piece of furniture is to determine whether the holes lead to real worm tracks or nail shafts.) Once the shafts have been found to be genuine, the next thing is to see of they result from an old or current infestation. Old, inactive infestations often add to the charm of the piece, as long as the damage did not compromise the structural integrity of your cupboard or chest of drawers. Active infestations will produce a sawdust like substance in interior spaces, whose particles look like small lemons under a microscope. Live woodworm can be easily treated using an insecticide inserted into the worm holes. There are good ones available which will not damage the wood but will stop the infestation, which if left unchecked could ultimately destroy the structural strength of your treasured piece and infect other pieces in your home.