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While those of us in the conservation department grapple with the many challenges facing our society, we are finding comfort in our family heirlooms and treasures—many of which require our attention. We understand that like us, many of you may be turning to your family treasures for comfort during these trying times. Thus, the conservation department would like to share tips on ways to care for your personal collections and assure you that we are here to support you and the collections that you hold dear.
Each week a different student from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation will address ways to care for the collections in your cupboards. This week’s post focuses on protecting and maintaining family furniture and was written by rising third-year Wooden Artifacts Fellow, Sarah Towers.
Whether it’s your great-grandmother’s bureau or a favorite thrift store chair, your treasured furniture may be artistically, historically, or personally significant to you. At the same time, furniture by definition is created for a functional purpose. Finding a balance between protecting our furniture and maintaining and honoring its functionality can be a delicate dance of preventive care basics and compromise to suit our homes and lifestyles.
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The wear pattern on this sticky drawer was caused by active use during periods of high humidity when the drawer sides swelled. (Image by Jonathan Stevens.)
Although furniture can be made of a wide variety of materials – plastics, textiles, leather and plant-based materials, glass, metals, and more – this blog post focuses primarily on wooden furniture. Please check out our other Caring for Family Treasures posts on these other materials for information about how to care for your non-wooden furniture.
Wood used to make furniture comes from trees or other woody plants like bamboo. The trees can either be hardwoods, such as cherry, walnut, mahogany, and maple, or softwoods, like pine, cedar, and fir. The endless possible ways to process woods include: riven into boards, turned on a lathe, or sawn millimeters-thin and glued onto other substrates as veneer. Wood is an organic material, meaning that it can shrink or expand in response to environmental changes; it will fade upon exposure to light, and it is a favorite snack for some wood-loving pests.
We all know what it’s like to have a sticky dresser drawer or a cabinet door that won’t stay closed. This happens when relative humidity is too high (wood cells swell as they absorb the excess moisture) or too low (wood cells shrink as they release moisture). In extreme environments, such as minimally climate-controlled attics and basements, wood can warp or split. Veneers will often become detached or bubble or tent upwards. In many cases, once this happens the damage is irreversible. High humidity environments, in addition to swelling wood, can also promote mold growth and insect activity. Keeping your prized furniture in rooms with moderate temperature (~70ºF) and humidity (~50% RH) is ideal, but this may be unattainable or unsustainable. If so, it is important to aim for an environment with fewer extreme swings in temperature and humidity. If you have a room that you know becomes particularly dry in winter or damp in summer, investing in some inexpensive equipment can go a long way toward minimizing the effects of seasonal swings. A humidifier will help wood regain moisture content during dry winter months, and a dehumidifier or some silica gel packets inside drawers or other enclosed spaces will help wood from taking on too much moisture in summer.
This table top was situated directly beneath a window for decades and experienced extreme fading due to light damage. The dark brown patches, protected by objects formerly placed on top of the table, reveal the original color of the wood. (Image by Sarah Towers.)
Wood can also fade upon exposure to light. The color of wood is created naturally by tannins in the wood itself, or artificially by a furniture maker who may have employed stains or tinted varnishes. Almost invariably these colorants are organic in nature and prone to damage from light, which breaks up the coloring molecules and results in a faded appearance. Light damage is also irreversible, but it can be easily prevented. Avoid placing your furniture directly in front of windows, or use expendable cloth covers to protect the wood.
Because so much of our furniture is functional, we tend to interact with it more than we do with other types of objects. For that reason, furniture is prone to damage from handling. One of the most common types of damage occurs when a piece of furniture is lifted by an element that is not well-secured, like a finial or a wobbly chair rail, which then breaks off. Before moving your furniture, take a moment to pause and find the weight-bearing members of your piece that are the sturdiest. A little “test wiggle” can go a long way to determining whether an element is stable enough to use for lifting.
This sofa leg was broken as it was being moved. Rather than lift the sofa by its strongest members (the seat rails), the movers tried to slide the sofa across the floor. This leg hit a snag and broke off. (Image by Sarah Towers.)
We are all familiar with furniture cleaning products that come in aerosol cans, smell like lemons, and temporarily make our furniture surfaces sparkle and shine “like new”. While these products can immediately make the surface look great, in the long term they will damage your wooden furniture. They leave thin layers of waxy or oily residues that can build up over time, attract dirt and dust as they age, and eventually chemically cross-link - darkening and becoming impossible to remove. At worst they will actively damage the original finish beneath. Avoid using these products. Instead, routinely dust or wipe your furniture with soft lint-free cloths (diaper cloth material or old pillowcases are useful for this).
The cellulose in wood can be a tasty snack for pests such as powderpost beetles and termites. The insects that eat woody materials tend to leave small round or oval exit holes in the wood surface. Seeing these exit holes is not necessarily a cause for alarm; most antique furniture has some level of pest damage that is no longer active. The best way to identify an active infestation is to look for fresh wood-colored powder in or around the exit holes or in small piles underneath your furniture. If you see this, immediately seal your furniture in a plastic bag, isolate it from the rest of your collection, and consult a conservator.
Lastly, use your furniture with pride and joy. Gentle care will ensure your furniture lasts long past your own lifetime.
We hope you are enjoying these entries in our series focused on caring for your family heirlooms. This series will continue throughout the summer and cover a variety of items and materials. If you have any comments on the series thus far, including materials you’d like to see covered in future posts, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The previous posts in this series are available on the Department of Art Conservation website here.
You are in our hearts and minds as collectively we face many challenges. We hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. When we emerge from this global crisis we must and will rely on art and culture, preserved for today and for future generations, to foster joy, well-being and hope. We encourage you to visit our web site for regular updates on our department of art conservation and news coverage of our treasured students and alumni at home and abroad.