Hatfields are world leading craftsmen experienced in restoration, conservation and fabrication, working with important period objects from the 16th century through to contemporary design. Hatfields's restoration work can be viewed on many pieces in public collections including the Louvre Museum in Paris, the Frick Collection in New York, the Wallace Collection in London as well as the Royal Collections at Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. Here they offer guidance on how to look after your antiques with regards to condition, environment and care.
Image courtesy of Hatfields Restoration
"Living with your possessions should give pleasure, not be a headache"
Looking after anything old can be a labour of love. Whether old houses, old cars, even elderly people need special care and attention. However, works of art and antiques can be maintained without intrusive and expensive intervention, if their environment is balanced and stable, neither does it need to be technologically demanding. Living with your possessions should give pleasure, not be a headache. The following guidance for the healthcare of your furniture enables you to live with beautiful and fragile objects more easily.
Temperature and Humidity
One of the most frequent causes of damage to furniture and artworks is humidity. The timber in furniture is sensitive to its atmosphere and today houses are seldom ideal environments for antiques. Living spaces, particularly in cities, are hermetically sealed with central heating and air conditioning, which create a dry atmosphere. This lack of humidity is the greatest cause of deterioration and damage to wooden furniture.
The natural glues holding the joints together dry out, causing instability, especially in chairs. The wood itself starts shrinking across the grain putting greater tension on the joints, causing breakages. This shrinkage also occurs in cabinet furniture and tables resulting in veneer loss and cracking. The carcass wood moves, and the veneers break away, like sheets of ice fracturing over moving water. In the same way, this shrinkage of the core timber leads to losses of other decorative surfaces, whether gilding, lacquer or paint work on picture frames and mirrors, as well as tables and cabinet furniture.
Damage caused by lack of humidity. All images courtesy of Hatfields Restoration
Antiques benefit from being in a well humidified room. Ideal relative humidity levels should be maintained at between 50 and 55 percent. During the winter with central heating drying out the atmosphere, simply placing flowers in a room or even bowls of water beneath fragile pieces of furniture, can help maintain a better-balanced relative humidity. Even periodically opening windows and allowing fresh air to circulate can be beneficial. More specifically, small dishes with soaked wet sponges in the drawers of a bureau or shelves of a cabinet, if regularly checked, are very effective for localised problems. In order to measure the relative humidity in your home and even within an individual piece of furniture, purchasing an inexpensive hygrometer, easily found on the Internet, is a critical tool. These levels of humidity are also good for your personal physical health and well-being.
However, consistency is also essential. Fluctuation of temperature and humidity levels cause the timber to shrink and swell, which accelerates the damage. If you are moving furniture from one space to another, ensure that the atmosphere in each space is similar. Often furniture purchased from a country house sale and placed immediately into a city apartment suffers from the abrupt change.
Crack opening in dry solid top. Image courtesy of Hatfields Restoration
Here at Hatfield’s, we restored a lacquer bureau bookcase for a client in Manhattan whose apartment, overlooking Central Park, was as dry as a desert and very nearly as hot. Within a couple of months, the poor piece of furniture started shedding its decorative lacquer skin. The unhappy clients naturally blamed our workmanship. But, once we sent them a relatively sophisticated conservation hygrometer, the problem was recognised and the clients installed a humidification system within their central HVAC controls. The conservation programme was difficult and expensive because the cabinet had been allowed to deteriorate into a poor condition. Since it was rescued, it has remained in good condition for many years. Therefore, we recommend early, small interventions to increase the humidity and stabilise the fluctuating extremes of temperature to avoid such regrettable incidents.
Restoring dry furniture really does not have to be expensive and can sometimes be surprisingly simple, even if time consuming. Last year a banqueting table, designed by A.W.N. Pugin the architect of the Palace of Westminster, came to our workshops. This impressive table with ten thick oak leaves can sit more than 60 people, when fully extended. Laid out in our warehouse, the table looked more like a switchback railway or waves on a stormy sea. The leaves were so bent that they did not fit into the table frame. Although it had been used for more than 100 years without a problem, recently its leaves had been stored separately, near to a central heating system. Within a matter of a few years, all had badly warped.
Not wanting to make new leaves, the owners approached Hatfield's to resolve their problem. As part of our conservation programme, we placed each leaf in our outer store, which has a relative humidity of between 60 and 65 percent. There they remained lightly weighted for six to eight weeks. Patiently allowing the timber to re-absorb moisture assured that the leaves returned to their original state without expensive intervention. Yet when the leaves were again placed into an unsuitable storage area, the timber again dried out and warped! Returned to us for a few weeks of rehabilitation, the flat leaves were handed back to the client for storage in a more appropriate, humidity-controlled space.
Cleaning and Polishing
Once you have achieved a stable environment for your artworks, guided by your humidistat and temperature control, the occasional light dusting to keep the surface clean is essential as is feeding the timber; a light application of beeswax helps maintain the balance of the controlled atmosphere.
A Hatfields craftsman waxing a table top. Image courtesy of Hatfields Restoration
Do not be tempted to spray the furniture with a proprietary spray polish, as most have unnatural chemicals which do not benefit the timber and may create a sealed surface not allowing the wood to breathe. This may be inappropriate for some contemporary furniture which is constructed from modern timbers, such as fibreboard, and sealed with a lacquered spray finish. Only apply a light coating of wax to a clean surface and ensure that it is fully buffed out, so that you do not get a build up of old wax and smears across the surface. This feeding of a wax polish should be done infrequently, at most four times a year.
Although there are many other conditions that effect furniture and artworks such as light, dirt, handling and movement, as well as overly damp conditions; here at Hatfield's we find that the lack of humidity and the dryness of our modern homes creates most of the damage that we restore and conserve. Hopefully, when acquiring your furniture from auction or from dealers, you will be able to maintain it well for future generations to enjoy.
Looking to buy at auction?
We hope this article has helped pique your interest in antiques and addressed any care concerns you may have had.
If you’re looking to make a purchase or add to your collection, we hold regular furniture auctions. Please see our Auction Calendar for our forthcoming auctions.
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