How to Make Professional Restorers Cringe


On the pages of this zine, as any regular reader knows, we often offer advice for the antique furniture collector on how they can restore their own furniture. Generally the procedures described are simple, or at least reasonably so, and can be managed by all but the most un-handy of individuals. Not surprisingly most professional furniture menders I know hate me for it.

While most attempt to couch their contempt in terms of concern that the amateur restorer will damage their pieces further and commit an unforgivable sin against antiques as a whole with their carelessness. Personally I suspect their vigorous complaints have more to do with their bank accounts and desire to protect trade secrets than their deep-seated respect for antique furniture.

Being constitutionally unable to resist provoking even the understandably hypocritical, I recently asked a few of the grouchier restorers I’m in contact with what amateur mistakes drive them the craziest. After tossing out the ones that were simple peevishness I was left with a rather good list of things the amateur restorer should be careful to avoid. I don’t mean to avoid irritating the constantly irritated, avoiding these mistake will in fact make your restored antique chair last longer, look better, and give you a heightened sense of accomplishment.

Many non-professional restorers like to drive screws and nails into pieces of furniture to give them stability. This one drives the professional absolutely nuts. No serious furniture maker has used a nail or screw to hold furniture together since the end of the Dark Ages. I can hear you saying, “Is this guy nuts? I’ve seen countless screws holding support brackets in place on the bottom of countless chairs.” That may be true but unless a lazy or inept restorer restored the chair those screws were put in place not to hold the piece together but to hold it together while the glue dried. Glue is, and long has been, the only really effective way to keep furniture in one piece.

In a related topic another common action of the well-intentioned amateur that will cause the pro to break out in hives is the failure to remove old glue from a mended joint. New glue and old glue will nearly always fail to adhere to one another securely. I have even spoken with seemingly competent woodworkers who have told me that new glue adheres better to old glue than to clean wood. Even I blanched at this flawed idea. By the way, when gluing a piece of furniture together always use a C clamp, tourniquet, or at least weight to hold the wood together while drying. It is amazing how often the inexperienced restorer fails to make this simple but vital step.

Speaking of C clamps, I was amazed at how much my collection of restorers was irritated by amateurs that fail to protect antiques from damage when using a clamp. The contact surfaces of a C clamp are rarely perfectly smooth and their uneven surface can easily mar the surface of wooden furniture. A clamp should never be tightened down onto wood without some kind of padding between the two surfaces. There are a number of good choices for providing padding to a clamp. So people simply slide a piece of wax paper or felt between the surfaces and this will generally work however I think a much better solution is to glue small pieces of a soft wood such as pine to each side of the clamp.

Inexperienced antique restorers love to stain wood. It compensates for a variety of minor woodworking sins and hides mismatches in the wood used in repairs. Stain is easy to come by and staining looks easy to do. However the wrong stain at the wrong time can obscure the beauty of the natural wood and even seriously reduce the value of an antique. If the table you are considering staining is made of mahogany, maple, or cherry you should consider very carefully indeed. These woods all have exceptionally beautiful grains and coloration, slopping a dark stain on them will hide the delicate patterns or even make them indistinguishable from less attractive woods. There are many books that describe the proper way to mix colors and which shades to use for different types of wood.

Lastly the best way to drive a professional restorer out of their ever-loving mind is to ask them for advice. Like doctors, furniture restorers are paid for what they do but are still regularly expected to willingly and without recompense hand out their trade secrets. Nobody likes to do their job for free and woodworkers are no different. They also don’t like being asked what about amateur restoration drives them nuts, I’ll make it up to them somehow.

—-Posted on January 4th, 2007

Silas Finch is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques Etc. He can be reached at Content and Solutions.

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