Antique Glossary: Pests and Rot

It is an unhappy fact that to be a knowledgeable antique furniture collector you have to be well informed about a number of unpleasant things. Various form of rot, stains, and insects all compete to be the first to destroy a beautiful antique chair or table.

It’s a pleasant and enlightening experience to explore the corners of fine china and those charming antique toys but owning collectible is a responsibility. The owner of a 200-year old armoire has an obligation to care for and protect a valuable cultural relic. If you are going to protect it you must know a little about the dangers threatening it.

Restoration guides are filled with useful advice but if you don’t know the terms all that advice goes to waste. Before plowing in to the serious work it pays to sow a seed of knowledge and, to labor a metaphor further, you’ll reap a greater yield of learning.

As a starting point we present this small glossary of things that destroy and the damage they do.

Blisters- Tiny bubbles that appear on the surface of painted or lacquered pieces. On paintings and painted furniture blisters are usually caused by the piece being stored in damp, poorly ventilated areas. On varnished furniture the reverse is true. Blister on wood are generally caused by excessive dryness.

Bloom- Pale, waxy, irregularly shaped stains that appear within the varnish of a piece of furniture. Bloom is caused when the varnish is applied on a cool damp day. Over time a milky haze appears on the surface the furniture.

Bronze Disease- Wet, flaky, green patches that appear on bronze statuary that has been exposed to damp weather and salts. It gives human statues an unpleasant look of leprosy.

Clothes Moths- An absolute terror to textiles of all kinds. The term applies to any of several different species of insect that haunt closets, attics, and the like. Adult moths lay eggs on dirty material and when they hatch the larva eat just about any organic matter available to them. They are particularly draw to item soiled with human hair, sweat, or waste.

Deathwatch Beetles- A species of wood eating beetle that was once believed to be a harbinger of death but is in fact only dangerous to old wood. The females dig nesting areas in wooden furniture and rafters. They attract mates by producing a tapping noise that can generally only be heard by someone up late at night and keeping quiet. The creatures vastly prefer old wood to new and so, are terribly dangerous to antique furniture.

Dry Rot- A reddish fungus that afflicts wooden antique chairs and other pieces of furniture that has been stored in wet conditions. It causes wood to become weakened and unsightly. The affected area will shed brownish dust and will quickly spread over an entire piece if unchecked.

Fire Brat- An insect similar to silverfish (see below) but prefers warm, dry climates. They are a great danger to any textile or paper items stored in unclean but dry areas. They reproduce with alarming speed and an infestation can become ruinous unless treated.

Foxing- This term applies to the orange discoloration that appears on antique books and prints. It is caused by a fungus encouraged by storage of the affected article in damp poorly ventilated conditions.

Mildew- Tiny fungus that can appear on just about any material left in damp conditions. It usually takes the form of brown or orange blotches. The stains left by mildew can be very difficult to remove.

Silverfish- Another insect that spells disaster for antique books and textiles. They are in many ways the opposite of their close cousin, the fire brat (see above). While fire brats tend to be found in warm dry environments the silverfish prefers the cool and damp.

Termite- The most familiar of insects dangerous to antique furniture and paper items. While they are often compared to ants they only very distantly related. They are rarely seen which makes infestation difficult to detect until damage is quite advanced.

Woodworm- A vile collection of creatures that can destroy just about any wooden article. The term does not apply to a specific species but instead describes the grub stage of several different wood destroying insects. The list includes the deathwatch beetle described above, the bark-boring beetle, and the house longhorn beetle.

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

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