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Antique Wood Furniture
Many different finishes have been used to beautify and
protect wood furniture through the centuries. Many historically
authentic finishes were high maintenance, labor intensive, and not very
durable, so the trend has been to more impervious and enduring finishes
suitable for everyday living.
Simple wax finishes have been used for many years, especially on rustic
or country pine furnishings because of its soft and satiny look. Wax is
easily restored or brightened with a new application, damaged or dull
spots are easy to blend. A disadvantage is that wax finishes can spot
and stain easily from water, alcohol and cosmetics.
Oil finishes have also been used for hundreds of years. These
penetrating oils are easy for amateurs to use because they are simply
wiped or brushed onto the wood, allowed to sink in, and wiped dry. This
process is repeated many times, until the desired sheen is developed. A
disadvantage is that the finish may gradually dry out, requiring
repeated applications, sometimes for years to maintain an even sheen.
While not particularly durable, if there is damage, it is simple to add
more oil and it blends in nicely.
Natural shellac was a very popular finish for furniture and floors a
century ago. It affords warm color, but has very poor wearability and is
easily damaged by both water and alcohol. Shellacked floors were usually
redone annually. Similarly, French polish is a very laborious
traditional technique that is very bright and glossy, and dramatically
emphasizes the rich color and grain of beautiful wood. Especially
popular in Europe, this finish is very sensitive to damage, costly to
apply originally and to repair.
True natural varnish is rarely used anymore. While durable and
attractive, it required very skilled application, many slow-drying coats
and lots of surface preparation.
Traditional lacquer finishes have been popular for 100 years – they have
good stain resistance, wear well and can be re-touched or re-coated
fairly easily. Hard and fairly brittle, they can chip and crack, and
sometimes get crazed or crackled – “alligatored” – over time. Strong and
dangerous solvents are used in classic lacquer.
Most newly manufactured furniture has a single coat of plastic-type
finish, usually polyurethane or polyester. While very tough and
resistant to scratching and stains, the single layer of tinted finish
means that a small scratch or ding may go through the finish to the wood
underneath, exposing a different color. These finishes are very
difficult to touch up, re-coat or remove for refinishing. The great
advantages of this technique are time and labor savings for
manufacturers. Many of these finishes are quick-cured with ultra-violet
light, and some are water rather than solvent based. An esthetic
disadvantage is a rather “plastic” look and feel.
A recent method of protecting furniture is water based lacquer,
developed and perfected over recent decades in response to environmental
and worker safety issues. Combining both water and alcohol resistance,
these finishes have a more traditional varnished look, not so
“plastic-like.” They are not as hard and brittle as some other finishes,
and can be more easily touched up and re-coated when worn or damaged.
Much less hazardous to work with, they are a good middle ground in
appearance, durability, and restorability. Much as water base paint has
all but replaced oil paint, these water - borne wood finishes are
gaining on solvent - based finish.
These new water-base methods can incorporate traditional techniques of
applying a base coat of stain, topped with repeated coats of clear
finish, hand-sanded between every coating. While involving more labor
than most manufacturers are willing to do, this step-by-step finish
insures that minor damage to the finish doesn’t go deep into the color
or the wood, which means it shows less. Touch-up or repairs to the
finish or recoating in the future are relatively simple. Environmental
and worker safety issues suggest that water-base finishes have an
As far as maintenance is concerned, wax finishes are best polished with
a dry cloth or a little additional wax. For the other finishes that have
a hard surface, a little lemon oil, preferably with beeswax, will
brighten and deepen the color. Research has shown that too frequent use
of lemon oil will soften hard finishes, but in moderation, this is a
Paste wax has been a traditional furniture polish. Besides requiring
much elbow grease, wax will turn white from something hot or wet. Spray
commercial polishes (Pledge, Endust and the like) can cause a smeary
silicone build-up that can be very hard to remove. They also make any
kind of touch-up or refinishing problematic. “Oil and stain” polishes
like Old English are temporary scratch covers. A much better idea is to
use the marker type of scratch covers that come in all shades of wood
finishes and easily help hide minor mars. These are available at most
paint and hardware stores. Following with a lemon oil and beeswax polish
will improve any dry or worn finish.
No single finish method is right for every piece of furniture, but
considerations of cost, durability and beauty are all factors in the
choice of preserving and enhancing antique wood furnishings for the
Author Ken Melchert has taught Art History for many years. Since 1985, Ken and his wife Rebecca have operated the Harp Gallery Antiques in Appleton, WI.