Caring for Antiques

How to avoid ruinous restorations

If you were buying antique furniture in the 1960s, you probably bought at least one piece that had been refinished — or you refinished what you bought.

That era is now looked upon with horror.

When it comes to the value of antique furnishings, original finish is all-important. Wood patina is valued. A sofa with horsehair upholstery is much more valuable than one with beautiful velvet added later.

So how does the collector take care of antiques without devaluing them? The answer is "carefully."

Scratched furniture can often be fixed with specialty items made for antiques, like Howard's Restore-A-Finish. Many antiques stores sell specially formulated cleaners and waxes designed to be gentle on old wood while giving it a healthy shine. The caveat is to never use anything with plastics or acrylics in the formula.

Linda Bush, owner of L & K Antiques in Jacksonville, believes in old-fashioned carnuba wax.

"Twice a year in spring and fall, I wax my furniture," she says. "It gives good protection to the wood."

Carnuba wax is a paste wax, and it takes a little elbow grease to use it, but the wood not only shines, it stays healthy.

Washing old textiles is another area to tread lightly.

"A lot depends on the condition," says Bush. "If it is frail, don't wash it."

If it isn't too frail to wash, using Woolite or a mild soap formulated for washing antiques will improve its condition. Be careful of hard water. Sometimes washing in distilled water is best. And while a dryer can be used on heavier goods like tablecloths, it is often better to use a mesh sweater dryer for drying old pieces flat.

What about antique glass with chips?

"It's not like furniture," says Ronda Lang of Chip Off the Old Block Glass Restoration in The Dalles. Lang was at the Medford Antique Show recently, where she and her husband come to repair glass.

"If you've got Grandma's heirloom, it isn't worth much with a chip on it, but if you can get the chip out it's like new again. A piece worth $300 is worth nothing damaged, but with careful repair it gains some value again, depending on the extent of the repair."

Lang warns that glass gets harder and more brittle with age, which makes restoration more challenging.

Cleaning old silver with soft cloths and nonabrasive silver cleaner is OK, but polishing old copper can devalue the item for collectors who value patina.

Old dolls are another challenge. Rita Mauze runs Life's Little Treasures in Winston, specializing in repairing old dolls. One big problem, she says, is when people wash doll faces with a wet cloth. The old paints used on dolls can come off on a wet rag, and old dolls with pressed-wood heads can not only lose paint but disintegrate and get moldy. She recommends dusting old dolls with a soft, dry cloth.

"Minor spot repairs and cleaning is OK," says Mauze, but restoration is usually done on dolls with sentimental value. "We can do complete restoration, but it definitely lowers the value. We can repair bisque, and there's still value if it is repaired correctly."

Old jewelry is often missing stones or clasps. Nicolai Alexander of Alexander Jewelers in Grants Pass specializes in repairing antique jewelry, as well as tea sets, glassware and old art frames.

"If done right, 80 percent of the time you aren't going to know it was repaired," he says. "Minor repairs don't decrease the value."

Protecting your antiques from dirt, direct sunlight and frequent changes in heat and humidity is important to maintain their value. Dust with soft cotton cloths. Wrap stored items in acid-free paper.

If something does get broken or chipped, consult an antiques expert as to the feasibility of repairs and the effect on value. Even a piece shattered to bits can be put back together by an expert, often without any visible, telltale signs.

The antique value of such a piece may be nothing, yet if it is a family heirloom or something you simply love, it is often worth doing. So gather up the pieces, and don't give up hope.


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