Furniture Detective: Use discretion when deciding to repair antique furniture

Remember the old adage “Discretion is the better part of valor”? It applies to the purchase and restoration of antique furniture as well as the other parts of our lives. Knowing when something is not practically repairable to original or usable condition is most often an acquired characteristic, a gift really, generally found in the more mature segment of any collecting population. Sure, there are times when a talented and inspired restoration artist can do what seems to be a miracle but the right combination of the challenge, the talent and the inspiration occurs fairly rarely in the real world and most of us need some general guidelines on when to expect a miracle and, more importantly, when not to.

The following are some of the situations I have encountered in two decades of furniture restoration when it is best to “just say no.” Granted, each of these situations has a “yes, but …” attached to it, but in the long run “no” is the right answer.

Water damage

After oak or walnut treadle sewing machine cabinets were replaced in the 1920s and ’30s with electric machines, most of the cabinets were relegated to the ignominious role of plant stand and as such received as much water as the plants. Usually the water damage is severe and someone has probably already started peeling of the old veneer with the bright idea of just refinishing what’s under the veneer. Most experienced refinishers already know to pass on these and knowledgeable collectors will also. Just say no.

A 20th century Colonial Revival dining table is warped from heat and/or moisture. If the table were an 18th century solid mahogany table, no problem. Apply water, heat and stress and the solid wood will respond. The same applies to a walnut mid-19th century table or even an early 20th century solid oak table. But in the case of Colonial Revival you probably are dealing with the five layer veneer process and each layer of the table is now stretched or compressed at right angles to each other layer and the chance of getting it back straight falls in the category of – just say no.

Chairs with strategic breaks

Chair legs that are broken completely off horizontally where a stretcher intersects looks easy but are in fact impossible repairs. You can’t just glue it back on because it won’t stay and there is no place to vertically dowel the leg back on because a significant amount of the wood in the leg has already been removed to accommodate the stretcher. This can probably be repaired to look like a chair leg but it will never function as a chair leg, i.e. carry one-fourth the weight placed on the chair. Just say no.

Rear leg of an upholstered chair (club, wing, fauteil, bergere) broken horizontally at the level of the fabric. This exposed leg portion is usually only the bottom eight inches or so of a piece of wood that forms the entire back structure of the chair, from floor to crest rail. If this main structural member is broken at its main stress point — just say no.
Back stile of a chair broken of horizontally at the seat joint. You can do all kinds of cute vertical inserts across the break like splines and biscuits and tenons … but see above and save yourself the aggravation. Just say no.

Bed rail hook ripped out

When the side rail to a bed has the hook ripped out it usually occurs when one person tries to move (drag) a bed to clean under/around it rather than waiting for help. If the side rail hook isn’t ripped out then the headboard or footboard probably is which is much easier to fix than the side rail. The hook is generally held into the side rail by two metal dowels of 19/64-inch diameter but only engage about an eighth of an inch of wood on each side of the hook inside the rail. If the wood in the rail is fairly intact, the hook might be able to be reinstalled with new holes drilled for the metal dowels. If the wood in the side rail is shredded, just say no. Get a new rail.

Mahogany with light stain

When someone stains mahogany to look like oak, my first question is “why?” Mahogany is generally already darker in its natural form than is oak and staining by definition can only make something darker. You can’t “stain up,” only down in the spectrum. Of course you can go through the tortuous process of bleaching the mahogany to bright white and staining down to oak, but again, why? Why not just get something else to match the oak and appreciate the mahogany for what it is? Just say no.

Belt sanding – AARRRRGGG!

Refinishing a piece that has been belt sanded is painfully obvious from the deep sanding marks all over the piece and the uniquely wavering flat surfaces that result from a hand-held belt sander in the hands of an enthusiastic wielder. Severe belt sanding marks are more or less permanent additions to a piece of furniture. If you detect belt sanding marks – just say no.

The tea cart from hell

Broken wheels are the most common affliction of tea carts. Usually the spokes break where they fit into the hub or they just all come rolling out at the same time and you are left with a rim and a hub and a handful of spokes. Don’t even bother with the repair effort. Either order new wheels from Van Dykes Restorers [ or 800-558-1234] and be done with it, or, better yet, just say no.

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or Visit Fred’s Web site:

His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques by Fred Taylor” ($25 + $3 S&H). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or


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