Managing organic threats to furniture

There are a lot of things in the world that are good for your older and antique furniture: controlled temperature and humidity, regular cleaning, careful use and loving attention. But there are also a lot of things out there that are bad for your furniture: flood water, excess light, inappropriate polishes and fire.

But there is yet another classification of harmful elements that you must be aware of: the organic kind. And other than you, there are no organic creatures that are beneficial to antique furniture and some are downright destructive. You may need to adjust your defenses.

The damage to this 18th century table pedestal was done by drywood termites. (Photo courtesy Fred Taylor)

The damage to this 18th century table pedestal was done by drywood termites. (Photo courtesy Fred Taylor)

One form of destructive organism is insects. They are not all harmful, of course, but there are some that are deadly to your antiques. They are particularly dangerous because they are small and mostly work quietly out of sight, living in your furniture and usually digesting part of it along the way.

Harmful insects fall into two broad categories: beetles and termites. The most commonly known beetles are the so-called “powder post” beetles. Their ability to render the insides of a nice piece of wood furniture into a substance the consistency of baby powder is the reason for their name. These little beasties are small, brownish, dry wood-eating insects ranging in size from 1/12 to 1/5-inch long. You won’t know you have them until they are gone because the main evidence is the exit hole as they leave the furniture. The adults mate and the female lays her eggs in cracks, crevices or old exit holes where they hatch into larvae that eat their way through the yummy cellulose before they pupate and emerge as beetles to start the life cycle over again. You can treat the area with insecticide but you are better off asking a professional exterminator for help.

Another pesky beetle is the carpet beetle, which are small, oval-shaped beetles about 1/8-inch long and usually shiny black in the most common form. Here, too, the destructive phase is in the larvae, which may grow to 1/2-inch long. They have a voracious appetite for any substance that contains keratin, a principal protein found in animal hair and feathers. Upholstery and carpet are the main targets, especially those that contain wool and horse hair. Vigilance and cleanliness are the best routes for detection and disposal.

This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine
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In southern regions of the country dry wood termites – known in the 19th century as “furniture termites” because of their propensity to eat furniture regularly – can be a constant problem. The only solution is fumigation by an exterminator.

So much for the wild critters. So much for intruders. Now let’s look at some of the invited domestic pests.

In the invited category of furniture pests are our loving and lovable pets. They don’t do it intentionally but they can be quite destructive. Dogs come immediately to mind because in their early stages they have needle-sharp teeth and they like to gnaw – anything – constantly, and that can include furniture, especially while you are not in the room. As they mature they generally are better behaved, but most dogs never outgrow their penchant for gnawing on something; and that has spawned an entirely new industry, rawhide bones. But if a chewable toy is not available, be on guard for damage, especially on chair stretchers and bed posts. Other domestics can do the same. I once had to repair a wooden picture frame shredded by an ill-tempered parrot.


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Upholstery can also take a beating from pets. There are the “outside” accidents that occur inside for both dogs and cats and the undiscovered incident can result in an unpleasant odor in a day or so. Not to mention the staining involved. And, of course, some pets will try to nap on a couch whether you are there or not. Finally, cats do love to stretch their claws hooked into a textured fabric. It’s good exercise for the cat but not so good for the fabric.

The final and ultimately most destructive threat to your furniture is people. That primarily involves children, maids and jerks. Kids, of all ages, don’t always relate the things they play with to their environment. To a 4 year old, a crayon, a hammer and a toy truck are not destructive – they are fun. But the unsupervised application of any of these to your antiques can have dire consequences both for the furniture and for the 4 year old.

Maids can be a threat despite their best intentions. The main danger is the application of some greasy stuff to the furniture because it makes it look nice and shiny for the time being with little effort. If they do this on their own, providing their own polish, you need to get involved. If you are providing the greasy stuff for their use, you need to do some research on furniture care.

Also, most furniture has some heft to it and the quick way to vacuum is to run the vacuum around and between the legs of chairs and tables. It takes too long to move everything, vacuum the space and replace the furniture. This leads to knicks and dings on legs and bases.

The final human threat is the jerk. These are the ones who don’t know or don’t care about what damage their actions, like leaning a chair back on two legs, may cause. Then there is the house ape. You have seen him many times. He is the very large person who inevitably gravitates to the most fragile, delicate chair in the room – and makes himself very comfortable. Don’t be shy about posting your “No furniture jerks allowed” signs.


Furniture Detective by Fred TaylorAbout our columnist: 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