Functional Art: Use your antiques - wisely

One popular definition of furniture is “functional art.” But in order for it to function properly, we need to understand its use, care, and - when necessary - repair.
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Some fiction authors will say that the inhabitants of their work are only interesting in the long run if they are affected by and in some way changed by the events in the story. That could very well be true for fictional works. But it also has a parallel in the real world concerning the ownership of antiques. The very fact of owning an antique almost always has some kind of effect on the new owner.

marble top mahogany parlor table

This marble top mahogany parlor table from the mid 19th century will eventually need some repair to properly support the marble. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Photo courtesy Wooden Nickel Antiques

It isn’t always a good outcome and there are often periods of tense readjustments but eventually the antique owner and the antique, like old married people, come to an understanding about the direction of the relationship.

This can be especially true in the ownership of antique furniture because, unlike some antique artifacts, furniture was actually meant to be used.

In fact one popular definition of furniture is “functional art” – with the emphasis on functional. The two radical approaches to the ownership of antique furniture are: “I am afraid to touch it because I might harm it in some way” and “I don’t care what that thing is, if it’s too fragile to use I don’t want it.” Both approaches will undoubtedly cause changes in the owner and possibly cause other changes in the antique.

But, as is usually the case, the middle ground is more tenable. From a practical point of view owning a piece of the past can be an expensive proposition, in some cases even bordering on the definition of luxury, and most of us cannot afford the significant cost of something that does not contribute to the daily quality of our lives.

And most of us are looking for more than a “feel good glow” about the ownership. We want some positive physical benefits along with the “glow.” At the very least we don’t want to be intimidated by the ownership of a piece of old wood.

Use that antique furniture

So unless we live in a museum, a mausoleum or an institution the ownership of antique furniture requires that both parties, the owner and the antique, must actually work at the relationship. The furniture was built to fulfill a utilitarian function and it must be in working order to do its job. Appreciation of the beauty and the art of the artifact come later.

That’s where the owner comes in.

A word of caution. I am not suggesting that you should take the hot glue gun to the loose leg of the Federal lamp table. Nor should you, right off the bat, slap another coat of finish on that dull old chest. On the other hand, if the lamp table, after three or four generations in your family, is getting a little shaky, some properly applied remedy will add years to the life of the table and greatly decrease the anxiety associated with the heirloom crystal candelabra it supports.

Time to repair older furniture

The repair of older furniture can be significantly different from the repair of true, valuable antiques. You must know the difference and act accordingly. Of course that brings up the old question of what is a true antique and you have to make up your own mind on that subject. Opinions on the topic are like elbows: almost everybody has at least one.

Chests of drawers

veneered chest of drawers

When the veneer on the drawer fronts start to wear and chip it's time to pay attention to the drawer runners. Photo courtesy Fred Taylor

One of the major causes of consternation in the world of older furniture on a daily basis is the old (heirloom? antique? quaint? vintage?) chest of drawers that most of us face early in the day, well before we are fully ready to do battle with a recalcitrant drawer or a weak pull.

That drawer has been hard to open and close for several years now but the chest is so old there’s probably nothing to be done about it. Right? Wrong! The age of the piece doesn’t matter if you can’t use it and the mechanics of drawer operation have remained largely unchanged for several hundred years now so get the thing fixed.

Non-working drawers are sometimes merely a symptom of other problems like damaged cases or unlevel floors, but often the drawer is a problem because the runners or the drawer sides are worn out. This gradual sinking of the drawer into the frame of the chest causes other problems in the chest. Primary among these is the chipping of veneer or finish on the rails. Grooves worn into the front of a rail are a sure sign of drawer malfunction. The drawer bottom also starts to rub the rail right about now, creating a layer of fine sawdust over the rail, falling onto the floor.

The stress of opening the drawer also puts added pressure on drawer pulls that are not designed for that load. At this point it becomes incumbent on the owner to provide the correct solution so the chest can return to its normal daily routine of transparently storing clothes without further damage to the piece or the owner.

Either that or just abandon the chest to the guest room and let your aunt wrestle with it when she visits twice a year.

Older chairs

Another area of conflict often arises with older chairs. Chairs are just a frame upon which to drape your body in some fashion or another, designed to support you in the style to which you would like to become accustomed for a reasonable amount of time.

They should do so without protest or extra motion but older chairs are notorious for expressing displeasure at your arrival and sometimes it seems they try to wriggle out from under you to be free again.

The timing of the repair of an older chair, especially one which is used more or less on a daily basis, is critical because at some point many parts of the chair wear beyond the point of rehabilitation.

This is particularly true in Windsor style chairs where all the structural components terminate in the seat. When a leg joint is loose for a long time, the tenon has a tendency to wear away as it scrapes inside the mortise.

A neglected loose tenon can be trouble in the long run. So why the hesitation? Maybe you are unsure what method to use. Should you use hide glue or wood glue? Maybe those metal inserts will do the job or perhaps you should try some of that squirt-in joint tightener. The method depends on the age of the chair, the condition of the joint and your knowledge of the work to be done – or your knowledge of the phone number of a good restoration artist.

But those are just details. The point is that the chair needs to be fixed or relegated to the guest room along with the chest before someone, including the chair, gets really damaged.

Older beds

Then there is the sleeping platform where we spend more time than anywhere else except perhaps for the work space. Older beds have carried a lot of freight over the years and they sometimes express themselves like their cousins the chairs. If your bed wants to have a talk in the middle of the night you probably need to pay attention because it may be the precursor to dumping you on the floor at dawn.

A bed, like a chair, is basically just a frame and the joints probably need a little attention. In many older beds that is often as easy as tightening the bolts in each corner with an old fashioned bed wrench. Problems with vocal newer beds that rely on metal hooks are a little more difficult to diagnose but it can and should be done before the internal hardware decides to self destruct inside the post. Then you have a real problem. Or the guest room does again.

Retiring furniture pieces

chair by J. & J.W. Meeks

This Henry Ford pattern chair by J. & J.W. Meeks, circa 1850, is nice to look at and would be a pleasure to own but it is not an “every day” chair. Photo courtesy Fred Taylor

Of course there are pieces of antique furniture that are in the “retired” category and are no longer required to perform at any level. These are usually priceless or unique examples made by a famous cabinetmaker, turner or joiner long before modern memory and should be cherished as a rare artifact from our history. But you can visit them anytime the museum is open and not have to worry about the maintenance routine. But those are not the antiques with which we can establish a relationship and be changed by the ownership and interaction. Those are a part of history, not a part of your life.

In short, be proactive in your relationship with your antique furniture. Appreciate it for its beauty and art but use it as it was designed to be used and care for it as it needs to be tended.

You both will enjoy the company. 

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