Furniture care facts & fallacies on the web

When I go looking on the internet for information on furniture, sometimes I am appalled at the amount of incomplete, misleading, inaccurate or just plain dead wrong information I come across.
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I am lucky enough to be able to spend a fair amount of time on my computer learning about things that interest me. Google is a wonderful device. If I need to find some information on a piece of art I saw at an auction there are lots of sites online that will tell me something about the artist, the period or the genre – or maybe all of the above including information about the specific work.

The same holds true for an unusual piece of orange FitzHugh porcelain that sold recently for a lot of money. I can learn about Chinese export porcelain from a number of sources. But then I go looking for information on a subject that I know a little bit about – furniture – and sometimes I am appalled at the amount of incomplete, misleading, inaccurate or just plain dead wrong information I come across. It makes me want to re-evaluate my research on subjects about which I am less well informed. Do these other subjects contain as much garbage online as the subject of antique furniture does?

Following are several examples of inaccurate or simply uninformed statements, suggestions, advice and products for the care and “feeding” of your antique wooden furniture. All of the sites I found will remain anonymous and they are not quoted directly but if you do your own searches I am sure you will have little difficulty locating them.

One product in particular caught my eye. It seems to feature many of the attributes of “snake oil” sold from the back of a wagon in the late 19th century in that it is a cure-all for whatever ails your furniture. One of the opening statements on the site notes that the finish on used furniture is in such poor condition that it requires refinishing but refinishing is expensive and the old finish is much more valuable than a new one. If you spend the money to refinish a piece you will actually reduce the value.

Please note that this is stated as a fact without qualification. Apparently there is no difference between a true American antique and a 1930s Colonial Revival reproduction. I agree that in many cases the refinishing of a piece of furniture can lower its value but that is not ALWAYS the case. It depends on what you start with. In some cases refinishing actually enhances the value.

So much for the credibility of the hype. What about the product? One of the examples shown is how to repair a flaking varnish finish. By simply applying the product, waiting a few minutes and wiping it clean the original finish is claimed to be reattached and strengthened. That process is sometimes called “amalgamation” and is a common technique used by restoration artists. But it is almost always used in connection with a shellac or lacquer finish.

Why? Because shellac and lacquer are “evaporative” finishes in which the original solvent, denatured alcohol or lacquer thinner, evaporates and the solids of the mixture combine into a film. This film can always be redissolved by the addition of the original solvent and the film will reform when the solvent evaporates again.

However, varnish is a different animal. Varnish is a “reactive” finish. When the vehicle, the mineral spirits, evaporates the solids react with oxygen and form a solid film that cannot be redissolved by the original solvent. This is basic finish chemistry that apparently is unknown to the maker of the product. The product may have sealed over the flaking varnish but it did not reattach it to the wood. By the way the product will also get rid of “alligatoring” and “crazing” in old varnish finishes according to the claims.

To further reinforce the fact that the product is probably simply thinned out varnish is another use for it touted on the site. It states that if the finish is completely worn off two applications of the product will seal and smooth the surface. Sounds like a recoating product to me. Like most things that sound too good to be true, this probably is.

But by far the greatest area of opportunity for a variety of opinions and “facts” can be found on the subject of regular furniture care.

Wood care products

There are still products out there that claim they “feed” the wood. I previously covered this little myth fairly well in this space but the feeding frenzy continues. One product claims to be unique because it has blended beeswax, lemon oil and specially designed mineral oil to provide a combination polish and wood conditioner that is fed into the wood during application, providing a true wood feeder. That particular combination of ingredients has been in service for many years and I still have my doubts about whether it truly penetrates an intact film surface such as lacquer and shellac to provide anything at all to the wood, not that it actually needs anything.

Don't try this at home

Then there is the cleaner/polish/wax black hole that seems to spiral out of control on a daily basis. One site talks about a great general purpose cleaner/conditioner that you can make yourself. Essentially it is one part turpentine to three parts boiled linseed oil. Directions include rubbing the mixture briskly until the surface is dry and the oil soaks into the wood. The problem here is that the mixture will not “soak” into the wood. It can’t get through an intact finish. The turpentine evaporates and the linseed oil dries to produce a skin.

Linseed oil is a “drying” oil that will form a hard skin over an original finish without actually bonding to the surface. That skin will then turn dark with age and at some point will have to be chemically or physically removed to restore the piece. Further instructions on the page suggest that new furniture should receive this treatment once a month for three or four months and then twice a year after that.

One famous maker of furniture care products shows some of the products and has a short description beside each one. One tells us that lemon oil and other natural oils in the product give furniture a high luster shine and it replaces the natural oils in the wood, keeping the furniture moisturized while leaving no oily residue. How does it work without leaving a residue since it obviously hasn’t been absorbed by the wood? The next product contains beeswax to protect from scratches and stains and lemon oil to replenish the natural oils in the wood. Sound familiar both in recipe and in function?

One maker of an emulsified polish states that it is best used on glossy finishes. It is made from all natural ingredients and contains lanolin to moisturize a lackluster finish. Do you know what lanolin is? It is also known as “wool fat” or “wool grease.” It is a greasy yellow substance from wool bearing animals such as sheep. It is a mixture of cholesterol, esters and fatty acids found in the hair follicles of the animals. Commercially it is used as waterproofing and as a lubricant and I personally do not choose to put sheep fat on my furniture. Would bacon fat or butter work just as well?

What can you do?

A couple of final words of wisdom from the “net.” One site says never to use a damp cloth to clean your furniture because it will harm the wax finish. I thought wax was commonly used as a dressing, not as a finish.

Then another site says that wax should never be used because regular use produces a wax build up that attracts dirt and smoke and some waxes may contain abrasives that will scratch the furniture.

What to do instead?

The site recommends polishes that contain detergents, emulsifiers and oils because the detergents clean the finish, the emulsifiers give it the body to work and the oils are left behind as a barrier to dirt and moisture. Is oil a barrier to dirt or does it attract dirt? Use your own experience for the answer.

In the long run, you can’t believe everything you read online. Most of the examples I have cited are from people or companies that want you to buy something and a few are from people who probably are sincere in their advice but are just uninformed.

Your best bet is to accumulate the tidbits of information offered online and get someone who is knowledgeable in the business of the care and restoration of antique furniture to help you sort it out. Especially someone who is not trying to sell you something. 

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