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Q I’ve been assigned the task of restoring a very sentimental (to us) piece of furniture that belonged to my grandparents. Other than that, there is very little I can tell you. It was in the possession of my grandparents, who got it around 1927. They lived in rural Kentucky. We believe it was given to them second-hand. Also, at the back of the piece there is a fold-down Murphy-Bed (?) which I remember sleeping on when I was a child. (I’m 50.) As for the process of restoring, the best I can probably do is rub some linseed oil on it – but as I’ve said, it is important to the generations of my family who all connect it with my grandparents. I would appreciate any information, advice and/or resource links that might help me.

Thank You,
— Pete T.

Advice About What to Do and Not Do When Restoring Antique Furniture

Restoring chifferobe

This quarter cut oak chifferobe was made just after the turn of the century. The original intact finish is shellac and needs cleaning and waxing, NOT rubbing down with boiled linseed oil. That will eventually degrade the finish. (Submitted photo)

A Your oak chifferobe was made just after the turn of the century, around 1910 or so. It was common at the time, at the end of the Golden Oak period, to stain the oak dark as this appears to have been. It will be difficult to exactly match the hardware if you do not have the missing pulls if you are looking at restoring. Van Dyke’s Restorers has some similar (but not exact) hardware. You may have to replace them all, saving the originals in case you find a match. Check them out

The absolute worst thing you can do at this point in the restoring process is to rub the piece with linseed oil. Linseed oil is a drying oil and it will attempt to bond with the original finish. It will form a skin as it dries and the skin will rapidly turn very dark as it oxidizes over time. I have written a couple of articles on the subject (which I will be happy to share) and have answered numerous inquiries about how to remove the old linseed oil years after the fact. It ain’t pretty.

Turn to Mineral Spirits For Careful Cleaning

The finish on the chifferobe is shellac. That accounts for part of the darkness of the piece. The shellac has also oxidized since it has a high level of organic compounds in it. What you need to do in the short term is to clean the piece thoroughly with mineral spirits (paint thinner). It will not hurt the existing shellac finish. (It is a different chemistry which I will explain if you want to know.) After the piece is clean and dry, apply a light coat of paste wax such as BriWax, Fiddes or Howard’s. Then rewax annually. Other than that, leave it alone. Do not apply any liquid product (the most widely known spray product) that contains or any product that contains any kind of oil including mineral oil and lemon oil.

Mineral spirits

Furniture Detective Fred Taylor recommends mineral spirits instead of linseed oil. 

The truth is, you have a factory made 20th century piece that has little or no collector’s value, only sentimental value as you have noted. The look and the ultimate value of the piece will be enhanced if it is refinished. There is no “Antiques Roadshow” value to diminish so don’t be misled by the erroneous “never refinish” mindset. It is a well-made, functional piece of American furniture that can be used and admired for many generations yet. Good luck. I will be happy to help or explain further if you need it. Thanks for writing.

Seeking Information on 'Family Treasure' Table

Q I am looking for information on a Cadillac Desk Table. This desk was in a lovely house in Vermont that my parents bought in 1945 or ‘46. When my parents moved to Florida I got the desk and my daughter now has it. The patent dates inside the pull-out desk are “Jany. 1905 Feb. 1908 May 1908 and Oct. 1908.” It is dark oak, 29-1/2 inches high, 27-3/4 inches deep, and 46 inches wide. My sisters and I did homework on that desk from grammar school through high school, and when I moved it to my home in 1977, it was in my high school age son’s room. He moved it to his first apartment and then gave it to my daughter who now uses it as a computer table/desk in her business. We consider it a “family treasure.”
— Dianne C.

A The Cadillac Cabinet Co in Detroit was a mid-level maker of mostly generic Mission style furniture early in the century. Their claim to fame was the clever addition of a pull out desk unit to Mission library tables. After the Mission period ended, they made some Colonial Revival type pull out desks but they were never as popular as the oak Mission version. The general antique furniture market has not found a great deal of interest in Cadillac desks because they are not quite old enough to be considered true antiques and the purer forms of Mission seem to be more desirable. The Cadillacs are considered a “novelty” and not a mainline furniture type.

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