Antique furniture is a fine investment and well cared for antique furniture even more so. Looking after your antiques, ensuring they're displayed, stored and handled correctly is essential to preserving them for future generations. Furniture needs informed care and it's important to remember that the beauty of wood furniture evolves from how the wood is used and cared for as it ages. A good patina is a valuable asset to any piece of antique furniture and much care should be taken to preserve this.
Dust furniture frequently with a soft cloth, and rub your furniture often to encourage a hard skin to form and build up a good surface color known as patina. From a day-to-day housecleaning perspective, be careful which polishes you use. Use a good quality polish. Avoid silicone-based sprays. Although they give a good initial effect, they leave a film that is very hard to remove. Also avoid sprays with a large proportion of spirit which evaporates quickly, taking with it some of the natural oils in the wood. On the other hand, be careful of some oil-based polishes as they attract dirt and some might darken the wood. Avoid feather dusters as they can scratch the surface. Use a soft cloth and clean intricate areas with a soft brush (not a hard brush which may scratch or damage patina). If you use a polish, apply it to the cloth rather than the surface and then apply the polish from the cloth to the surface. Be careful not to catch or pull any decoration that could bend or come off.
The best way to protect the finish of your furniture is to polish it at least once a year (or twice a year for heavy use or wearing atmospheric conditions) with a good quality wax. Select a polish appropriate for the color of wood to be treated. The wax should be applied sparingly with a soft cloth and the piece polished with another lint-free cloth. The polish should be left on the furniture for the longest time recommended by the product you are using (an hour to overnight) to allow the polish to nourish the wood. Then rub deeply in the direction of the grain. A good shine comes from rubbing rather than lots of layers of wax.
There are a number of surface finishes including: wax, varnish, lacquer, shellac, paint and modern synthetic finishes. Even bare wood will develop a patina of its own over decades. These finishes are a sign of the age of a piece and should be preserved and each may require different maintenance and preservation techniques.
The temperature in your home can greatly affect the condition of your furniture. Try to keep your pieces in a stable environment where the temperature and relative humidity don't fluctuate dramatically. Avoid extremes in temperature and humidity. Very dry conditions can cause furniture to dry out and make wood shrink, since it is an organic material. Very damp conditions can cause mold growth. The ideal humidity for any piece of furniture is 50% - 55%. Outside of this range consider the use of humidifies or dehumidifiers that will help maintain a constant level of relative humidity in the air during the winter heating season and preserve your pieces. Prevention is always better than cure and it is possible to safeguard good furniture from dry air damage. A simple alternative, but much less efficient, is a hang-on humidifier, or even a bowl of water nearby.
Furniture should be positioned at least two feet from any heat source. Heating sources may cause shrinkage, loosen joints and warp veneers. If the furniture has to be placed near a heat source then some sort of protection should be put in place, such as an insulated or reflective barrier.
Many fine pieces of furniture that have survived for centuries in unheated conditions can suffer major harm in just one or two winters of central heating. The reason for this is that antique furniture and many fine hand made pieces of furniture is constructed from air-dried timber and has far higher water content. Mass produced modern furniture is usually made of kiln-dried wood containing far less moisture. When subjected to low levels of relative humidity, air-dried wood gradually gives up moisture to the dry surrounding atmosphere and starts to shrink and split along the grain. This is aggravated when underlying pieces of wood used in the construction are laid at right angles to each other and then veneered on top. The carcass wood moves and the veneer consequently tears and lifts and pieces may become detached. If this should happen it is vital that these pieces are kept carefully, ready for replacement.
Other typical dry air problems include cracking, loosening joints (where glues dry out), drawers sticking, and doors warping and no longer closing properly.
Another aspect of prevention is monitoring the amount of sunlight that reaches furniture. A degree of light over a long period can mellow the color attractively, but too much direct sunlight will dry it out, perish the surface polish and can lead to uneven fading. Where possible, turn pieces of furniture around occasionally to even the fading process and keep curtains drawn on sunny days when rooms are not in use.
As always lift and handle any furniture with care making note of any part that might become easily detached. Remove drawers and lock any doors. Always open drawers using the two handles. Preferably lift all furniture well down the structure to avoid stress on the top. Lift chairs by the seat rather than the back or arms. Take particularly care with any special finish such as gilding. Use covers and padding to protect from scratches or "percussion" damage.
Always adequately protect any furniture going to storage. If possible use a specialist "fine art" packer/shipper. Store in a properly ventilated and temperature controlled warehouse and inspect pieces at least every three months for any signs of "storage" damage.