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Broken furniture of all kinds find their way to my shop for repair on a regular basis. Some of the most common I find are tables and chairs. The more elegant they are, the more prone they seem to be to dramatic fracturing or breakage. This 70-year-old pedestal table arrived a while back with a busted leg.

The most obvious thing about it was that one of the legs had come off. No big deal, really — a bit of careful scraper work and tad of sanding to remove the old glue would see the socket ready to mate up to its leg again.

The well-meaning owner of this table asked me to refinish it and shine up the copper claw feet while it was in the shop. That seems like a simple request, but I make it a point never to do those two things to a piece of furniture (especially an old one) without making one thing plain: this would absolutely sink whatever value the piece may have. I thought this was pretty common knowledge, but I’m always surprised at how many times this needs explaining.

The patina on the copper takes years to get, and one fool with a can of Brasso can cut the value of almost any furniture piece in half in ten minutes flat. It’s one thing I simply won’t do to old copper.

Refinishing is a little different. Much can be done without significantly affecting the finish — a good polish or cleaning the dust/dirt off, for instance. In this case the table wasn’t bad, so I managed to convince the owner to go with a nice coat of dark wax that would easily come off with wax remover and won’t hurt the real finish.

In the end it turned out great, and we didn’t wind up doing anything that would hurt the table’s value down the road.

 

16 Responses to Antique Table Repair

  1. rg says:

    Actually, I had no idea polishing the metal would affect the value of the table … I said, as I tried to nonchalantly slip my can of Brasso back into my pocket.

    • Black Soap says:

      My band teacher back in school explained to us all that the brass on brass instruments should never be around Brasso. It removes the coating and leads to instant tarnish. A fresh use of Brasso would make it shiny and new looking, for about a day. He learned this the hard way, and it meant sitting down and polishing up his trombone before every band performance so it would look shiny like the rest of them.

      And he tried very hard to make sure none of his students ever made that particular mistake.

  2. gary z says:

    Good for you Sean for letting the owner know how patina or the lack there of affects value. We get folks in the store all of the time wanting to know the best stripper to refresh old furniture. As it turns out, very few heed the warning and do terrible things to these treasures. It makes you to just thump ‘em.

  3. o4tuna says:

    Sometimes somebody else already did the refinishing. Then what?
    Inherited these 3 pieces, that somebody “antiqued” in the ’60s. I’d kinda like to strip them down to the original wood & refinish them in a more “natural” way. Any suggestions for DIY?

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/93586156@N00/2406929776/in/set-72157604494571769
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/93586156@N00/2406094165/in/set-72157604494571769

    • Black Soap says:

      That looks exactly like the vanity my Mother has. Let me guess: beautiful rose-colored wood underneath?

      The worst part in her case was that she was responsible for doing the antiquing.

      There is hope, or at least hers was able to be restored. She tried sanding and stripping it herself (I’m not sure she got as far as you have), but it turned in to such an endeavor she ended up taking it to a professional, who used professional grade strippers and probably a heavier-duty sander. Luckily that Antique Green didn’t go very deep, and now the vanity looks much better.

      Notice to people who decide to paint over heirloom furniture: it may seem boring and common now, but someday someone will regret it.

      If you are going to do it, maybe put a thick clear-coat on first.

  4. fred says:

    Using the wrong techniques or over aggressive restoration – as you point out can devalue an antique. So can the selection of the wrong glue – inappropriate to the period of the piece. If the joints originally used hide glue – then break out the hot glue pot and do the same

  5. John says:

    Who cares if your furniture somehow has more or less market value? Who here goes around selling their furniture?

    • El Jefe says:

      Some of us take pride in knowing that it is done correctly.

      If you have the means to own and restore vintage anything, why not do it right? Unless your restoration or customizing is adding value (either monetary or intrinsic) you are just another hack.

      • fred says:

        Well said El Jeffe!

        Would we not want to leave a legacy behind that maintains or better yet improves the condition of what has been left to us by our forebears. While most of us do not have expensive antiques furnishing our homes – it is nice to think that the stock of what’s out there is being maintained/conserved for the appreciation of posterity. We should apply the same ideas to what we build – and those of us who build, rennovate and maintain buildings should take pride in what we do – constantly striving to learn how to do it right or do it beter.

  6. Blue eyes says:

    I read an article in Antique Trader magazine that said the value of patina was a relatively recent development and that back in the 1970′s, if an antique wasn’t refinished, it would have less value than I refinished piece. If I owned that table, I’d polish the copper because I like the way polished copper looks. To each his own I guess because I don’t like weathered cedar either.

    I do see the importance of keeping the original finish on museum quality pieces and I agree that a lot of finishes just need a good cleaning a coat of wax.

    I buy and sell vintage tools and clean them all the time. My tools aren’t museum pieces and a lot of them are still usable. I’d much rather use a 100 year old tool that’s been cleaned (with TSP) than one with 100 years of dirt and grime. It should be noted that my cleaned tools still retain patina even though the wood parts have been soaked in hot water and TSP. Wax brings all the patina out.

  7. Bob says:

    What’s a good cleaner for use on old furniture that will get rid of dirt, grime, etc., but won’t hurt the original finish? Also, how can you tell [short of getting something professionally appraised] if a piece of old furniture is valuable? Finally, is there a good way for an amateur to tell what kind of wood was used in a piece of furniture? Thanks! bob

    • Bill says:

      Mineral spirits is a good, non-invasive cleaner. If the finish is shellac, alcohol is a no-no as is ammonia. Mineral spirits can be used on varnish or lacquer. Use a gentle abrasive – very gentle. Four o, oooo, steel wool gently used works well. Be careful about applying pressure. Toothbrushes work well, as well.

    • Snakepudding says:

      I agree that mineral spirits (paint thinner) is a good place to start to clean a finish (successful using on an old desk). Mineral oil (sometimes known as lemon oil) is less agressive and seems to work on mild surface contamination and results in a somewhat protective finish (successfully used on an old Gerstner Oak tool box). Letting mineral-oil soak on the surface and then rewiping every few days may benifit the process. If the clear finish is scratched then the oil may darken light wood by pentrating the grain. When all else fails one may take the risk of using the universal solvent (water & maybe a little detergent) but in general water may damage wood. I once spent two week’s evenings cleaning an old desk with paint thinner. Rubbing with this solvent finally broke through layers of thick water-marked wax and hand grime leaving the original finish. I recomment always testing small hidden areas if you want to avoid unexpected damage. I strongly suggest avoiding the use of all abrasives unless you are willing to put on a new finish and possibly damage the value.

  8. Bill says:

    Flame away here, but as I see it, this is a machine- made piece, one in who-knows-how many. It isn’t an “antique” as we know it, as it isn’t “hand made.”. The pie crust is applied, not carved in situ. Its value is nominal. If someone came into my shop with a piece like this, I’d do what he wanted with no drama.

  9. Blair says:

    @ Bill,

    Ok, I’ll strap on the old flame thrower, (nah,not really), but just because something is not “hand made” doesn’t diminish it’s value, either historically, or monetarily.

    The modern use of automated production was first used by Springfield Armory to make gun stocks,(assembly line, other works were earlier), and that was in the early 1800′s.

    To qualify as “antique”, an item needs to be 100 years old. I am sure you would agree that a rifle from the 1800′s would qualify for that category, whether the stock was formed by hand, or on a machine.

    I am only saying that a lot of the things people value as treasured antiques were indeed produced by some sort of machine, that does not diminish their value to the buyer/seller of that object.

  10. Bill says:

    @Blair

    Right you are. I was trying to say – and failed to make my point – that because the table was mass produced, it is likely to be one of many, thus lacking in rarity and thus diminishing the value it might otherwise have.

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