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Questions to a furniture conservator

a conservator showing visitors a recently conserved chair lying on its back on a worktop

How do you clean a piece of furniture?

Furniture can be finished in many different ways and it would be easy to make things worse, but on the whole if the piece has been waxed then by using a light soft wax such as Micro Crystalline Wax you can use it as a cleaner. This should do no detrimental damage to the finish.  I would always caution you to first do a little spot check in an out of the way area to make sure it’s okay.  This is what we always do, even if we are fairly certain that what we are using doesn’t react badly.

The joints of my chair legs are loose what glue should I use?

Most people would pick up a bottle of wood glue and squirt some in and in the short term this might work; but you are storing up a lot of trouble for later.  The best glue to use is the traditional animal glue as most furniture before the 1920’s was glued using this or a similar product.  This glue used hot will bond with the old glue that is left in the joint, modern synthetic glue won’t.  Also this traditional glue is a good gap filler and most joints that are loose will need this to help with the bonding. If you are determined to use modern synthetic glue, you really need to take the piece apart.  All the surfaces of the joint need to be cleaned of the old glue and this in its self can make a joint even looser.  Once the synthetic glue is set, the wooden joint can’t be undone without great difficulty, the traditional animal glue is reversible.  

Is it true that after a number of years animal glue will deteriorate and fail but synthetic glues wont?

We have chairs in our collection that are over 200 years old.  Their joints are as solid as the day they were made and need no attention.  I hope that answers the question.

I was good at woodwork at school; would you still advise me to seek professional help with repairing furniture?

On the whole, yes, especially anything major.  I always say to any trainee restorer or conservator: it is not enough that you know or can do a treatment, but how far to go with that treatment.  When to stop and also knowing all the limitations takes experience and I advise you not to practice to gain this experience on your own precious pieces without solid guidance.

Where can I find a good restorer and who should I trust?

A few decades ago this would have been a difficult question to answer, as there were many cowboys about. Now there is ICON to advise you for a conservator and BAFRA for furniture restorers.  

What is the oldest thing you have worked on?

I worked on an oak coffer dating from the 1200s.

What is the largest thing you have worked on?

A 12.5 metre Native American totem pole from the Haida Nation, from Queen Charlotte Island, Vancouver. It is now standing in pride of place in the Atrium of the World Museum.

Do you use power tools?

Only where it doesn’t do damage to an artefact. So yes, but sparingly.

What other materials have you worked with apart from wood?

Nearly all materials have been combined with wood, including stone, most metals including precious metals, glass, porcelain, pottery, plaster (gesso), plastics, leathers, textiles. Name a material and it has probably been used with wood. Apart from seating, grasses have been used in marquetry (inlaid work in wood). Do you know that celluloid was used in furniture almost as soon as it was invented? Some late Victorian and Edwardian furniture uses a white form of this as an inlay instead of ivory or bone.

What sort of varnish should I use?

This question can’t be answered simply. There are so many different varnish products used throughout the history of furniture making. I would need to know the age of the object, what the object is and then I would need to look at it and probably do some simple tests. Even then I could be wrong. Do not attempt to guess yourself; this is an area when you do need an expert. To find out more about how to care for your object, make an opinion service appointment with a furniture conservator.

What sort of glue would I use to mend a chair or table?

This again is a difficult area without a quick satisfactory answer. There are so many glues on the market and some are very specific in usage. An old object will have traditional glues that aren’t always that simple to use. To find out more about how to care for your object, make an opinion service appointment with a furniture conservator.

How do I treat woodworm?

It all depends on the object and how fragile it is. There are many treatments, chemical, heat, and cold. We use a freezing technique at the centre. To find out more about how to care for your object, make an opinion service appointment with a furniture conservator. Please do not bring an object with suspected pest infestation| into our building - always talk to a conservator over the phone first .