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How to Care for Heirloom Wood Furniture


Enjoy furniture that is passed down through generations while protecting it from deterioration

As with other types of collectibles and heirlooms, wood furniture requires special handling and protection from light, high or low humidity, and temperature fluctuations.

Wood, by its very nature, responds to high or low moisture content in the air. Over time, the swelling and shrinkage will result in flaking paint, splits in the wood, and deterioration of glued parts. Over time, light will cause materials to fade. Experts also recommend that while a little temperature fluctuation may be allowed between 65 and 70 degrees, extremes will also affect the wood.

Insects and other pests are a common problem in wood furniture. Powderpost beetles can do their damage by tunneling along in interior wood parts only to be discovered as adults when they bore their way to the surface. Material, especially wools and other natural fibers, are susceptible to carpet beetles. If small round holes begin to appear in the fabric, there is a good chance that these are the culprits.

If you have a favorite desk, for instance, from childhood, it is perfectly fine to display it. However, you should try to keep it in the coolest room in the house as an ideal temperature for preservation is right around 64 degrees, but 70 degrees is acceptable. If this room can be kept somewhat dim most of the time, it will also be an ideal spot for other keepsake collections as well.

If you are planning to move even lightweight items such as dining room chairs, always lift by the seat and never the arms or legs. This will help keep stress off the more fragile parts. Larger pieces may have been designed to be taken apart; look for removable screws and you may be able to break down a piece for moving. A marble top on an old washbasin or side table, if removed, should never be transported flat as this could cause breakage. Pad it and let it rest upright with the longest side on the floor.

Once your favorite keepsake desk or table is in place, protect the top with clear plastic or glass, especially if displaying items on the surface.

Avoid commercial cleaning products as they can damage older varnishes, paints, and even bare wood. Oils of any type can become sticky and attract dust, making it even more difficult to clean. In most cases, frequent light dusting should be enough to keep your heirloom furniture clean.

Overall, measures should be taken to prevent furniture deterioration. Once any type of damage occurs, it is too late. Never store valuable items in an attic, basement, or garage. Keep unused items covered to prevent dust collection.

For especially valuable pieces, contact a conservator or call your local museum for specific advice regarding care and cleaning.

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