How to Take Care of Heirloom Furniture

heirloom furniture
A beautiful piece of inherited furniture can last a long time if you know how to care for it.

If your home is full of all-new furniture that you purchased yourself, you may be in the minority. Most of us own at least one item that used to belong to a family member, a friend or a stranger. But some of these pieces aren't just hand-me-downs -- you consider them heirlooms.

What's the difference? To some extent, it's in the eye of the beholder. Heirloom furniture has been passed down to you from a relative, perhaps through several generations of your family. That chest or sofa or armoire is something valuable, whether it's measured in sentiment or money.


But heirloom furniture requires some extra care to preserve it, like any antique. A few dings or some water damage on the dresser that you bought at a discount store likely wouldn't upset you nearly as much as if the same thing happened to the table that belonged to your great-grandmother. Heirloom furniture basically has two main types of enemies: people and the environment. Even with the best of intentions, people clean, use and handle furniture incorrectly. Caring for it the wrong way can both decrease the value of the piece and shorten its lifespan. Temperature, humidity, sunlight and pests also do their best to ruin your furniture.

So does this mean that you should shut your heirloom furniture away somewhere? Not at all -- there's a happy medium between treating your furniture like a museum piece and treating it like something you picked up off the curb. All you need is a little knowledge to combat those foes, and your heirloom furniture will stay in great condition for future generations to enjoy.


Refinishing and Cleaning Heirloom Furniture

old chairs
You may be tempted to "fix" faded or flaking finishes, but it's not always a good idea.

Your heirloom furniture may not have been in pristine condition when you inherited it, and fixing any problems might seem like the right thing to do. But before you decide to undertake a home restoration project, do some research and consider calling in an expert and getting his or her recommendations. You could do more harm than good if you decide to refinish a piece of antique furniture just because the finish is flaking off in one spot. In some cases, it's better to leave some of these "imperfections" as is because they're part of the furniture's history.

For example, some furniture has copper, bronze or brass hardware, such as drawer pulls. Over time, exposure to chemical compounds in the air can cause these metals to acquire a patina, which is a greenish color and filmy texture that forms on the surface. Some people love how it looks, but others clean it off to restore the original surface and color. Removing patina can often lower the value of antique furniture, however, because it's a sign of the piece's age. Patinas and other signs of aging give the furniture character.


How you clean your furniture has a lot to do with its longevity. Although there are lots of furniture oils, polishes and dusting sprays on the market, most restorers recommend avoiding them. They do remove dust and leave a lovely sheen on your furniture, but they can also cause buildup on the surface and degrade the finish. Some products may contain solvents that damage the finish. And, contrary to popular belief, oils don't prevent the wood from drying out. They can soak into the wood, oxidize and cause it to darken.

If there's buildup already, clean it off using a very mild detergent or mineral spirits. Be cautious and test it out in a small area first. Ask an expert if you're concerned about damaging the finish. If you get the OK and your spot test gives you good results, dust the surface with a dampened lint-free or magnetic cloth. If your furniture has ornate carving, buy a soft-bristled brush to dust it, as dry cloths and feather dusters can damage delicate surfaces. Use a paste furniture wax once a year. Upholstered furniture should be vacuumed using a brush attachment with screening over it (such as old pantyhose) to avoid damaging the fabric.

Next, we'll look at other ways you can care for your heirloom furniture with tips for using and moving it.


Preventing Damage to Heirloom Furniture from Everyday Use and Moving

There's a right way and a wrong way to use furniture. Since you want to preserve your heirloom piece, you'll have to make sure that both you and others use it correctly. One simple tip is to use furniture as it's meant to be used. We often casually lean against the arm of a sofa or use the coffee table as a place to sit if nowhere else is available. But since neither of these places is really designed to support your body weight, you could cause structural damage to your furniture over time.

It's also important to protect surfaces. Use throws or slipcovers on upholstered furniture if you're concerned about the kind of damage that pets or children (or sloppy adults) can cause. Invest in some coasters for cold glasses and hot coffee mugs -- cold, wet items can leave cloudy spots on the finish, and hot items can actually melt it. If you can avoid this kind of misuse, you can definitely prolong the life of your heirloom furniture.


If you're moving furniture from room to room, or moving house, there are some basic steps you can take to avoid damaging your furniture:

  • Measure ahead of time and make sure that it will fit through the doorway of its designated room.
  • Check for obstructions like existing furniture and low-hanging light fixtures.
  • Never drag a piece of furniture across the floor; you'll potentially damage both the furniture's legs and your floor.
  • Pick it up its strongest element. For example, a table should be picked up by its legs, not its top.
  • If you have to put furniture in a moving van, make sure it's well padded.
  • Remove any drawers or other loose elements.
  • If there is removable glass or marble, take it out and wrap it separately.
  • Lay big pieces such as dressers flat on their backs.
  • When you are walking the piece to its new home, go slowly and cautiously. Taking a little extra time can make all the difference.

We'll look at the environmental enemies of heirloom furniture and how to deal with them, next.


Enemies of Heirloom Furniture: Temperature, Humidity and Sunlight

Now that you know how to properly clean, use and move your heirloom furniture, you might think that's all you need to worry about. However, there are enemies lurking about, just waiting to cause damage to your wonderful piece. You can't always see them, but you can see the evidence that they leave behind. Warped, cracked wood. Faded upholstery. Mold. Holes. You can stop all of these things from happening if you're vigilant.

When there are fluctuations in temperature and humidity, you're not the only one feeling it. And while we can thrive in a lot of different types of environments, heirloom furniture isn't so lucky. Most of us like our homes to stay at a steady, comfortable temperature and humidity level. For wooden furniture, about 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 degrees Celsius) and 50 percent relative humidity is optimal, but small variations higher or lower won't make a big difference. Extreme fluctuations, however, can cause serious damage. They can cause the wood to expand and then contract, resulting in warping, breakage and problems such as stuck drawers. Very high humidity can lead to rotting wood, while very low humidity will dry it out and cause cracking. To dodge these problems, don't store heirloom furniture in basements or attics, and keep it away from stoves, radiators, fireplaces and HVAC vents.


Sunlight isn't something that we necessarily think of as being damaging to furniture, but prolonged, direct exposure to ultraviolet light (including strong artificial light) can lead to permanent problems. Light can fade a piece of furniture's finish and upholstery, forever damaging its beauty. To protect it, keep it out of strong direct light if possible -- drawing shades and curtains will help, too. And although you may not like the look of it, use coverings on furniture when it's not in use.

The last type of enemy that we'll discuss can also be also one of the grossest. Read on to find out why.


Biopredation: Creepy Crawlies and Your Heirloom Furniture

couch with holes in it
Tears or holes in upholstered furniture could be home to rodents.

It's called biopredation in the furniture restoration business -- attacks on your furniture by animals and micro-organisms. Termites, ants and some types of beetles can bore holes in wood and cause serious damage. Mice like to make their nests in old upholstery or may turn up in other furniture depending on what's stored there (avoid storing food in heirloom furniture, or at least make sure it's tightly sealed). Tell-tale signs of these kinds of infestations include holes, wood dust and droppings. You can try various products to get rid of the creepy-crawlies, but be careful -- sprays might damage the finish on your furniture. Depending on the extent of the damage and the infestation, you might need to get professional help.

Micro-organisms that attack furniture include mold and mildew. These usually result from keeping the furniture in damp, dark and warm environments. If the problem isn't too severe, you can probably get rid of mold or mildew spots on wooden furniture. Work outside when it's sunny, warm and dry, and use gloves and a mask. Start by cleaning it with a mild detergent solution and allowing the furniture to dry. Then follow up with a bleach solution (1/4 cup of bleach to 1 gallon of water). Note that the bleach solution may change the finish slightly, so test it out in a small area first if you're worried. After the furniture dries again, clean it a third time using a detergent containing borax, which will help keep growth from happening again.


If upholstered furniture gets moldy or mildewed, you can dry it out and attempt to clean it using a mild

detergent and the borax solution (bleach will ruin your upholstery). It's much more difficult to keep mold and mildew from returning in upholstery, however. You'll need to be on watch for signs of regrowth and may have to throw the furniture away. In the case of both wooden and upholstered furniture, consult with an expert if the damage is severe.

Heirloom furniture needs a little extra TLC so it will be in good condition for you to pass down, but caring for it is easy when you know what to do.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Canadian Conservation Institute. "How to Care for Wooden Furniture." CCI. December 12, 2008.
  • Dorman, Dale. "Mildew Prevention and Removal." University of Georgia, Cooperative Extension Service. 1997.
  • Furniture Care Tips. "Antique Furniture Care and Preservation." Furniture Care Tips. 2010.
  • Gaffney, Dennis. "Leave the Finish Alone." Antiques Roadshow Online. 2010.
  • Kansas Historical Society. "Preserving Furniture." Kansas State Historical Society. 2010.
  • Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute. "Furniture Care and Handling." Smithsonian Institute. 2010.