How to Take Care of Heirloom Furniture

Refinishing and Cleaning Heirloom Furniture

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