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The following article was written by Bob Flexner for Woodwork magazine and appeared in the August 2006 issue. It is reproduced here courtesy of Bob Flexner and Woodwork.

Antiques Roadshow
and the deterioration of furniture

Text and photos by Bob Flexner

Antiques Roadshow has been broadcast on PBS since 1996; it’s the channel’s most watched program.The format features some of our nation’s foremost antiques experts and appraisers explaining to a nationwide audience the monetary value and some of the history of the objects shown. These objects include almost everything you can think of that is old or antique, ranging in size from jewelry to large pieces of furniture. (As applied to furniture, the term “antique” is variously defined as at least 100 years old or pre-industrial, which usually means 1840s or earlier. So I’m using the phrase “old or antique” to be sure to include everything that might appear on the show.)

The Roadshow tours a dozen or so cities each year, bringing many of its stable of about 150 appraisers to each. (The appraisers work without pay and cover their own expenses; side benefits created by the national TV exposure usually give back many times over.) Thousands of people line up at each venue to have two or more objects appraised. The most interesting appraisals are filmed for later use on the TV broadcast.

The format of the Roadshow is very entertaining. The show could stand on its own just for this quality. But it has another very important enticement: it appeals to the “win-the-lottery” fantasy of most people. In the majority of cases, the people shown on the Roadshow are pleasantly surprised and often elated to learn that their object is worth far more than they thought—often in the thousands of dollars. Maybe there’s also something in the viewer’s attic that is worth a lot of money? Maybe the viewer will find that he or she has “won the lottery” with what was previously thought to be junk.

The Roadshow is also educational. I know many professional refinishers and antique dealers who watch to learn. But most (and maybe all) complain about the misleading message that is being sent concerning furniture. It’s the pivotal message of the entire show, the message everyone associates with the Antiques Roadshow: “Don’t refinish!” Refinishing reduces the value of furniture, it is alleged, sometimes by thousands of dollars.

It’s my contention that this message misleads the public about the appropriateness (or inappropriateness) of refinishing. The message indirectly causes serious damage to old and antique furniture and will result in the disappearance of much of it unless the message is changed.

Furniture requires a finish in good shape to protect the wood from moisture exchange and to make the wood look nice. Furniture with joint failure, peeling veneer, warps and splits—all caused by excessive moisture exchange—and furniture that looks bad because of a deteriorated and ugly finish, often ends up in an attic, basement, garage or barn where it further deteriorates. Or it is tossed out.

HOW FURNITURE DETERIORATES

This 100-year-old drawer front is badly crazed except where the finish was protected from light by the hardware.

The backside of this walnut cabinet sat next to a west-facing window for ten years. The finish is peeling and the color is faded where the sunlight hit.

Light destroys finishes. Direct sunlight and fluorescent light are the most damaging. The 100-year-old drawer front at the top is badly crazed except where the finish was protected from light by the hardware. There the finish is in near perfect condition. The backside of the walnut cabinet above sat next to a west-facing window for ten years. The finish is peeling and the color is faded where the sunlight hit.

Furniture deteriorates as a result of exposure to moisture, light, and abuse.

Moisture affects the wood. Contact with water and changes in humidity cause wood to expand and contract across the grain, but not significantly along the grain. When boards are joined perpendicularly, as they always are to make furniture, stress develops in the joints because of contrary wood movement in the parts. As the glue ages and becomes brittle, this stress causes the glue to give way.The joints then loosen and separate.

The same happens with veneer, which was often glued perpendicularly to a solid wood substrate or laid over a frame-and-flush-panel substrate. The veneer separates or cracks, especially over the joints.

Exposure of only one side of wood to water also causes warping and splitting, a poorly understood phenomenon, which I explain in “Tabletops and the Need to Refinish”.

Moisture vapor exchange (higher humidity in the air leading to higher moisture content in the wood, and visa versa) has always been a problem. But it has become worse in modern, tightly-constructed buildings because of the impact of central heating. In the winter, interior humidity conditions become much drier than previously, so the variations between summer and winter are greater. The result is increased wood movement.

The easiest way to keep moisture exchange to a minimum is to keep the finish in good shape. (The other way is to maintain a constant humidity,which is usually not possible outside a museum setting.) A finish doesn’t completely stop moisture penetration, but it slows the penetration significantly. A deteriorated finish is pitted with microscopic voids that allow moisture in liquid or vapor form to pass through. An old, deteriorated finish offers almost no barrier to moisture penetration.

While the deterioration of the wood in furniture is caused primarily by moisture exchange, the deterioration of finishes results primarily from exposure to light.

A finish will eventually dull, become brittle, and crack simply because of exposure to oxygen, but this takes a very long time. Exposure to ultraviolet light, especially from sunlight and fluorescent lighting, accelerates this deterioration considerably. The finish on a piece of furniture placed near a window in direct sunlight will dull and crack far sooner than a finish placed in a dark corner across the room.

Finishes can also deteriorate from abuse, of course. Abuse in the form of scratches and rubs removes finishes and may even damage the wood.

No matter how a finish deteriorates, the end result is increased moisture exchange in the wood, reduced functionality and increased ugliness. And, with rare exceptions, this deterioration leads eventually to the disappearance of the furniture if nothing is done to reverse it.

THE MISLEADING MESSAGE

Some very old furniture has survived in good condition, but the instances of this happening are rare. The furniture that has done so, however, is worth more than furniture that has had to be refinished. People will pay more for things that are rare.

How does some furniture survive for hundreds of years with its original finish in good condition? Consider this scenario as an example.

A bureau (chest-of-drawers) is made for a wealthy New England family in 1790. It is used by that family for a couple of decades and then passed down to one of the children who remains in the family house. But the bureau is no longer “modern” and is relegated to a dark corner in a guest bedroom where it is rarely used. The house and bureau remain in the family for 200 years, after which the bureau is sold and enters the antiques market—with a finish that is a little dull but otherwise in near original condition.

A finish in good condition reduces the swelling and shrinking of wood by slowing the exchange of moisture in and out of wood. This graph represents a hypothetical situation.
A finish in good condition reduces the swelling and shrinking of wood by slowing the exchange of moisture in and out of wood. This graph represents a hypothetical situation.

The circumstances necessary for furniture to survive in near original condition are that it receive little exposure to bright light and be rarely used or moved.

As chance would have it, the furniture appraisers who appear on the Roadshow deal primarily with this type of furniture in their own businesses. There is a small but very enthusiastic market for furniture with old or original “surfaces.” It is therefore natural for these appraisers to compare the value of an object that has been refinished with one that hasn’t.Had the furniture survived in near original condition, after all, it would be worth much more.

But I rarely hear the appraisers explain survivability on the Roadshow. Instead, they say things like,“Had this furniture not been refinished, it would be worth many thousands of dollars. But it was refinished, so now it’s worth only a few thousand dollars.”

To the unsophisticated viewer, this evaluation says: “Furniture loses value when it is refinished.”

It’s rarely explained that furniture is seldom refinished unless it needs to be. And ifthe furniture needs to be refinished and it isn’t, it may not survive. The appraisers should be saying, “This piece was refinished, which is good because it surely needed to be. In this condition, it’s worth “X” dollars. Had it been one of those rare pieces of furniture that survived with its original finish in good condition, it would be worth this much more. You should be happy that someone cared enough to refinish the furniture so you have the opportunity to enjoy it.”

Or, in cases of badly deteriorated finishes on pieces with no special provenance, the appraisers should say something like, “The finish on this piece is in very poor condition and is no longer serving its protective purpose. The furniture would be worth more refinished.”

As chance would also have it, most of the leading museums in the country have an interest in keeping furniture in their collections in the same condition as when it was acquired—often with a very deteriorated finish. (Museums spend a lot of effort controlling humidity.) The purpose is so the furniture can be studied for original techniques, adhesives, and finishes used.

Therefore, when a museum curator or conservator is asked by a consumer magazine to comment on the appropriateness of refinishing, the response is almost always, “Refinishing is bad.” The museum professional is thinking of his or her own needs, not those of the general public. The result is that the Roadshow’s message is reinforced.

More sophisticated dealers and collectors don’t object to refinishing. The market for old and antique furniture in deteriorated condition is very small.Most people want their furniture to look good, which usually means refinished, or at least restored as I describe in “Rejuvenating Old Finishes”. This has been brought home to me on a number of occasions when I’ve visited high-end antique stores, especially in the Northeast. I’ve walked through shops containing hundreds of pieces of furniture from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, every one of which has been refinished at some point in its life, usually fairly recently.

The shop owners explain to me that there isn’t a market for “crusty craze.”People want their furniture to look nice.Or as one dealer at one of the most prestigious New York City stores said when I asked about the influence of the Antiques Roadshow: “Our customers know better.”

Rarely should old painted furniture be stripped, no matter how deteriorated the paint. Rarely should old painted furniture be stripped, no matter how deteriorated the paint, because unlike clear finished furniture, it’s the paint itself, rather than the design or construction, that provides almost all the character and value. This painted blanket chest would lose all its interest and value if it were stripped.

The decision of whether to refinish, rejuvenate or leave alone varies with each piece of furniture (and also with the desires of the owner). To the right is an early 19th-century bow front bureau with a badly damaged finish, including significant missing color.As is, the piece is very unattractive. The choice would probably be to refinish, or possibly to rejuvenate using the amalgamation technique, hoping to move some of the color around to fill in. (Nothing would be lost if amalgamation didn’t produce good results because refinishing is the other choice; it could still be done.) On the far right is the arm of a painted Windsor chair, from about the same period, with clear patterns of wear. It would be a shame to remove, or try to amalgamate and respread, the paint. The wear adds to the character and value. Early 19th century bow front bureau. Arm of a painted Windsor chair.

THE OTHER SIDE

There is another side to this issue.An old or original finish makes it easier to determine the integrity and authenticity of a small percentage of antique furniture.There are fakes and restorations at all levels of the market, and crusty old finishes, which are very difficult if not impossible to replicate, provide a high degree of insurance against fraud. Even old dirt in cracks and recesses is helpful. An original or at least very old finish makes authentication easier and sales better for a few high-end dealers.

This desire for old, deteriorated and even dirty surfaces could be consciously or unconsciously motivating the appraisers on the Roadshow.

It could well be argued that this is fair, that there is a legitimate authentication rationale for not refinishing no matter how bad the condition of the finish. But even if you accept this rationale, it doesn’t apply to the vast majority (somewhere north of 99%) of old and antique furniture. The mantra,“Don’t refinish, should not be promoted on a TV show targeted at the general public without constant explaining. The current practice is having a harmful effect.

Bob Flexner is the author of Understanding Wood Finishing, now in its second, fully revised edition. Bob wants to thank his friend James Ciaschini who has contributed greatly to this article by sharing his thoughts on the subject over the last (sic)

Rejuvenating Old Finishes

by Bob Flexner

THERE ARE THREE WAYS to deal with an old, deteriorated finish: you can leave it as is, doing no more than possibly apply some paste wax;you can strip and refinish; or you can rejuvenate or “restore” whatever finish is left.

The decision is always made on a case-bycase basis. No method is right for all furniture.

In many cases, an old finish surface has an attractive aged coloring that will be lost if the finish is stripped and a new one applied. Refinishing makes furniture look new and can cause it to lose some of its charm. On the other hand, if the finish is unattractive and no longer performing its function of slowing moisture exchange, something should be done.There are a number of techniques you can use to rejuvenate an old finish that will maintain the color while at the same time improve the overall appearance. Here is a list of techniques, advancing from least to most intrusive, effective and difficult to pull off.

Apply a commercial “restorer,” such as Howard’s Restor-A-Finish.This will add shine and sometimes color to scratches for a short time.

Apply paste wax.Wax will add a semi-permanent shine without highlighting cracks in the finish (as liquid polishes do). But wax won’t improve resistance to moisture exchange in any significant way. Use a colored paste wax to add color in scratches and dings.

Clean the surface with soap and water and/or mineral spirits before applying wax or a restorer.There are two types of dirt, water-soluble and solvent-soluble, so you may need to use both types of cleaner.

Apply a coat or two of finish.You can use any finish, including shellac (French polish), varnish (including polyurethane varnish), water base, or lacquer, but be careful with lacquer because the thinner in it may blister the finish if applied really wet. In all cases, applying thinned coats produces better, more level, results. Oil is not as effective as a hard, film-building finish and could darken the wood unevenly and undesirably as the oil ages and darkens.

Abrade the surface before applying restorer, paste wax or finish. Use sandpaper if you want to level the surface. Steel wool and Scotch-Brite merely round over unevenness. Abrading removes the top surface, which serves doubly to clean dir t. Don’t abrade through any color, whether in the wood or in the finish, or you may lose control and end up having to refinish.

Amalgamate the finish and respread. This can be done only with shellac and lacquer. Wipe or brush an appropriate solvent over the surface to soften or liquefy the finish, then smooth it level.

Tabletops and the need to refinish

by Bob Flexner

IT’S A WIDESPREAD MYTH among woodworkers that the way to reduce, and maybe even prevent, warping is to finish both sides of

the wood. I don’t have any objection to finishing the underside and inside, but doing so isn’t going to have any significant impact on warping; the moisture content of the wood is going to adjust to the surrounding atmosphere anyway. It’s keeping the finish on the exposed side in good shape that makes the biggest difference.

Have you ever noticed that warps in tabletops, deck boards, siding, floor boards and even cutting boards are almost always concave on the top or exposed side? And that this is the case no matter which side of the wood (heartwood, sapwood or quartersawn) is up or out, or whether one or both sides of the wood is finished?

The explanation is that the top or exposed side was wetted and allowed to dry repeatedly over a long period of time, and the finish (or paint) wasn’t in good enough shape to prevent the water from getting to the wood.The continued wetting and drying of just one side caused compression shrinkage (or “compression set”).

Compression shrinkage is a technical term used by wood technologists to describe a condition in which the cylindrical cells of cellulose in wood are not allowed to expand when moisture is absorbed, so they get compressed into oval shapes. Compression shrinkage explains how screws work loose in wood and wooden handles become loose in hammers and hatchets. It also explains splits in the ends of boards and checks in the middle of boards in addition to warping.

When water enters wood, the cellulose cell walls swell. If the wetting is only on one side and the thickness of the wood prevents the cells from expanding, they become compressed into oval shapes.When the wood dries, the cells don’t resume their cylindrical shapes and that side shrinks a little. Each time the one side is wetted and dries out it shrinks a little more. Repeated wetting and drying of one side eventually leads to that side cupping, and if the cycle continues long enough, the wood splits and checks.

Tabletops are commonly wiped with a damp cloth to clean spills and sticky dirt. If the finish is allowed to deteriorate to the point where it no longer prevents water penetration, warping and eventual splitting result. More than any other furniture surface, the finish on tabletops needs to be kept in good condition.

Compression shrinkage has been well understood by wood technologists for decades, but none of them carried it to its logical conclusion to explain warping until Carey Howlett did so in a paper he presented to the Wooden Artifacts Group of AIC (The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works) in 1995.You can read the paper at: http://aic.stanford.edu/sg/wag/1995/WAG_95_howlett.pdf.

(Interestingly, understanding the cause of warps in tabletops leads to the counter-intuitive but effective method for correcting warps. Hold the board in clamps across the grain to keep the wood from expanding.Then wet the convex side, usually the bottom side of tabletops, many times, letting it dry thoroughly after each wetting.The convex side will slowly shrink, bringing the board flat.)

Tabletops are often exposed to spills or wiped down with a damp cloth. If the finish is deteriorated, water can get into the wood and, over time, cause enough compression shrinkage to warp it concave. This type of warp has nothing to do with which side of the wood (heartwood,sapwood, or quartersawn) is up or whether the finish was applied to one or both sides.

Wood floors are often kept clean by wet mopping, and if the finish isn’t kept in good shape the boards will cup due to compression shrinkage. Every floorboard throughout this secondfloor apartment has cupped, and the boards were, of course, laid randomly.

Plainsawn wood can be expected to have shrunk and warped around the rings as the surrounding conditions in buildings have become drier over the last 150 years.Most antique tabletops were made with the heartwood up because it’s the better side,with more good wood exposed. So it would be expected that old tabletops would bow rather than cup. But the opposite has happened in almost all cases. The fact that the underside was not finished can’t possibly have anything to do with the warping.

Wood is composed of cylindrical cells of cellulose that are compressed into oval shapes when the wood is exposed repeatedly to cycles of wetting and drying out. The compression becomes permanent, and if the exposure is to one side only, the wood warps and eventually splits. Spills and exposure to damp washcloths are the primary causes of warping in tabletops.


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