Headline: Furniture restoration – an art and a craft for the modern world
Restoring antique furniture, well any furniture really, is a skill that came close to being lost forever in our world of mass consumerism. However, there are signs that the traditional craft is going through something of a renaissance as society increasingly embraces the idea of recycling and living sustainably.
Second-hand furniture sales are on the increase and there are a number of courses running that teach the fundamental skills of restoration. Marry that with the numerous television shows that advocate mending and recycling household items and it is clear that the Great British public are falling in love with the idea of restoration.
However, while enthusiastic amateurs are busy replacing, repairing and rebuilding pieces of furniture with varied levels of success, the craftsmen and women at the top of the trade have a level of knowledge and skill that has been honed over years and sometimes through generations.
How would you describe the restoration of fine pieces of antique furniture? Craftsmanship? Artistry? Carpentry? Workmanship? Well people within the business are very clear that their’s is a profession that calls for the highest levels of craftsmanship, combined with intricate artistry. And with the clever use of powders, potions, waxes and polishes, you could even add the term alchemy to the job description.
One antique restorer, describing his work, says: “A host of skills are required for successful antique furniture restoration, from joinery and carpentry skills, metal work and lock smithing to traditional polishing and leather tooling.”
Here are some of the skills involved in furniture restoration
This can range from polishing out a scratch and reviving a finish to a complete re-finishing of a piece. While there are a range of chemicals enabling a fine finish, an experienced antique restorer will use a blend of waxes and polishes using traditional methods and recipes that replicate furniture makers from hundreds of years ago.
Joinery and carpentry
A broken leg, a split frame, a splintered table top – all of these can be repaired and replaced with surgical precision and to an exacting standards by a skilled restorer. This might involve completely taking apart and rebuilding the piece or making or a replacement part that exactly copies the original.
This craft dates back centuries and the methods used today have changed little in that time. Layer upon layer of wood, fabric and metal work has been used to produce a finished article, and replacing that upholstery is a painstaking process. The article, a chair for example, is taken apart and then the worn out materials replaced or repaired. The layers are then built back up to recreate the original. Layers are usually fixed using tacks, unless the wood is too fragile, and the process of stripping back the item to its bare frame, replacing the springs, the stuffing and the fabric, is carried out using century-old methods.
A less obvious skill within the furniture restorer’s cabinet is that of detective and historian. By recognising the era in which the piece was made or even having an idea of the actual original furniture maker, a modern restorer will be able to identify the materials used, the way the piece was built and a host of other clues that will help with the restoration of a piece. In its own way, furniture restoration contributes to giving each piece of furniture its own on-going life story.
Whether you are looking to learn the skills and crafts of restoration or whether you are considering taking your furniture to a professional for an overhaul, the outcome: breathing life back into a piece of furniture is hugely rewarding and a great way of creating your own little piece of living history in your home.