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Walla Walla Union-Bulletin Column on Antique Restoration…

February 17, 2014

In the fall of 2012, I was asked to write a column/some articles about antiques for our local newspaper, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin.  I agreed and my intent was to write one article a month.

Early in 2013, I wrote two articles and then I promptly ‘lost my voice’.  Even though I tried and tried, I couldn’t write another article.  During the ensuing months I read several other new columns that were published in the WWUB.   It then became obvious that I should just write like I always have written on this Blog… and I once again ‘found my voice’. 

I intend to post each column after it is published in the paper, along with some photos that may or may not appear in the paper.  Here is my latest column on antique restoration.

Antique Restoration

Restoring furniture is one of the most satisfying things that I do at Shady Lawn Antiques.  There is no greater thrill than to totally restore a piece that was literally on the way to the landfill.  It is my way of preserving and therefore honoring the work that craftsmen put into the original construction of the piece.

I’ve found that I have to talk myself down from doing the total reclamations that I have done in the past.  Sometimes they just don’t make economic sense but emotionally every once in a while I still sneak one in.  That being said, every January the Shady Lawn Antiques sales area is closed I spend the month (and a bit of February) restoring furniture.

Anyone who has watched the Antiques Roadshow on television has heard… ‘this piece of furniture would have been worth a lot more if it hadn’t been refinished.‘  Further, even a cleaning that removes the patina or the rich, mellow, old look a piece acquires over time will reduce its value.

This is especially true for furniture built by individual craftsmen prior to the age of mass manufacturing (about 1850).  However it is always better to leave original finishes intact even on pieces built in the 1900s.

It is these late 1800s to early 1900s mass produced pieces that I restore.  Repairing them and extending their functional life another 100 years is my focus.  My philosophy is to ‘use the lightest hand possible’ when restoring furniture.

My first priority is to make any piece structurally sound and functional.  For example a dresser should be solid and not wobble when you touch it.  The drawers should slide easily and the drawer bottoms should be solid with no cracks or holes.

Then I evaluate the finish.  When the original finish is in good enough condition to protect the wood and is still visually attractive I keep it.  When the finish has completely deteriorated or is extremely damaged I repair or replace it.

Here are several examples to illustrate how I put my philosophy into effect.

First is the case of two China Cabinets that I restored.  I bought both of them at the same auction and they were very similar.  Both were built between the late 1800s and the early 1900s.  They were both oak, had curved glass sides and doors, oak shelves and an interior mirror near the top.

The first cabinet had several minor issues that required attention.  The glue blocks supporting the legs were loose and had to be re-glued.  All of the glass was loose and needed to be re-installed.  The original finish was in good condition but needed the ‘barn dirt’ to be lightly cleaned off and then it was waxed.

The second cabinet required a complete restoration. All of the glass was falling out, every glue joint had failed, and the finish was dry, flaky, and in poor condition.  In that condition it was worth no more than what I paid for it. I took the entire cabinet apart, removed the finish, lightly sanded each piece, and then re-glued every joint.

deconstructed China Closet...

deconstructed China Closet…

I applied a new finish, waxed the cabinet and re-installed the glass.  A cabinet that was in shaky condition, at best, should now easily last another 100 years.  This time the refinishing actually increased the value of the piece.

This is a case where I purchased two similar cabinets at the same time.  They were both in entirely different condition so one had minimal restoration while the other was completely restored.

Another case was an oak Arts and Crafts era desk built by Stickley in about 1910.  In good original unrestored condition it would have had a value approaching one thousand dollars.  However it had been used in a Service Station and the top had over thirty-five cigarette burn marks on it.  I had to totally sand the top flat and refinish it to have any chance of someone wanting it.  It took a restoration to sell it, but only for three hundred dollars, far less than if it had been in original condition.

Remember in many cases ‘it would have been worth a lot more if it hadn’t been refinished’.  Well sometimes it would be worth a lot less if it hadn’t been refinished.  Consult with a professional if you have any concerns before you restore an antique!

Dave Emigh is the owner of Shady Lawn Antiques and is a fifth generation ‘Walla Wallan’.  He writes about antiques and life in the ‘Valley of the Two Wallas’ on his blog:

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