Thursday, April 21, 2016

Sympathetic Restorations

I have two business passions, clocks and antiques;  This blog covers antiques.  I firmly believe in sympathetic restorations to antiques and feel this is the only true method of restoring these treasured pieces, within reason.

            What is a “Sympathetic Restoration?”  Simply put, this restoration technique involves peeling away the errors of the past, ensuring the true character of the piece shines through. 

            There have always been those that think they know the best way to repair an item, many methods are ill conceived and wrong.  There are those that opt for the “cheap route”, and of course those that have little  interest in “old things” thus the repair is for functionality and purely utilitarian in nature.  A Sympathetic Restoration ensures the piece is as it was intended when created, but that also keeps the piece looking like the antique that it is, highlighting its use, story, and age.  We have all seen items that been restored to look like new; honestly this is a poor method;  If you wanted a new look why would one seek out an antique?  It is my stance that a sympathetic restoration is the best restoration that should be carried out UNLESS the piece is so badly damaged or deteriorated one has no choice but to replace pieces and parts or repurpose the item into something other than its original intent just to preserve a piece of the past.

            When examining a piece to determine the best route for a restoration, one must look at what has been done to the piece (i.e. replacement wood, replacement hardware and findings, rework of the finish, rework to the original piece that compromises its integrity of original purpose.)  Once a restoration route is determined begin by cleaning the piece, GENTLY.  A dry rag to begin, damp rag to remove more stubborn dirt, finally a rag with furniture oil applied to bring out the character.  If these steps do not bring favorable results, a light going over with 0000 steel wool that has furniture oil applied can bring about a tremendous change of appearance.  Remember the goal of this first step is to simply remove the dirt and grime, not remove the finish. 

PLEASE NOTE:  When selecting a furniture oil to use, make sure the oil contains NO silicones.  Silicone can react with the finish and the wood turning the item very dark.  I use a product called “Milsek” (1) in my work and am very pleased with the results.

After this initial cleaning, look at the finish and any added details the finish may have (i.e. applied paint such as stencils or shading, over varnish to add the look of carving or depth to the piece, or spattering to resemble worm holes or other “damage” from time) If there are no additions to the finish meant to enhance the appearance and you are happy with results of your cleaning you are done. 

However if you find the finish to still be dull or missing in areas and it just needs some attention to give it a better and more saleable appearance, try these steps next.  A product that is in essence mineral oil and stain that does not alter the actual finish, only enhances what is there, is HOWARDs Restore-a-Finish (2);  a wonderful product that can bring life back to a lack luster piece and increase its appeal for sale.  Another product that enhances a piece is a colored wax.  A wax with coloring in it can “fill in” areas that are missing color while giving the entire piece a wonderful glow.  I have found the product BRIWAX (3) produced in the United Kingdom to be superior to any other type of wax for this purpose.  A warning, BRIWAX does contain Tulane and can soften some finishes so try a test patch in a hidden area before attacking the entire piece.

 Should the afore mentioned steps not provide desired results or the finish is damaged more than can be addressed with these measures, a mild refinishing solution can be crafted that will clean and remove years of accumulated dirt and grime as well as smoothing the finish.  This is a wonderful mix, however I use it as a last resort only, since it is the most invasive method for a Sympathetic Restoration.  To create your “refinish/cleaning” solution use the following recipe

1 Part paste wax

2 Parts Mineral Spirits

3 Parts BOILED linseed oil (use boiled or the finish will remain tacky for months)

If uncomfortable, do not add the paste wax, I find it adds a nice glow to the item as you are buffing it out and it creates a pleasing end product.
After the finish, the next step to a sympathetic restoration is the removal of incorrect fasteners, knobs, hardware and findings.

Examine the piece, if the nails or screws are not of the period AND are detracting from the appearance of the piece, carefully remove and replace them with period correct pieces.  You will find a side cutter, a small drill bit and a set of E-Z out bits will quickly become your favorite tools; should you be uncomfortable with this step or if correct replacements are not readily available do not attempt;  Find a cabinet shop or wood worker that is comfortable with this process, or just do not do it.  Remember less is sometimes more.  IF the fasteners have been in the piece for decades, more damage can be done to the piece trying to remove them thus decreasing the value and salability, than simply leaving be. 

The easiest part of a sympathetic restoration is the hardware replacement.  Determine what’s correct for the piece and find it.  Nothing looks worse than incorrect/poorly sized hardware on a piece. Remember hardware is the “jewelry for the piece” it can make it or break it.

 Sympathetic restoration is correcting of errors, keeping the story and beauty of the antique; remember sometimes leaving a few warts helps the story; Make it a piece pleasing to the eye, that tells it’s story, and is period appropriate.


1~Milsek Furniture polish



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