Antique furniture, unlike much of the furniture available on the market today, was built to last.

Even though a single piece today might be hundreds of years old, there’s a good chance that, if it’s kept in the right conditions, it will last for hundreds more years.

What’s more, antique furniture can even improve with age, developing rich patinas which add warmth to an interior. But neglect your furniture at your peril: too much aging and your pieces can discolour, split, and crack.

What follows in this blog a guide to the basic principles of keeping antique furniture looking splendid, for now and for generations to come.

It's not intended to be an exhaustive list of every possible furniture remedy, nor is the advice here always guaranteed to achieve the desired results. If you're ever in any doubt, you should always consult a professional restorer first.

Specifically, Mayfair Gallery disclaim any responsibilty for loss which is incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, of the use or application of any of the contents in this article.

How to set up and maintain antique furniture

Antique wooden furniture has four main enemies: heat, direct sunlight, dryness and dirt. All of these can be avoided simply and effectively.

Antique furniture should never be placed near a heat source, such as a radiator; this will cause the wood to expand and crack. A minimum of two feet from all radiators has been suggested.

As well as heat sources from inside, direct sunlight will also cause problems for antique furniture. Partly this is about heat, but also because light and UV radiation from the sun will discolour the surface of the wood, and can even cause the veneers to ‘lift’ and peel off.

Some discolouration is perfectly normal in a piece of furniture, but too much direct sunlight will accelerate this aging process and cause it to happen unevenly. This is particularly important when only part of a piece of furniture is exposed to direct sunlight – for example, if one side of the piece is placed in front of a window.

Italian renaissance credenza, showing discolouration

An antique Italian credenza, dating from the 16th Century, and showing natural signs of patchy discolouration

It’s still fine to place a piece of furniture in front of a window, but remember to keep the curtains closed on sunny days when the room is not being used.

Too little moisture in the environment will also ruin antique furniture. The reason for this is that there is already some moisture in most antique wooden furniture: in antiques, the wood has been air-dried rather than kiln-dried (that is, dried in an oven), as in most modern wooden pieces.

This means that, if the surrounding air is too dry, the antique will lose some of its moisture to the air, which will cause cracks, lifted veneers and splinters. If there is a good amount of humidity, consistent with the moisture in the wood, then the wood will remain in a good condition.

You can combat dryness by purchasing a humidifier, or even by placing a bowl or cup of water underneath the piece.

Too much moisture, however, can cause mould and mildew to form, so a good balance is key.

As well as these points, there are also a number of common-sense dos and don’ts: don’t place hot or wet items onto antique furniture tops; don’t overload drawers with items which are too heavy for them; and don’t place furniture in places where there are pollutants in the air, such as smoke.

Do, however, clean up spillages as soon as they happen, and do hang mirrors and wall fixtures securely, and never above anything else valuable: if they fall, they will not only break, but damage everything placed below them.

How to clean antique furniture

Some amount of dirt and dust on your furniture is inevitable, and your antiques will benefit greatly from occasional – but not overzealous! – cleaning.

Below are the major materials used to make up antique furniture, and the techniques you’ll need to use to clean them.

How to clean antique wood

Antique wood cleaning

Cleaning antique wood with a soft cloth. © Wikihow

Antique wood should be dusted frequently with a soft, dry cloth. Dusting is important not only to maintain the appearance of your piece, but also because contaminants in dust can cause longer-lasting damage.

Water will cause discolouration, rot, and will eventually dry the wood out, and we would also not recommend using vinegar – as you might sometimes hear recommended – as the acid can sometimes cause the surface to dissolve.

As well as regular dusting, wooden furniture should be polished once or twice every year, using beeswax which you can buy from most DIY shops or online. You can even get waxes which correspond to the colour of the wood: black waxes for ebony and lighter ones for oak.

The wax is best applied to a soft, light cloth and spread evenly over the surface of the wood.

You should especially never use household polishes, or spray polishes, and never soap or detergent, as they will leave oily deposits on the wood which can darken and erode with age.

How to clean antique bronze and ormolu mounts

Ormolu mounted satyrs on neoclassical table

Ormolu mounts on an antique Neoclassical style table

As well as wood, ormolu and bronze are common materials used in the making and decoration of fine antique furniture.

Bronze and ormolu mounts, like the wooden surfaces, should be regularly dusted with a light cloth or soft brush in order to maintain brightness. For tougher bits of dirt in harder-to-reach crevasses, a toothbrush softened by a small amount of wax will also work.

Ormolu should never be polished. Polishing a metal is not a means of removing dirt, but of removing tarnish and corrosion (chemicals which react with the surface of the metal, causing it to change colour). Gold does not tarnish – which is one of the reasons it is so valuable – and therefore does not need to be polished.

Moreover, household metal polishes often contain abrasive chemicals which can dissolve the gilded layer on the surface of the mount.

It’s for this same reason that ormolu mounts should not be touched, if at all possible, as acid in your fingertips can erode the gilded layer.

You should also should be especially careful about getting ormolu mounts on your furniture wet.

Some mounts, on older pieces, were gilded using a technique known as ‘water-gilding’ (though this was much less common than the most-used technique, known as ‘fire-gilding’). Water gilding involves the application of a gold solution to the surface of a bronze, and it’s for this reason that water-gilded pieces are soluble in water.

Silver and silvered bronze mounts, occasionally found on pieces of furniture, can, however, be polished, using silver polish, methylated spirit, or white spirit. This is because, while gold does not tarnish, silver does.

How to clean antique upholstery

Upholstery from an antique salon suite

Detail of upholstery from an antique Louis XV style giltwood salon suite

It’s possible to apply a vacuum cleaner to upholstery on antique seating, but this should be done gently, and you must particularly look out for any loose threads or pieces of fabric.

For more gentle cleaning, dust and hairs can be lifted off upholstery using a short length of sticky tape.

Leather tops on antique desks and tables can also be polished using wax occasionally but for splits, cracks, and peels in the surface, it’s best to speak to a professional restorer.

How to clean antique marble

Detail of marble top from antique furniture

Detail of a marble top from an antique Louis XVI style commode

Many pieces of antique furniture – especially commodes, vitrines, and console tables – will have marble tops. These are generally easy to maintain, as many of them will have been built with a protective seal to prevent dirt from getting into the porous stone.

Marble tops can therefore simply be wiped clean with a dry, clean cloth.

Sometimes dust and dirt can seep through the seal, and cause discolouration in the marble. A serious build up of discolouration will require the work of a professional marble restorer.

How clean glass on antique vitrines

Glass doors, shelves and backings inside antique furniture – especially display cabinets and vitrines – are again, easy to maintain.

Here you are permitted to use hot water and soap to clean glass surfaces, but you must be extremely careful about getting the surrounding wood and metal wet.

How to transport antique furniture

Occasionally you will need to move antique furniture.

Because antique furniture differs from modern furniture in that it is generally made with heavier materials, and in more elaborate shapes, there are different rules about how you should transport it.

In general, two people are better than one; and three people are most often better than two. Certainly, if a piece is too large or heavy to be lifted by one person, then it must never be dragged across the floor: this will chip and scratch the base of the piece, not to mention what it will do to the floor!

The golden rule with moving antiques is that they must always be carried from their soundest part: for tables this will most often be the skirting underneath the top; while for chairs this will be underneath the seat.

Any parts which can be removed (such as marble tops) should be removed before moving, as they will add to the weight unnecessarily and can slide off, causing damage to the piece and anything around.

How to restore antique furniture

There may be times, however, when antique furniture requires more serious attention than a simple dust or wax.

The veneer may have lifted; the wood may have split along the grain; the mounts may have corroded.

You should never attempt to fix these more serious faults yourself unless you are a trained restorer. Amateur or incompetent restoration will not only ruin how the piece looks, but will also reduce its monetary value in the long-term.

If your antique furniture needs restoration, then always take it to a professional restorer. If there are any parts missing (such as pieces of the veneer or chipped pieces), try, where possible, to keep these safe, since replacement pieces can be extremely hard to find and may not look the same if they are replaced.