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Furniture conservation and restoration are very different in scope, but often a conservation treatment will include some restoration. Treatment priorities are based on preserving as much of the original as possible and the conservator should first determine the intended use of an object before finalizing a treatment recommendation. How furniture will be used is a practical matter and must be addressed to achieve the most satisfactory long-term results.  Much of the time a conservator spends on a treatment involves undoing well meaning, but poor restoration attempts. Misunderstanding of period styles, construction details and finishing methods is not uncommon.

For example, a chair destined for an exhibition or gallery will often receive a structural treatment that is different from one going into a private home and used regularly. Similar consideration must be given to chests of drawers, tables, desks and any other object with moving parts. 

Use is an important factor, when weighing the approach to finish treatments. Is the finish well adhered, what is it comprised of, what is its overall condition, are there aesthetic considerations, is it light damaged or faded?  Finishes can often be satisfactorily consolidated and cleaned. In cases where the finish is not appropriate for the period, it is removed and a correct resin is applied to recreate historic appearances.

Furniture Conservation

Treatment Examples (click on each of the images for more information):

Occasionally, hardware such as drawer pulls, hinges, latches and castors, etc., are original. More frequently, however; hardware has been changed because of damage or changes in style. Determining what the correct period hardware should be and installing it is often recommended. Sometimes ghosting, showing the outline of the original, exists on the surface of a drawer or door which makes the process for selecting correct hardware more certain.

While the preservation needs of an individual piece will almost always vary, one or more of the following is usually necessary to complete a conservation treatment: structural repair, loss compensation of structural elements and loss compensation of carving, fretwork, marquetry and inlay. Finish work will often require French polishing, finish color matching, gold leaf restoration and the stabilization and cleaning of delicate surface materials. Original hardware is cleaned and occasionally polished depending upon the amount of corrosion.

After treatment, the preservation process does not end. Ongoing maintenance and care is necessary in order to meet the preservation requirements of decorative art objects. These requirements can often be simply met by periodically waxing furniture, avoiding exposure to direct sunlight and maintaining stable relative humidity. Occasional inspections are suggested to check for changes in condition. Loose joinery or surface materials should always be corrected to reduce the probability of additional damage or loss of material. Completely satisfying preservation goals is often a challenge. Yet an ongoing collaboration between the collector and the conservator will ensure that important art objects remain in good condition for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.

Drawing and carving by T.L. Heller