Imagine that your neighbour has some antique furniture in his garage that he offers to let you have if you carry it for him. It’s something you could use, like a chest of drawers, but you know your wife won’t let you bring that dirty, broken-down thing into the house, let alone approve of it in her well-kept bedroom. What’s a junker to do?
Unless the piece is an American masterpiece of antique furniture or finished with a hand-painted technique (some finishes are actually lesser woods painted to look like tiger oak or bird’s-eye maple, for example, and these techniques add value when they stay in place over time), cleaning and/or restoring the piece may actually do you more good than harm in terms of value. Just make sure it’s not a piece made by a well-known craftsman like Gustav Stickley before you start. And, it’s wise to bear in mind that you can actually bring an old piece of furniture back to life with minimal effort in many cases.
What to do before embarking on a restoration project
Take the time to inspect the furniture for tags or identifying marks that might help you research its origin. Look at the overall quality of the wood and craftsmanship, including any carvings present. If it turns out to be an extremely valuable item, leave it alone. Any repair work done on a piece like this should be left to a professional who works with high-end antique furniture. A museum curator in your area can probably point you in the right direction to find someone who does this type of work locally.
If it turns out that the piece is not a rare antique, it is always best to go the path of least resistance when possible. If that dirty chest of drawers has held up fairly well over time, just try to clean up any accumulated debris and give it a good dusting. Even with furniture that isn’t of masterpiece caliber, most tried-and-true collectors appreciate an original finish and a little patina that makes an item look old, and you may decide to sell the piece someday.
Sometimes a one-time cleaning and a little glue to hold the joints together securely will do a world of good. When that still isn’t enough, determine how much restoration of the finish and components will be needed to make it presentable.
Throw around the term “restoration
You’ll notice that the term “restoration” is used quite liberally here. That’s because it’s always better to restore a part to its original state if you can, rather than changing it completely or just fixing it haphazardly. There are exceptions, of course.
If you find a cabinet with missing doors, broken trim and a rotten leg, it may be worth saving. But if you decide that the item will look better with an aged finish that matches your kitchen, it’s not too much of a problem when so many pieces will have to be newly made to get it back into shape. Again, try to determine if the item is a rarity before making any major changes. These very hard to find vintage pieces can be worth restoring and still have some value, even with newly made repairs when done by professionals.