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Wood Furniture Restoration—Part 1: Inspection, Transportation and Cleaning

May 3, 2001
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Restoring wood furniture could be tricky, not to mention expensive, if the correct procedures aren’t followed for complete restoration.



Restoring soot-contaminated wood furniture and “case goods” can be one of the most gratifying procedures restoration technicians undertake. That’s because they frequently restore heavily contaminated, beautiful, expensive pieces of furniture.

However, before starting restoration carefully consider what you’re about to clean. Think about: if it can be cleaned, how it will be cleaned, how much time and effort you can afford to expend in the restoration process, and how odor within an individual piece can be eliminated most efficiently.

Inspection

Begin any cleaning effort with a careful pre-inspection of the size, value, construction, components and finishes, and exterior/interior smoke and heat damage present on non-fabric furnishings:

Size and Complexity. Is this a large, heavy piece that’s hard to move around; or is it a small piece that’s easy to manipulate? Does it have a complex design with spindles, carvings and/or grooves, or is it a basic item that’s simple to process? All these considerations, and many more, affect the degree of difficulty in restoration.

Value. Consider the real value of the piece: Is it something that’s easily replaced, or is it an expensive, one-of-a-kind antique that justifies extra restoration effort and cost? Or could it be a piece that’s inexpensive to replace, but due to its sentimental value, justifies greater-than-normal effort (and cost) to restore? This may be a decision that insureds and adjusters must coordinate together after hearing your expert opinion of anticipated cleaning results.

Construction Characteristics. What materials is the piece made of and how is the piece constructed? Are wood components made of expensive hardwood or inexpensive pressed board with a simulated wood or plastic veneer laminated to it? Is the wood finished or unfinished? What other types of surfaces are present: metal, glass, enamel, paint, fabric, ivory, or plastic? How much trouble is it to alter procedures to accommodate the smoke damage on these differing surfaces?

Pre-Existing Usage Damage. Scratches, nicks, dents, and gouges may be blamed on restorers if not noted before beginning, especially when conducting a move-out for in-plant cleaning. Also, check the condition of the existing finish by scratching it lightly with your fingernail. Is it hard and durable, or has it been dissolved over the years by body oils or atmospheric pollutants? Similarly, is there a wax buildup that may complicate cleaning?

Exterior Smoke and Heat Damage. During your pre-cleaning inspection and evaluation, look for and list on your paperwork any damage caused by excessive heat from the fire, particularly on those surfaces extending above the heat line. Do drawers and doors open easily, or are they swollen due to moisture exposure? Are finishes cracked, “crazed,” yellowed or bubbled; or are metal components rusted or corroded excessively by acid soot residues?

Interior Damage. Don’t limit your inspection to the exterior—check the interior for smoke damage as well. Test drawers and doors for proper opening and closing. Look for soot staining and odor on interior surfaces.

Furniture Transport Considerations

In light to moderate soot damage situations, most wood furniture or case goods can be cleaned on-location, or in the customer’s home or business. But inevitably, restoration technicians will have to load and transport furnishings from severely damaged structures to their plant facilities for processing. Here are a few guidelines to prevent damage:

Delicacy. Always treat all pieces of furniture as if they are fragile—particularly since most are! Inspect components and handle the piece carefully when loading or unloading. Similarly, when moving pieces around the plant facility, use furniture dollies or rolling platforms.

Padding. Always use moving pads of different sizes to protect surfaces. Also, be sure that pads are securely attached to furniture with rubber straps designed for this purpose.

Surface-to-Surface Contact. Never allow furnishings to rub together while being transported. Moreover, never stack wood furniture, especially following cleaning when finishes may be soft and vulnerable—even if padded!

Drawers and Doors. Always secure doors and drawers before handling furniture. Drawers may be removed to lighten the piece and prevent them from falling out, or they may be strapped in place with pads and straps. Doors on china cabinets or hutches are particularly vulnerable.

Restoration Options

Restoration Options Now it’s decision time! Consider the facts found in your initial inspection, examine the basic options available in any restoration situation and clean, resurface or replace as indicated. Basically, there are four cleaning or refinishing alternatives available to restorers. We’ll start with cleaning and polishing and progress to “refinishing” options in a future article:

The Cleaning and polishing option is selected when light soot residue is observed on the exterior of surfaces. It includes the following steps:

Removing dry soot. Dry sponge loose soot residue from all surfaces, particularly those that are porous. Moisture can cause loose soot particles to migrate within wood pores and cause permanent discoloration, if not removed while in a dry particle state.

Selecting cleaning agent. Next, select a mild general-purpose detergent and mix it according to the label for light-duty cleaning. General-purpose wall-washing compounds or mild cleaners like Murphy’s Oil Soap® do a nice job here. Of course, the addition of a water-based deodorant to the cleaning compound is the beginning of the odor removal effort.

Applying cleaning agent. Saturate a terry cloth towel in the detergent solution and wring it out carefully. Vigorously agitate soot on wood surfaces with the wood grain only, rotating the towel as it absorbs suspended residue.

Drying. Absorb excess moisture with towels and force dry with air movement if required.

Polishing. Polish finished wood surfaces with a quality oil-based furniture polish. The combination of acid soot residues and mild detergents remove natural oils from wood furniture, causing finishes to dry and crack over time. Replace these oils with repeated applications of polish if total restoration is to occur. For furniture that’s been subjected to severe use (scratches, gouges), an oil-based polish with a stain added (“scratch cover”) considerably improves its appearance. However, never apply stained furniture polish to “blond,” light-colored, or unfinished furniture.

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