Ask Me How To Care For Your Antiques

I work in a museum, and part of my job is cleaning, preserving and storing artifacts of all types. A few times, I’ve thought about starting this thread, and after a couple of people have told me they’re interested, I finally decided to take the plunge.

I’m not an expert, of course. Sometimes, in the course of my work, I’ll have to ask for guidence on how to clean a certain item, but unless your antique is something unusual, I should be able to give you a general idea. (Worse comes to worse, I’ll ask at work.)

A few general tips to get the ball rolling:

  1. Never store antiques in the attic. The temperature and humidity fluctuations can cause a lot of damage.

  2. Don’t use furniture polish on wood furniture. They can leave harmful residues.

  3. Beware fingerprints. They can even eat into metal, given enough time.

  4. Don’t store anything in cardboard boxes, unless they’re acid-free. Over time, the acids from the box can stain anything that they come in contact with.

  5. Don’t fold cloth items. Over time, the fibers can break on the fold. It’s best not to fold old newspapers, as well.

  6. Never, ever, ever use scotch tape on a paper artifact. Remove any staples or paperclips because they can rust.

Well, there’s a start, anyway. If you have an item that you’d like to know how to clean, store, or preserve, let me know. I’ll give it my best shot.

What should I use on my furniture? It’s not really an antique - only 70 years old or so - a desk that used to belong to my great-grandmother. The partially-destroyed label looks to be from the 1930s or 40s. The finish on the top has peeled off in a few places like paper, which I was totally not expecting, and in general it has a lot of spots and wear on the finish of the entire piece. Also, the side has a solid wood panel like a leg-guard, and there is some splitting to the wood here. Any tips on how to clean, restore and preserve this desk? It has a lot of sentimental value to me - it’s the only family heirloom I possess.

I have a promotion document from one of my relatives from the Civil War (War Between the States, War of Northern Aggresion, etc.) It is signed by Lincoln, and is still completely readable, even the parts that are hand-written. It is currently in a fancy looking frame with glass hung in a dark corner of my parents house, so it never gets hit with direct sunlight. What can I do for it? Thanks

Lissa, I asked once before but forgot to check your answer. I have a pair of brass candlesticks from 1820’s England. I used to polish them at Christmas time. I used Brasso. Was that a mistake? I haven’t polished them in years. Is there anything that I can polish them with?

What should I use to preserve wood furniture?

I don’t deal in restoration, only preservation. We try to keep pieces in as close-to-original condition as possible, meaning that we never do anything that would further alter the artifact after it’s given to us. We just try to prevent further damage.

I know that restorers can sometimes repair the damage that you’ve noted, using steam and glues, but I wouldn’t really suggest it.

The sudden peeling of the veneer suggests to me that the humidity in your house is not good for the item. IIRC, 50% humidity is ideal for wood furniture. (I’ll check that figure tomorrow.) I’d suggest getting a humidity monitor, and adding either a humidifier or a dehumidifier in that room to get the level corrected. To prevent further scratching, put something like a table cloth over the top of the desk when it’s in use, or whenever you sit something on it.

As for what to dust with, I suggest Swiffer. The cloths are electro-staticly charged, which captures the dust, but doesn’t leave any residue. If you feel you must have an aerosol dusting spray, use Endust, which is supposed to leave minimal residue. However, I have found that it does indeed leave a slightly greasy residue behind.

Even the light from an ordinary lightbulb can fade inks. First of all, I strongly suggest that you take the document off of the wall. Secondly, who framed the document? Unless it was done properly, using acid-free backing, you need to take it out of the frame. Do so carefully, and pray that no one glued it to the backing.

Don’t touch it with your bare hands. Wear gloves to avoid getting the oils from your skin on the paper.

Put the document in either a clear plastic envelope (like the ones that kids use for school papers) which is slightly larger than the document, or put it in an acid-free manilla folder. (Never leave paper items touching anything which is not acid-free.) Do not fold it. Store it in a dark place, one which has steady temperature/humidity levels.

Keep an eye on it for any deterioration. In some cases, the acids in the ink itself can eat through paper given enough time. If something like this happens, you’ll need to contact a professional paper-artifact preservationist who can sometimes leech out the acids.

Brasso is not a product with which I am familiar. If it is at * all * abrasive, I wouldn’t use it. What we use at the museum is a product called Nevr-Dull. (You might be able to find it at a hardware store. It comes in a blue tin can.) Nevr-Dull is a cotton batting which has a tarnish-cutting oil infused in it. You’ll be rubbing for a long time, but you won’t have to worry about any scratches.

There is also a product called Renaissance Wax, which we sometimes use to keep items from re-tarnishing. (I’ll look at the can tomorrow just to make sure it’s okay for silver.) Only use a tiny speck, and rub all over the item, then buff with a soft rag.

I’m sorry-- that should be “okay for brass.”

I own no antiques, but just wanted to congratulate Lissa for starting this thread - the one she posted to the “Mention the threads you were going to start but rejected” thread.

You go, girl!

I do own brass & silver, I’ll just back up and read that advice…

Thanks for the quick reply. Is there anything I can buy that would allow me to display it? Special glass? FYI, it’s been in the same frame since it was found in a box of stuff in my great-grandmother’s basement about 45 years ago. I guess we’re pretty lucky it’s made it this long.

Also, I would like to point out that I should have written “parent**'s** house,” not “parents house” in my earlier post.

Lissa I collect coins from any time, and though I don’t really take care of them as I should I’d like to hear some recommendations. There is one of 1827 that I’m thinking of paying more attention to, thanks to your thread :slight_smile:

I’d like to point out that I don’t handle English very well, and I think that it should have been “of any time” instead of “from any time”.

But, again, I don’t know :smiley:

I should search for the thread “Ask me how to write in English” :frowning:

Sorry about that

There is special UV-filtering glass which you * could * use to frame it, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s not 100% protection, and, over time, the document could begin to fade. (Heck, even the special gas-filled case that the Constitution is displayed in isn’t perfect.) Light damage is cumulative and irrepairable, and even if you put it behind special glass, and used UV filters on your lights, I still wouldn’t recommend displaying it. Something as important as this document is to your family should be preserved with the utmost care.

If you really want to display it, I suggest you have a copy made, and display the copy.
** Zapper, ** Usually, what we do with coins is to encapsulate them in little coin-envelopes. I have never been asked to clean a coin, so, other than suggesting Nevr-Dull, which I mentioned before as a non-scratching cleaner, I wouldn’t know what to tell you. I’m not even sure in what kind of condition that collectors like their coins to be. (In other words, I don’t know if you * should * clean a coin, or if the patina is desirable.)

Should I store my 1920’2 style “Death-Ray” horizontally, vertically or on an incline?

I’m sorry. I don’t know what that is. Can you describe it?

Lissa, thanks for this thread.

At an auction I picked up an oil painting on canvas that I estimate is about 75 years old. It is painted in black-and-white and has markings that indicate it was created as an illustration for a magazine or book. It is not really valuable (I checked with an expert), nor does it have sentimental significance, but I like it a lot.

A few years ago I had a restorer friend-of-a-friend clean it and fix a little tear or two in the canvas. Unfortunately I did not get around to framing it and it has sat in a corner near a radiator gathering dust and new grime. (I know, I’m a dolt.) Well I’m inspired now, and I want to frame and hang it, but I want to spiff it up first.

What can I use to remove the latest dust and dirt without going nuts or sending it out again? Please remember this painting is a decoration that I’d like to keep nice, not am irreplaceable Old Master.

BONUS Q: What color frame would you reccommend for it. Remember it is all b/w – no color in it at all.


If you want to try to clean it yourself, you could try a soft, dry paintbrush. Start in a corner, and gently flick the dust off of it. Be careful, and watch to make sure you’re not taking off any flecks of the paint. Anything other than that should probably be left to a professional.

I would frame it under glass (UV protected, of course) to protect the surface. If possible, take the painting to the frame store and try several different looks. I’ve seen gold work very nicely with black and white paintings, but you won’t know what looks right until you see different options.

Thanks for starting this, Lissa!

I have an original Constable watercolor from 1825 or so. The surface appearance suggests that at some time in the past some sort of a sealer might have been applied. It almost looks like a very old varnish, turning the painting more of a light brownish color. Was this common with art of that period and should I just leave it alone or might a professional be able to restore it to the original appearance?

Also, I have a French chestnut coffer that recently showed signs of small insect damage, maybe from bores or their like. Could you recommend the best way to treat this? Again, thanks!

Do NOT, repeat NOT, clean your coins unless you want them to become virtually worthless. Coins can be cleaned, but it should be done by an expert, if at all. Cleaning of coins is frowned upon in the numismatic world because of scam artists trying to sell inferior coins at a higher grade.

Lissa: thanks for your time and generosity in doing this. A question: I recently acquired a piece of scrimshawed baleen about seven feet in length. How would you recommend hanging this thing? Any suggestions on enhancing the display?


I’ve seen the varnish you mention on a lot of the paintings in our collection. Unless the discolorization greatly affects the image, I would leave it alone for now, simply because we try to be as conservative as possible with any work done to an item. Since I don’t specialize in art, I’d suggest having someone at your local musem or gallery take a look at it if the discolorization concerns you. (Seek help immediately if the process seems to be rapid.)

A professional art restorer can perform miracles. We don’t have one on staff, so we usually send any art which needs work to New York. The change in one of the the paintings we sent in was incredible. We’ve only sent in a few of our paintings-- ones which were very dark.

You’re sure that the holes are new? We have several furniture pieces which have similar holes, but they’re of early origin. I have never dealt with a live infestation, so I don’t really know what to tell you. I will tell you that it’s not a good idea to spray the item with any sort of insecticide, because it could damage the finish. Perhaps there’s some way to fumigate the piece, but I’m not sure. I’ll ask at work tomorrow.

Chefguy, I would probably use a shadow-box frame, with the piece of scrimshaw well supported by cushioned “arms.” It’ll be pretty expensive, but probably the safest way to hang it. I wouldn’t, of course, drill any holes in the piece, or to just hang it on the wall without anything protecting it. (I’ll have to check about the ideal humidity level and let you know.)


Zoe: Renaissance Wax is fine for brass. It should keep the metal from dulling at all, cutting down how often you’ll need to clean it.

**lieu: **I discussed your prblem, and they told me to tell you to look for sawdust to see if it’s really a live infestation. Thump gently on the wood to see if any drifts out. If you do see some, clean it up, and then wait a couple of weeks and check again. (Residual sawdust could still be lodged in the piece even if the bugs are gone.) If more is generated, you do, indeed, have a problem. You’ll need to carefully encapsulate the piece in plastic sheeting to make sure the bugs don’t infest other furniture in your home. Then, contact a professional.

My guess about fumigation was correct. I took a quick glance through some of our resources, and they mentioned insecticide gas treatments and nitrogen treatments that might be used along with a couple more options. You’ll need to contact a professional furniture conservator (your local museum should be able to refer you) who will evaluate your piece and then decide on the best course of treatment.

**racinchikki: ** I confirmed that 50% is just about perfect humidity for furniture. Anywhere from 40% to 60% is acceptable, but the mostr important factor is consistancy.
A note to all about restorers: Always get a referal from a museum or reputable antiques dealer. Have the potential restorer evaluate the piece and then explain what course of action he plans to take. Then, research his plan. There are plenty of websites for museum professionals which talks about the pros and cons of the common types of procedures. It’s generally a good rule of theumb to be a conservative as possible with the amount of work done.

The restorer should be happy to talk about these things. What you really want is someone who deeply cares about his work and is passionate about antiquities. If he’s reluctant to discuss his methods or doesn’t want you stopping by to watch some of the work being done, you may want to shy away from that one.