Mixed messages have hurt the condition of old furniture pieces

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Finishes deteriorate as they age. First they dull, then they begin to craze and crack. Over a very long period of time, finishes deteriorate because of contact with oxygen called “oxidation.” But bright UV light — especially sunlight and fluorescent light — accelerates the deterioration so much that you can reasonably think of the deterioration as caused by light alone.

At some point in the life of better quality furniture (if it is to survive), the finish will likely have to be removed and replaced to renew the protection for the wood.

Without a finish in good shape, furniture exposed to moisture or extreme humidity changes will warp and crack, joints and veneer will separate and, worst of all, the furniture will just look bad, which often leads within 10 or 20 years to it inhabiting a landfill.

Wrong message

Refinishing has gotten a bad reputation in the last couple of decades because of the popular PBS TV show “Antiques Roadshow,” whose widely understood message is “Don’t refinish; you will lower the value of the furniture.” This message is most unfortunate because it is leading to the destruction of a great deal of wonderful old furniture.

There are situations where refinishing actually does lower the value of furniture, but these are very rare. Think of it like this:

A wealthy New England family commissions a chest-of-drawers or table or bed to be built by a local cabinetmaker in 1780. The family uses the furniture for 20 years or so at which time the house passes on to a child who puts the furniture in a guest room with the curtains kept closed so there is very little light.

The furniture is used now and then when there are guests, but for the most part it just sits unused in a dimly lit room for 200 years while the house is passed down in the family. Eventually, a new owner decides to put the furniture, still with its finish in exceptionally good shape, on the market. This furniture, assuming that was made originally to high standards, is indeed worth a lot of money and its worth would be significantly reduced if it were refinished.

The finish on this 100-year-old drawer front is badly crazed everywhere except where the finish was shielded from light by the hardware.

Of course, there was never any thought of refinishing during the 200 years because the finish was always in such good condition. Furniture is rarely refinished unless it really needs to be.

There is a small, but very enthusiastic, market for these rare pieces of furniture that have survived in near-original condition.

Unlike the example above, most furniture is used continuously: it is moved and abused and, most importantly for the finish, it is exposed to a lot of light. So the finish on most furniture deteriorates. When this happened in the past, people often refinished the furniture and it survived as a result.

Now, however, people are often hesitant to refinish — even common mass-produced furniture from the 20th century.

The appraisers on “Roadshow” don’t make any distinction between furniture that wasn’t refinished because there was no need and furniture that was refinished because it needed to be. No allowance is made for furniture with a badly deteriorated finish that wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been refinished.

Instead of saying, as they do countless times, “This furniture is now worth ‘X’ dollars but would have been worth 10 or 20 times more if it hadn’t been refinished,” the appraisers should be saying something like this: This furniture has been refinished, which is good because it surely needed to be. Had it not been refinished, it probably wouldn’t have survived. So even though the furniture would have been worth much more had it survived with its original finish in near-perfect condition, you should be thankful that someone at some time cared enough to put in the time and money to refinish it. Now you can enjoy it and it’s still worth “X” dollars.

It continues still

Fifteen years ago I was the editor of Professional Refinishing, a trade magazine that was mailed free to professional refinishers across the country.

“Antiques Roadshow” was very popular at the time, with newly filmed segments almost every week. Professional refinishers everywhere were dealing with customers who wanted their old (but not especially valuable) furniture made to look better, but didn’t want the furniture to be refinished because they didn’t want it to lose value.

Never mind that the furniture was mass-produced and worth only $100 or $200 to begin with. And never mind that people would pay more for the furniture if it had a new finish. Refinishing had become a bad word.

The business of many professional refinishing shops suffered as a result.

So I decided to confront “Roadshow” over its destructive message. I called the producer of the show, Peter Cook, and found that he actually agreed with me that the vast majority of old and antique furniture should be refinished when needed. I asked him to write a statement for publication in the magazine to this effect.

After a long and informative explanation of how the show worked, he wrote this:

“Let the record show that the Antiques Roadshow generally agrees with this notion: Well-conceived and well-executed refinishing and restoration usually enhances the value of just about any piece of old furniture. Exceptions are those rare (often museum-quality) pieces that have somehow survived in great ‘original’ condition. If we say or imply the contrary, we should be called on it.”

Great, I thought, this is pretty definitive. Problem solved.

But, of course, it wasn’t. “Don’t refinish” had become too embedded in our culture and “Roadshow” began rerunning old shows, so the destructive message continued to be repeated and it continues still.

It’s going to take a long time, and a great deal of loss, for us as a culture to finally realize that we have gotten seriously off track when it comes to the preservation of our furniture treasure.

Bob Flexner is author of “Understanding Wood Finishing” and “Wood Finishing 101.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue.

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