Expert Answers: Conserving vintage furniture

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This article is from issue 116 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Conserving vintage furniture

David Johnson

David Johnson of Sidecar Furniture in Los Angeles, CA specializes in the conservation of Danish Modern chairs with woven seats. He places a high emphasis on historical accuracy and preservation of patina.

I recently acquired a few midcentury George Nelson/Herman Miller pieces with watermarks, scratches, and gouges. Can I repair them at all without ruining their provenance and value? 

Steve Kline
Gilbertsville, PA

The short answer? Yes, but carefully. There are two general approaches to preserving vintage pieces: restoration and conservation. These antique furniture treatments are often confused, so let’s define them here.

Restoration returns the piece back to how it was when new. Usually this involves removal of the original finish and replacing worn or missing elements before refinishing. When done incorrectly, the value of the work is easily destroyed. If you choose this path, I recommend employing a specialist.

Conservation freezes the piece in time in its current state. Furniture that is in good condition, only requiring a light cleaning and joinery stabilization, can be conserved and still used. The closer to being intact and original, the higher the value retained. 

To go the conservation route while preserving the integrity and value of a piece, follow a few general rules. Repairs must stand the test of time or be reversible (or both). If an upholstered or woven seat is broken, replace it by exactly copying the original. Same goes for missing wood elements and hardware. Repairs to joinery, doors, and drawers must be hidden. Finishes, however, are always kept intact, flaws and all. But, with some careful cleaning and a thin application of shellac, wax, oil, or sometimes soap, the pieces can be comfortably used and their flaws diminished.

A Herman Miller piece likely has a catalyzed film finish on it. If it’s in good condition, gently clean and apply a coat of wax. If the finish is worn, a thin shellac will seal it and even out the sheen. (Always test on a hidden area first.) It sounds like you’ll be a fine steward of these pieces and keep them going for more generations to enjoy. 


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