Restoration, from able hands
INA BROSSEAU MARX speaks painstakingly about furniture restoration. Make the mistake of using the word “refinishing” instead, and her retort is quick: “In this country I don’t know why we have the problem with the word ‘restoration.’ It is not the same as refinishing.”
The exacting way she talks about restoration is reflected in the compendium on the subject that she and husband Allen Marx wrote based on their 30 years practicing the craft. Their restorations are part of the permanent collections of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Art Gallery and the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.
Five years in the making, “Furniture Restoration: Step-by-Step Tips and Techniques for Professional Results,” from Watson-Guptill, has a simple theme. “Whatever two hands have put together, two hands can try to fix,” Ina says in a phone interview from her home in Princeton, N.J. “That is our mantra.” The Marxes, who have been married 58 years, now lecture around the world.
What is restoration?
Analyzing an object so that you can make it structurally sound and assessing its surface to determine its finish, whether it’s gilded or lacquered. Restoration deals with many complications. With restoration, you try to keep as much of the original materials, whether it’s the wood, original nails, something used on the surface. A finish is put on the surface to protect it. When the finish is damaged with white rings or scratches, then people take it off and refinish. Refinishing is taking off that finish.
What are your top three tips for assessing a piece of furniture at flea markets, garage sales or antique shops?
People should look first to see if the piece is wood. That’s hard sometimes because if there are coats of paint, you can’t tell what is underneath. See if it is heavy. Hoist the piece. Look for some clean lines.
Look for solid construction. Something wobbly can usually be fixed because the problem is at the joints. Do not pick anything plastic.
Frames are wonderful to buy at a flea market even if the joints are loose or it has a junky painting. Buy it. You can do wonderful things with frames.
What is the most common restoration problem?
When wood shrinks it loses dimension in its width (never in its length). This is particularly evident in frames, where the miter joints open up in the inside corners because the angle has changed from 45 degrees to, for instance, 50 degrees. The solution requires re-cutting the miters to a 45-degree angle (losing the outer size of the frame) or adding wood to the inside edges of the frame. Another solution might be to cover the openings with decorative carvings available in craft shops.
Shrinkage in the width of wood on furniture can be seen not only by spaces between the joints, but also by the tenting up of any paint, gilding, Asian lacquer, or even the clear finish coat. This is called “tent cleavage” because the appearance resembles a tent with air underneath it.
Much of the time the tented material flakes off, exhibiting the surface of the object.
What should you ask yourself before trying to restore a damaged object?
Ask yourself, do I have the personality traits to get through this? Do I have patience to see it through? Am I motivated? Do I really want to do this?