Considering antique surfaces – an introduction

In the open market we encounter antiques with many different types of surface.  Original painted surface, original varnish, rubbed oil surface, dry surface, waxed surface, refinished, dry scraped to original finish, chemically stripped to original finish, over-painted, and re-painted. By learning about these different processes,  when considering an antique we can greater appreciate whether the surface is original to the piece, and/or what has happened to it over the years. Over this series of articles I will show how to recognize these various finishes, and will suggest the aesthetic considerations I apply to each. Initially we understand that very few pieces remain untouched.  It is most common that at some point over the years Ma pointed at her kitchen cupboard and said to Pa ” let’s freshen this up with some of that newfangled oil paint that we bought at the hardware store”,  or later, “lets take off the six coats of paint on this dresser with furniture stripper and then we can see the original cherry wood.”  Altering the original finish is sometimes an improvement, but more often a shame.  That being said the finish on older pieces are most often altered long ago, so then you need to decide whether to live with it the way it is our alter it again to improve it. There has been much discussion amongst collectors over the comparative value of original surface over refinished surface, and it is easy to oversimplify the equation.  Lets take a look at this circa 1860 Nova Scotia tilt-top table to open the discussion.

flame birch tilt-top table from Nova Scotia

flame birch tilt-top table from Nova Scotia

You can see that the top looks lighter than the base. That is because at some point (I would think about thirty years ago) someone has decided to “clean” the top a bit so that it is possible to see the pattern of the flame birch.  In the close up of the base  you can see that the (presumably) original varnish has darkened and crackled with age.  Untouched, you would not be able to see the patterned wood of the top, and so the owner of this table made the decision to thin down the varnish on the top only.

On the Roadshow, the boys would be rightfully quick to point out that the piece has lost value, but you can also see that for a true lover of wood it would be a shame not to be able to see the pattern as you would have when the piece was made.  In reality, pieces made with figured wood such as flame birch, or bird’s eye maple do not lose much value having undergone a quality refinishing because many collectors want to see the wood.  Consider how you would prefer to see this table.

untouched surface on the base

untouched surface on the base

For me, if a piece retains a good original finish, I always want to leave it alone, even in a case such as this.  But I recognize that many would prefer the piece in it’s current state, and that some would even prefer that the whole piece be taken down to the wood and resurfaced, and that too is a valid opinion.  To be clear then, if you are lucky enough to find a piece with a good original finish, my advise is to leave it alone, but once a finish has been altered it’s fair game to change it again if it is for the better.

refinished flame birch top

refinished flame birch top

You can see that the top has not been stripped right down to the wood, but rather was taken down slowly and carefully to retain much of it’s original colour.  This process was very popular with collectors of figured wood in the seventies and eighties when much of this furniture hit the market.  It  suggests how many dealt with the conflicting values of leaving things alone to show their age and the changes inherent in the aging  process, and the desire to see things as they would have looked when they were new.

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