Loving Your Furniture II

     My prejudices are straightforward: a well-made piece of furniture constructed of real wood (as compared to glued-together sawdust), and with pleasing lines, has value. It may have been made three hundred years ago by a Philadelphia cabinet shop, and have satinwood inlay, or it may have been crudely (but well) made of a maple tree by an Amish farmer, or it may have been made in the 20's by a furniture company during the Fabulous Fakes period. Or it may have been made last week by a good cabinetmaker.

 

     The well-made part is hard for the novice to recognize, and I am still a novice, even after all these years of marriage to an expert. If it has been around for 300 years, it is probably well made. If it has been around for fifty years, but has survived three generations of children, it is probably well made. It you buy it today from a mass manufacturer, unless it is a name company, it probably is not well made.

 

     Polishes aren't quite as complicated. Bacon fat and spit have been mentioned: the cabinetmaker was queried on this point, and he said no, bacon is too expensive, and anyway it might have tiny particles of bacon left in it to scratch the surface. Spit, on the other hand, is always useful for removing smudges; it is readily available and cheap.

 

      There are only two unsealed finishes that I know of: oil, applied intentionally and with finish aforethought or accidentally through years of use and wiping, or no finish at all. Unfinished wood, or neglected oil finishes, looks dead and very, very hungry. If you don't believe that wood can look hungry, go to a cabinetmaker's shop where pieces (particularly antiques) are set about in various stages of undress. Or look in your own dining room. If a finish is flat, dead, no shine, no look of comfort and satisfaction, then it is hungry. Oil finishes, either old or new commercial ones, contain a large amount of oil and a small amount of drying agent. The oil soaks into the wood, and the drying agent dries that oil which remains on the surface of the wood. Old oil finishes tend to be very dark, because years of dust and dirt have been absorbed into the pores of the wood along with the oil.

 

     Turpentine, or sometimes even small amounts of soap and water, will remove the surface finish and leave it open for more absorption. Oil - open, unsealed - finishes need a periodic dressing of additional oil. If you are truly desperate, and unfunded, vegetable oil is better than nothing; since it has no drying agent in it and has sort of a kitcheny odor, however, it is not the perfect oil finish. There are several commercially available oil finishes and polishes which are O.K. Boiled linseed oil is probably the most readily available. There is no particular merit in exotic kinds of oil, such as snake or imported Chinese eyelash oil; oil is oil, so long as it is not raw linseed oil or any oil specified for marine use.

 

     This no-no applies to varnish, too. Marine oils, raw linseed oil, and marine varnishes are designed not to dry, which is useful for things that remain in water but not helpful for the backs of laps when used on rocking chairs. Be sure to follow the directions on your oil polish; they usually instruct you to wipe off after a certain number of minutes. If the wood is very hungry, you might need to apply and reapply, but the wiping off is designed to keep the drying agents from mucking up the oil on the surface which is not absorbed. Leaving it unwiped will make muck - the only appropriate word - instead of a nice shiny surface.

 

     It certainly won't hurt to put oil on your sealed finishes if you are unsure of which is which, but since the finish is sealed, very little, if any, will be absorbed. You are oiling and polishing the finish, and no harm is done. My advice on the proper action to take if your furniture starts humming back to you - since you are now feeding it properly, and humming while you work - is to turn on a very loud opera, with lots of sopranos, and pretend you don't hear the humming. The ghosts in your antiques will subside, mumbling.

 

     If, however, your furniture begins to snap and crackle, pay attention: it's telling you something you need to hear. Recall that most old furniture, which may have survived nicely for several hundred years, was built and used primarily in the days of no central heating and poorly insulated houses. Except for those pieces located close to the fireplace or pot-bellied stove, the furniture was not dried out with central heating and had available to it the natural moisture in the air. Contemporary heating and insulated conditions may dry the furniture to the extent that it splits; large pieces, particularly, such as the leaves on a table or the sides of a wardrobe, may simply dry and split their length. Glued joints may suddenly come apart. If you have a house full of valuable antiques, or pieces you hope will become valuable antiques some day, either turn off your central heating and open up some outside air holes, or buy a humidifier.

 

     Just ask the cabinetmaker. Wood is a live thing, with personality and characteristic smells (he can smell a piece of cherry at twenty paces). Pieces must be built to accommodate the grain patterns and swellings and shrinkings and habits of aging of the wood. That's why you talk to it while you polish it. Or build with it, only he won't admit that.