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Due to the academic nature of conservation, the meanings and procedures can cause confusion and controversy. Here are some general and brief definitions:
Conservation attempts to maintain the original artist’s or craftsperson’s intent by stabilizing the present condition of the artifact rather than trying to improve or change it. Sometimes doing less or nothing is the best route when trying to conserve something. Museum pieces are conserved, but mass-produced furniture built in the last fifty years is not generally conserved. What to do to any given artifact must be decided on a per case basis. This is discussed between the conservator and the client. I follow guidelines and ethics set forth by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

An example of a conservation-guided repair on a loose chair would be the use of traditional animal hide glue instead of modern ?woodworker’s? glues. There is virtually no difference in the holding strength of these two glues. Hide glue always remains soluble in water and in itself and old hide glue in a chair joint does not have to be removed for the new hide glue to adhere. Modern glues do not share this unique property. In fact, some modern glues require rather invasive wood removal in order to remove the glue. Modern glues aren’t meant to harm things in this manner, but they do in an inadvertant way. Chairs in particular are prone to coming unjoined with use, so it makes sense to use a glue that will not cause inadvertant damage.

Restoration Work on an artifact becomes restoration when, for example, the varnish on an artifact is severly degraded, adulterated (with an inappropriate coating) or simply needing anhomogeneus replacement, thus restoring the piece to original condition. As you can see, the line between restoration and conservation is thin. Restoration, like conservation, aims to keep the piece as original as possible and use techniques that are reversible. In order to help your wooden artifact hold its value, we provide a list of what has been done to it. This list should be kept with the piece or on file for future reference.

So what is stripping?

Rather than one definition, there are types of stripping:

Heavy stripping is when you use chemicals to remove an unwanted finish and then subsequently sand the piece until you expose new wood. The goal of this type of stripping is to achieve a perfectly defect-free surface. It is appropriate for furniture that may have a very stubborn coating on it. If you like that just-off-the-showroom-floor look then this type of stripping, and subsequent fine finishing (see fine finishing category), is what you should ask for. Generally, newer furniture gets this treatment. Very seldom do I encounter wooden objects in need of heavy stripping. This is because I normally work on antique furniture.

Light stripping is when you remove the top coat of finish only, leaving the color or patina, along with dents, ink stains, black water rings and other defects. Some finish almost invariably remains. The goal of this type of strippping is to preserve as much of the original maker’s work as possible. This preserves as much value and character as possible. Generally this is performed on also antique or uniquely significant furniture and artifacts. It is done only when the varnish is severly degraded, such as flaking off, discolored (turned black), allowing the environment to damage the wood underneath. I sometimes perform light stripping.

Finish consolidation is chemically manipulating and/or mechanically abrading the top coat and subsequently adding another light coat of a similar, if not identical, coating to the piece. Again, we are preserving what is there. The finish must be reasonably intact to perform this. The line between this and light stripping can be a thin one. I frequently perform finish consolidation.

Cleaning is when you remove dirt from the surface of a piece. This is sometimes done with mineral spirits with or without a light abrasive like fine steel wool. Paste wax is usually applied afterward. In either case the cleaning procedure abrades and possibly removes a microscopic amount of varnish. The finish must be in good condition to perform this. In the opinion of the most ardent purists, even cleaning could be classified as some form of stripping. Needless to say, it is the most gentle of all forms and always my first choice in treatment of any wooden artifact. I frequently perform cleaning. Cleaning is also something that can be done by private individual. It is time-consuming and requires some elbow grease to buff the wax.

Wax note: Contrary to popular belief, wax does not really build up. Leaving a thick wax film on any surface will attract environmental dirt and oil. It’s the dirt and oil that build up. Wax need only be applied once a year at most. I own furniture that I let go 5 or more years between waxing. Wax wears off eventually, just like the wax on your car. Wouldn’t it be nice to have to only wax your car once throughout its life?
If you need more information on waxing and furniture care, go to www.savingstuff.com to see what the Smithsonian’s Senior Furniture Conservator, Don Williams has written on the topic.