Repairing “antiques”

With the economy being what it is these days, I’m inclined to accept a lot of work that I might have turned down when things were a bit more flush. Much of that work involves repairing furniture and most of the calls I get seem to involve “antiques”. Now, you might be wondering why I keep bracketing antiques in quotes. It’s because most people do not understand the difference between valuable antiques and old furniture.

During the 20s and 30s there was a lot of furniture produced in factories, made mostly of oak and maple. This was the period’s version of what you would buy at Ikea today. When the “antique craze” exploded in the 60s, second-hand shops and antique stores were full of the stuff. Many people made the presumption that these were valuable antiques but the real valuable antiques were made of woods like mahogany, walnut and rosewoods, and were not likely to be found in second-hand stores. This, I believe, is also how “solid oak” became synonymous with “quality” in the minds of many.

What mostly comes my way are pieces of old furniture with no particular value as antiques. While it’s always hard to pop someone’s bubble by telling them that grandma’s dresser does not really have much value beyond the sentimental, the bright side is that there is really no risk of destroying the desirability of a “valuable antique” by repairing, modifying or refinishing it. I recently rebuilt an old oak dresser for a guy who was happier spending a few hundred to fix up something that was actually made of wood in lieu of buying a new veneered MDF clunker.

There is no doubt that the factory furniture of the 20s and 30s was of much better quality than today’s equivalent. And these pieces do have a certain charm that is lacking in most factory-made contemporary furniture which makes it worthwhile to put at least some resources into keeping them alive.



  • Marshall Border says:

    The furniture that you buy today is more or less crap for sure . My step-son picked up a new entertainment center where he bought a new 48″ flat panel TV and he told me he wasn’t sure that is was even wood . It said is was wood , but he was unsure it was ………Marshall Border Jonesboro , Arkansas

  • Ed Collett says:

    How do we get this word out to the general population? So many customers ask “what is it going to do to the value? The Antiques Roadshow says I shouldn’t touch it!” My answer to them in many cases is in the form of a question. “are you planning on selling the item or do you want it to be functional?” Many of the items are from the 20’s and 30’s and the only real value is sentimental, which is usually worth much more than any monetary value someone could place on it.
    Thank you for posting this blog. I hope we get more hits on this to see how others feel and how they respond to thier customers. I am going to print this out and hang it in my shop AND in the consignment shop we are in the process of opening. Maybe that will help spread the word.

  • David, I must agree with you. I have been repairing and refinishing “antiques” for over 15 years and I tell my customers the exact same thing. I am always honest. Usually the first thing that they tell me is that it is sentimental and I tell them that word will cost them money because usually that is the only reason they would spend the kind of money that a proper repair and restoration will cost. They actually appreciate the honesty. That is my approach to being a proper craftsman.
    Thank you for echoing the truth that many of us know but not all apply. Rick

  • It seems that today anything older than the person who owns it is an “Antique”. Well made Vintage Furniture (to me a much more accurate term),certainly has value beyond function. I am a woodcarver,mostly birds and fish,and do occasional restoration on old gunning decoys and decorative miniatures. The value and appreciation of these artifacts has gone up in most cases, but the knowledge and historic context of individual carvings often gets lost once “in the market”. As an item goes from owner to owner, it usually has to stand on it’s own merit. Even a good story,which is what an undocumented “Antique” usually has attached,won’t make an old piece better than it’s construction and design.

  • Tim Rainville says:

    When I first started my business 14 odd years ago, I built higher end reproductions. As time passed, more and more of my work became restoration, and then conservation. I enjoy this work more than building from scratch (most of the time). Money certainly isn’t a motivating factor, it’s the connection to the makers of the past who have made what we do today possible. I learn new things about furniture every day. It is amazing to see what ingenious things work and some failures that were doomed from the start.

    As more of the woodworkers like D.D. take on repair work, they need to decide whether or not the piece they’re looking at is something they are capable of or if they need to tell their customer they had better call a specialist.

  • Trevis Upson says:

    While reading the website of I came across the best definition of an antique I have ever read.
    It states in the the Tariff Act of 1930, the US customs defined antique as an object that was made before 1830 when Mass production became commonplace. In 1966, the standard of 100 years was adopted as the defining characteristic to determine if an object was an antique and it’s import would be duty-free. Before this act, importers often claimed all sorts of objects as antiques to avoid tax.

    On Dec 8, 1993, Title VI of the North American Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act (Pub. L. 103-182, 107 Stat. 2057), also known as the Customs Modernization or ‘Mod’ Act, became effective. These provisions amended many sections of the Tariff Act of 1930 and related Laws. One key change to the Act concerns restoration.

    “Provided they retain their original character, the heading includes antique articles that have been repaired or restored. For example, the heading includes antique furniture incorporating parts of modern manufacture. However, if the essential character is changed, or more than 50% of the item has been repaired or restored, the item is no longer considered an antique and is subject to duty.”

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