When buying or inheriting a valuable antique piece of furniture, it is very tempting to just put the item away somewhere where it cannot be damaged. However an antique desk, table or chair, unlike a piece of porcelain, is far too big to be put behind glass and really begs to be used. A large mahogany table, for example, creates a wonderful space for family dinners, but certain conditions of use must apply and all members of the family need to be aware of them.
First to remember is that the patina of the table is part of its value and hot or wet items must not be put straight onto the surface. This will produce an indelible ring which can be very difficult to remove. Often with old oak furniture, rings and chips are very much part of its character, and is therefore more resistant to damage than fine shellac varnishes or lacquer used on cabinet pieces. However the wax finish is built up over many years and should continue to be redone every six months or so to retain the patina. Water and heat would eat through this surface and more intensive waxing would then be needed. This type of damage is something that you can repair yourself however, with a tub of pure beeswax. Modern polishes should not be used.
French polishing a table using shellac and varnish creates a much higher gloss than plain waxed surfaces but the finish is not as durable or fixable. Heat, damp and solvents can destroy a surface very easily and any damage would need specialist attention. Newly applied French polish can take many months to harden and any damage could mean stripping the affected area down to the wood or veneer and numerous applications to return the piece of furniture to its former glory. The cost of specialist repair would also be out of all proportion to the cost of a tub of wax and a bit of elbow grease.
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