Art Deco Furniture Restoration

Mary Barile
Re-upholstering Art Deco furniture

Art deco furniture restoration can bring new life and luster to your cherished pieces, whether they're parts of an entire art deco furniture collection or just one or two pieces here and there. Many art deco pieces were constructed with veneer overlays and metal hardware, which can be repaired or replaced even if you don't have expert crafting skills.

Restoration Tips

As with any antique furniture, there are some projects that require lots of work and skill. Both machine made and handmade furniture can be cleaned and repaired, but what you attempt may depend upon your craft skills.

Consider Value Beforehand

Before you attempt any restoration project, evaluate your skills realistically and consider the value of the piece you'll be working on. You may also want to know the item's collectible value. A cabinet that's worth several thousand dollars and needs minor repairs may be worth the price. But a piece of furniture that has little antique value and may need hundreds of dollars of repair could be something you choose not to repair.

If you have any doubts, you might want to take it to a professional for evaluation restoration. If you don't know of an expert yourself, you can call a local antique store or antique auction house and ask for their recommendations.

Repairing and Preserving

The important thing to remember when repairing art deco furniture is to keep as much of the original as possible. Painting the surface, using the incorrect style hardware or failing to match woods will ruin your furniture. The following suggestions will start you off on the right foot.

  • Art deco furniture often has a veneer surface, which can be easily pulled away or chipped. If you are cleaning or polishing the surface, use a very soft cloth with a firm weave, otherwise you might catch the threads on the veneer and pull it away from the furniture surface.
  • Art deco chairs, couches and even tables may have leather sections or surfaces. Leather will crack if too dry, so treat it at least once a year to keep it supple. Use products made only for leather, such as Skidmore's leather cream. Remember to do a small test patch first, to ensure an even color over the leather.
  • Art deco pieces were famous for their glossy look and elegant wood. This type of furniture can have many finishes, including shellac or wax. To remove built-up layers which often cloud the original finish, carefully clean the surface with mineral spirits. Wipe dry, allow to air dry, then wipe again with a clean cloth. A light coat of beeswax will protect the furniture's surface.
  • Whatever you do, don't use a chemical to strip the furniture; that will ruin the veneer and the piece will be beyond repair.

If you are going to do some simple repairs to your art deco furniture, you will need craft knives, carpenter's glue, furniture clamps and weights.

Materials

Art deco furniture styles were characterized by clean lines, "waterfall" or curved edges, and accents of glass, chrome, aluminum, and highly polished woods and veneers. Scratches and dents, missing hardware and broken glass are common problems with furniture from this era.

Glass

Art Deco blue glass mirror top table

Many art deco tables use glass tops, set down into a wooden frame. If the glass gets broken, chipped, or scratched, you can have a piece of glass cut to fit. Some art deco pieces have glass held in place by wooden braces, making removal and replacement easy. Look for a glass replacement specialist in your area, or contact a specialized glass company like Clearlight. In art deco furniture, the glass itself is colored (not the backing or silvering) so you may not be able to find your exact colors.

Scratched glass can be repaired several ways. For very light surface scratches, try a dab of toothpaste, and buff away the marks. Jeweler's Rouge works as well. Deep scratches may have to be buffed out by a professional, so call your local glass repair company for help.

Etched glass, which is sometimes found in art deco china closets, is nearly impossible to replace exactly. Look for a glass artist in your area who can do the acid-etching needed for a complete restoration, or you can try it yourself.

Leather

Given their age, leather stains on art deco furniture can be tricky to remove. A surface stain on an art deco chair or couch can sometimes be wiped off with a mild soap, like Ivory. Try the soap on an inconspicuous part of the leather first and let it dry. After washing the stain, buff it with beeswax. For tougher stains, try a professional stain remover.

Metal

Art deco furniture often had metal handles or decorative legs made from chrome, aluminum or pot metal. You can clean these metals with water and a little bit of mild dish washing liquid or white vinegar. Finish up with a light polish of baby oil to protect the surface.

Handles or drawer pulls were sometimes made with gilded metal and Bakelite inserts (an early plastic). You can purchase gilding repair kits online or at hobby stores. Bakelite is fragile, so you will want to consider purchasing reproduction replacements.

Wood

Wood in art deco furniture can be highly polished or have veneer which is worked into decorative motifs or geometrics. This can make restoring wooden art deco furniture quite challenging, but there are several simple repairs you can do with basic skills.

  • Birdseye Maple Art Deco Dresser by Joel Liebman
    If the veneer is bubbled up or raised, try this technique: put a piece of wax paper over the raised section of veneer and then layer a thick piece of paper (a kraft envelope or light cardboard) over the wax paper. Cover all with a thin cloth. Using an iron set to medium heat (no steam), press down carefully and wait a few seconds. Lift the covering, check to see if the bubble has flattened, and repeat as necessary until the veneer is smooth. Then put a heavy weight on the cloth and let rest for 48 hours.
  • Loose veneer can be replaced or re-glued. Using a narrow paint scraper or other tool, carefully lift up the veneer from the base. Next, scrape away all the old glue. You can use warm water to soften the glue and then scrape it off. Spread carpenter's glue on the now-clean surface, and then carefully press the veneer out toward the edges. Quickly wipe away excess glue. Weight down the veneer, or use furniture clamps to hold it in place while the glue dries.
  • If you are missing a piece of veneer, you'll need to replace it. Try looking along the bottom edges of the furniture where you may find veneer which won't be missed. You can trim it away with a craft knife and then glue it into the bare spot with carpenter's glue. Replacement veneers can also be found at Woodcraft, where prices start at $10 and up.

Finding an Expert

Sometimes the repairs are beyond your skills, but you love the piece. Check with a trusted antiques shop and see whether they may know of a repair expert in the local area who specializes in wood furniture. Call your local museum or historical society and ask who they use for repairs.

While there are many lovely pieces of art deco furniture out there, much of it is not very expensive. Be certain to get several estimates if possible, or you may wind up paying more for the repair than what the piece is actually worth.

Enjoying Your Art Deco

Art deco furniture is stylish and retro, so don't let a few dings or scratches keep you from using it and loving it. Make some simple repairs and enjoy your furniture for years to come.

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Art Deco Furniture Restoration