Antique Mahogany Dining Room Furniture
- Michael Varese restores antiques for dealers and collectors. By MICHAEL VARESE
WHEN surfaces of furniture are said to be ''lifeless, '' the word usually refers to tabletops that are dull, with the pattern in the wood darkened into obscurity. This is not a rare condition with old mahogany dining tables that have stood in a room shielded from rough usage, cleaned, dusted and polished with regularity.
The purpose of polishing furniture is to provide a protective coating so thin that it enables the finish to mirror the good looks of the wood but also is durable enough to protect it. That protection must be against hazards that befall furniture whose surfaces are readily exposed to the natural enemies of wood - water, alcohol, grease, dirt and the like. Dining tables are ready victims.
This is what happens: Dust is an abrasive, surfaces are dusted frequently, and although the surface is waxed regularly, it is not done often enough to stop the action of duster and dust from wearing away the finish. This may take decades, but gradually the surfaces get duller because the wax has no finish to settle upon and thus shine. The wax instead gets into the wood and the pores, then traps both dust and wax, aggravating the situation.
Because this condition is not understood, various home remedies are sought, such as a brand of furniture reviver or plain lemon oil. These usually dissolve the soiled wax, taking it down farther into the wood, which does not help at all. When there is no finish left, you get no white rings from hot plates or glasses damp with condensation. The wood takes all the punishment, thus worsening the condition. Refinishing is then the only practical solution.
To polish mahogany the way the professional restorers do, start first by going over the piece with a slightly dampened cloth. This collects the dust easily instead of spreading it around. If there is an appreciable amount of surface dust, you can start with the soft brush attachment of the vacuum cleaner, then finish off with a damp cloth. Next, apply the thinnest coat of paste wax with a clean, damp cotton cloth. Rub it in, using comfortable pressure. Leave the piece a couple of hours so that the solvents in the polish can evaporate; this makes the coat harder and requires more effort to buff it away. If after drying, ridges of hardened wax are apparent, they can be softened by rubbing down with fresh polish applied with your index finger. Then buff again.
Beeswax and turpentine was probably the only preparation available to many generations of servants and housewives to use on fine mahogany, yet it helped produce the desirable look old furniture displays. Modern paste polishes will contain canauba or paraffin wax in addition to beeswax for added hardness.
A note of caution here: If you wish to switch from a spray to a paste wax, you may safely do so, but I would not recommend the reverse, as the liquid polish in the spray dispenser may contain a solvent that could gum up and ruin an existing paste wax finish.