…or, advice on mimicking wear and tear on furniture.
The most frequent enquiry I receive from readers is on the topic of replicating old patina on new furniture. Patina on antique furniture is a complex layer on and near the surface of the wood comprising oils/resins/waxes, grime, sweat, dust and even foodstuffs. It is created over considerable time and is further composed of bruises and scratches; plus a combination of the effects of exposure to daylight, the atmosphere and maintenance substances (acids, polishes, soaps, solvents and additional oils and waxes).
I’m not going to cover the broader subject of patinating here, just some of the aspects of mechanical ageing or ‘assuaging’ as I prefer to call it. I don’t intend this to be a bulleted dissertation on the methods of faking the multitude of blemishes and shading that contribute to a piece of antique furniture’s patina; rather it’s my aim to increase the readers’ awareness of how the very gradual process of minor physical damage occurs so they can better arm themselves to go about authentically replicating the same.
There’s no denying it; this is out-and-out fakery, but I broach the subject as an antique restorer who necessarily must have an arsenal of tricks and tools at his disposal in order to competently and sympathetically restore fine antique furniture; and not as some knave with the intent of defrauding the unwary.
In the past I have concocted indiscernible fakes for select customers for legitimate purposes, however, I began signing all arrant fakes following one incident when two pieces I made for a customer were immediately and deliberately entered into a fine art and antique furniture auction and catalogued with high estimates. Purely by chance, I happened on them while viewing the sale (about forty miles distance) on behalf of another client and fomented an investigation that culminated in the two items being withdrawn.
The furniture I reproduce now, in my retirement, fulfils my hobby interests and the vast majority of it is for my own personal use. I no longer make meticulous fakes because of the inordinate amount of time involved in doing so and at any rate; my family and I know that I made the stuff! Irrespective of the level of aging, I now sign everything I make – even our breadboard is signed!
The process of assuaging furniture requires an ardently vigilant eye and an understanding of how bumps, scratches and wear occur over time. Keen observation of antique furniture will assist in establishing the varying wear patterns at different heights.
I frequently find myself scrutinizing how people sit (despite people sitting differently on today’s seating than they do on older, more austere furniture); where elbows rest, where hands are placed when a sitter lowers himself into a chair and rises from it again; and where their feet are in relation to the chair’s legs and stretchers. People’s feet invariably splay outwards when seated creating recognisable wear patterns on the insides of the front legs.
Modern composite shoe soles have a less detrimental effect on furniture than the hard leather-soled footwear of previous generations (I still have my hand-lasted Church’s brogues that I had made when I was nineteen). When leather soles become wet, grit and fine gravel can become embedded in them and the encrusted soles, loutishly positioned on and against furniture, can have an abrasive affect not unlike that of sandpaper. Incidentally, respectable houses used to have a permanently affixed boot scraper in the vicinity of the front and back doors to reduce the amount of damage caused by frit-laden footwear.
The stretchers on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century stools and chairs – being joined directly between adjacent legs – normally exhibit extensive wear. Conversely, the centre stretcher of later H-pattern stretchers usually exhibit little if any wear because they are set back from the front of the chair with the express purpose of allowing the sitter’s feet uninhibited freedom while sitting normally. However, wear is often encountered on the upper surfaces and edges of the side stretchers, which again, is the result of loutish behaviour where either the sitter, seated askew on the chair, hooks the heel of a shoe over the side stretcher, or seated on one chair puts one or more feet up on the side stretcher of a neighbouring chair. Another uncouth habit is that of bending one’s foot, with the toe of the shoe on the floor in front of a chair leg and the heel of the shoe resting against the front face of the chair leg. This conduct tends to leave a series of distinct horizontal scars across the chair leg about six to eight inches above floor level.
Damage caused by footwear is not limited to just stretchers, but also affects the immediately adjacent corners of the legs. Heavy wear will be witnessed beginning about a quarter of an inch above the juncture of the stretcher (caused by the hard sole of the shoe as it prises against the corner of the chair leg) and about three quarters of an inch above that, there will be more of a burnished area on the leg’s corner caused by the rubbing of the side of the leather upper where it bulges around the side of the foot. Once witnessed first hand, it is easy to recognise the wear patterns associated with these and other postures.
It’s not just poor deportment that causes wear and tear on chairs; other slovenly or careless behaviour can cause damage too. Dining and side chairs dragged by their crest rails results in the rearmost bottom edges of the back legs being dulled over. Tilting a dining or side chair backwards at an appropriate slant will reveal to the patinateur, the area that needs to be addressed.
Remonstrating oafs and prima donnas have been known to abruptly rise to their feet, thrusting their chairs backwards with such force that they topple over. Breakages can obviously occur under such circumstances, but bruising on the back of the crest rail is more common. Again, laying a chair on its back and rocking it will indicate exactly where any bruising should be replicated. Similar actions can result in bruising to the ends or horns of crest rails when the chairs topple sideways.
Dining room furniture was often rearranged to accommodate varying numbers of diners and when not in use, chairs were routinely arranged around the walls of the dining room. Chair crest rails can also show evidence of being shoved against walls (or the chairs sat on whilst in contact with the wall – ouch!). The damage may include some bruising, but in most cases, will present as an area of minute scratches and dulled polish, or in extreme cases, the total absence of any finish.
Chairs that remain positioned around dining tables can show bruising on the front faces and front outer corners of their back stiles where they have been repeatedly pushed in against the table. The vast majority of dining table tops are 29-1/2″ high, so, accounting for the backward sweep of the typical dining chair stile and the lower edge of the tabletop (and even the odd table of a lower height), you would expect to see bruising on the stiles somewhat lower than 29-1/2″.
The front terminals of chair arms will often display bruises in the wood, some caused by the rings and wedding bands of opiners as they slap their hands on the arms to lend emphasis to their speeches. Watch what people do and you might be surprised how their casual actions impact on furniture.
Most wear and tear on dining tabletops is distributed in recognisable patterns: The table centres are often marked by the heavy silverware and centre pieces popular during the eighteenth-century while the peripheries are marked by the antics of the diners themselves – cuff buttons, cufflinks, rings and drumming finger nails all contribute to the patina over several centuries.
Dining tables weren’t always covered by linen Damascus tablecloths while in use and usually display a myriad of fine scratches, the majority caused by items being slid across the surface. If you’ve ever inspected the foot of an eighteenth-century ale glass, rummer, wine glass, jug or decanter you’ll have seen a uniform matte area composed of thousands of fine scratches. Whatever type of dust can scratch lead or soda glass, can certainly scratch the polished surface of a table. The unglazed foot rims of plates make an audible scratching noise when slid across a table, so I think it’s reasonable to conclude that earthenware and porcelain vessels contributed somewhat to the pattern of scratches.
Prior to the advent of enclosed saltcellars, salt was provided in a number of open ‘salts’, strategically placed on the table, from which a diner would retrieve an amount in their fingers, or with the aid of a salt spoon. Salt and sugar invariably fell onto the table adding to the layer of abrasive detritus. I’m not advocating rubbing a handful of sand into a tabletop to emulate fine scratches, but it’s something to be aware of when working the final level of gloss on the freshly repolished top of a dining table.
As with the marks imparted on dining chairs from their proximity to dining tables, the tables too can display bruises on their legs caused by chair seat rails and bruises to the tabletop edges from chair back stiles.
Case furniture tends to be large, heavy and therefore infrequently moved. As a result, wear is concentrated towards the front where people access the furniture. Drawer fronts often exhibit speckled damage caused by the fingernails of hands seeking to grasp bails and other handles. Similarly, the areas surrounding keyholes and escutcheons can also appear dark and speckled where poorly aimed keys missed their mark.
Furniture which is sat before – desks, dressing tables, lowboys, secretaires etc. – will exhibit concentrated wear low down, created by footwear; and at mid height (especially on items with kneeholes or legs where a chair has been pushed in repeatedly) caused by chair seat rails and arms. Pursuant to the singular activities performed at such pieces, the dulling of arises and general bruising are often noticeably absent from some dressing table tops and secretaire interiors with the exception of the immediate vicinity of the sitter.
Assuaging new furniture can be as simple as lightly sanding edges, but care must be exercised as the majority of genuine wear comes about through fibre compression and not fibre removal. The hollowing of the upper surfaces of chair and stool stretchers by decades of leather-soled boots and shoes impregnated with grit is one exception where the wood fibres are actually abraded away.
Arises can be convincingly compressed by slowly and gently rolling them over with a burnisher or round-shafted screwdriver whilst rubbing to and fro. This should be carried out after inflicting any nicks or other marks to soften them and blend them in too.
There is no single tool that I use to recreate these marks or wear; I simply use whatever I have lying around that will mimic the marks required. I have a thin, bendy six inch steel ruler for example, the corner of which is excellent for making fine table top scratches.
The best course for any would-be patinateur would be to make a series of marks in a breaker or unloved piece of furniture and compare the results with those on a genuine piece. You won’t find a chain, sock full of nails, worn rasp, broken bottle, ice pick, re-ground screwdriver tip, barbed wire, bird shot or any of the other old chestnuts to be of any use in creating a convincing ‘antique’ surface. Repetition will be your nemesis.