Restoring Moisture to Dry Antique Wood

DithNovember 21, 2005

We just bought an antique walnut server for the dining room that was made somewhere between 1890 and 1920. The wood is dry in places. What do you recommend to restore moisture to the wood? Thanks for your help!

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I recommend you rethink what you want to do. The wood doesn't need moisture, though that's what it might look like. The issue, rather, is that the finish is gone in places. You need to work at figuring out what the original finish is, and how to repair it.

    Bookmark   November 21, 2005 at 7:52PM
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I have no idea how to do that. The store we bought it from gave us only the approximate year of construction (1890-1920) and that it is walnut, made in France and/or Belgium. What would you suggest? Thanks.

    Bookmark   November 22, 2005 at 10:08AM
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I'm a furniture maker, not a restorer, so I'm not the greatest person to ask.

For a piece of that age you can eliminate a lot of modern finishes as possibilities. It won't be polyurethane, for example. Likely candidates will be shellac, lacquer, oil and varnish.

What do the unfinished areas look like? Is it as if something was spilled on them, that might've dissolved the finish? Are they in areas that would be touched often, subject to mechanical wear?

What do the undamaged areas look like? Is the finish glossy? Is there a thick film over the wood, filling in the pores, or is the finish soaked into the wood, leaving the natural texture of the wood visible?

    Bookmark   November 22, 2005 at 11:19AM
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Thanks for your response. The dry-looking areas are on vertical portions of the piece that would not be touched often at all. They just look dry, more than that something was spilled and dissolved the finish. The undamaged, or less dry-looking, areas are natural-looking. I would not say the finish is glossy at all; rather, there is a slight sheen where the wood does not look dry. I've attempted to include a link to the piece but it doesn't show the wood close-up enough. The "dryness" isn't awful, but I'd prefer it to have a bit more of a sheen/look less dry. I'd appreciate your thoughts. Thanks.

Here is a link that might be useful: United House Wrecking antique buffets (top right photo)

    Bookmark   November 22, 2005 at 11:27AM
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Wow, quite a piece. That looks to me like a light film finish. Theory#1 is that it's shellac. Go to the hardware store and get a little can of solvent alchohol -- don't try to use the rubbing alcohol from your medecine chest. Put a drop or two on an inconspicuous spot. If the finish softens, gets tacky or simply dissolves, it's probably shellac.

    Bookmark   November 22, 2005 at 12:17PM
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If this piece has an antique value then you need to consult a restoration expert. You can destroy the value of the piece by cleaning, stripping or altering the finish in the wrong way.

    Bookmark   November 22, 2005 at 3:17PM
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Yeah, that's a good point too.

    Bookmark   November 22, 2005 at 3:57PM
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Aloha Dith,

There are quite a few good books on conserving and restoring antiques. You might try your local library to check them out before buying.

Basically, you would want to do no harm. A very pure linseed oil wiped on and left for several days then wiped off might help "moisten" the wood. Beeswax is usually considered a good wax for wood also.

If you are going to repair any areas of the finish, you may want to look up "french polishing" using shellac. It is really easy and might replicate the original finish.

A hui hou,

    Bookmark   December 6, 2005 at 2:11AM
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Just a note on putting "moisture" on wood;
You could do that, but moisture causes wood to expand. If you apply moisture to only one side, it will cause the wood to warp.
I believe the reverse is true as well; if you put a moisture barrier on one side only, the opposite side will dry out more, and that could cause warping.

    Bookmark   December 6, 2005 at 9:28AM
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Just an addional comment on moisture for wood:

We pay extra for well dried wood before we make something. That's the right way to build anything, with well dried wood.

So if you put moisture in a finished product the joinery will no longer fit/work. Re-moistened tenons can even burst the mortise, depending on the member it's made in.

As the others point out, you just need to address the cosmetics. if it's shellac, just a very thin wipe-on coat will restore appearance. But as pointed out, you should be careful if the piece has value as an antique. Any change in appearance can reduce value seriously.

Best regards,


    Bookmark   December 8, 2005 at 12:43PM
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I don't know if it's really "moisure" BUT I've oiled my nice wood furniture several times a year with REAL lemon oil - not necessarily easy to find. Real Lemon oil does not have petroleum distillates. Formby's makes it but sometimes hard to find. I've always been under the impression it's very good for antique wood furniture.

    Bookmark   December 28, 2005 at 10:57PM
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There's a great product for treating dried out wood. It's called FA Seeds' Wood Dressing. It's the best way I know of restoring wood. Here's some info from their website.

FA Seeds' Wood Dressing prevents all wood (especially veneers) from drying out, becoming brittle and cracking or splitting. Forced air heat is the worst possible treatment for fine woods and wood dressing if the best possible prevention and cure.

Seeds� wood dressing should be applied with a slightly dampened cheesecloth and allowed to stand as long as possible. The longer the wood dressing is allowed to stay on the surface, the more penetration occurs. After allowing to penetrate (on most finishes, penetration is easily visible) simply wipe with a clean, dry, cheesecloth with the grain. You should obtain a grain deep, stain, patina-free of residue.

Different finishes require different amounts of time for the wood dressing to penetrate. Open-pored finishes will literally soak up the wood dressing and may require several applications. New finishes, especially laquers, shellacs and varnishes may require 12-24 hours for full penetration.

Here is a link that might be useful: FA Seeds' Company

    Bookmark   February 19, 2011 at 6:38PM
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My cousin has an old butter churn that she wants to restore. the out side wood grain looks very nice and the inside has a gray apperance. It has tounge and grove wood and has gotten very lose. I was wondering how to moisturize the wood to alow it to swell and fit tite again. It has copper bands at the top in the middel and at the bottom. any suggestions would be appreciate.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2011 at 2:51AM
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