Antiques: When to restore them yourself, when to call the pros

How to know whether you should you tackle a job yourself, call the professionals — or leave well enough alone
Antiques: When to restore them yourself, when to call the pros

An easy up-cycle that’s just as easily undone. Paint detailing to the splat of a commonplace British mid-century chair made in the tens of thousands. Annie Sloan Green Mid Century Chairs Painted In Chalk Paint, Pattern Made Using Detail Brushes.

For all its sustainable merit, over the last 20 years, up-cycling took a rude bike ride over the charms of millions of pieces of old furniture and objects. These vintage oddities are starting to drift through auctions. Rain grey, paint-job antiques — not all of it reads well.

Since the 1980s, late Victorian furniture has been regularly gutted, sawn up and repurposed for its ornamental parts. There’s no law against this imaginative play. You can find your own materials — dilapidated “as is” buys at auction in the outer rooms of the sale — often left for the last bids of the day (that covers most of my household ballast).

I would argue that there is such a Himalaya mountain of stout, inexpensive, second hand young furniture and boring late 20th century sleepers around — truly no-account things from the junk/charity shop and general sales. These are pieces suited to renovation — a process that takes them an aesthetic step forward. Conservation puts better pieces in a holding pattern, where they don’t deteriorate further. Restoration is a process that takes better antiques and vintage back to their beginnings — it’s the opposite of renovating. Even with vintage materials, turning back time, that takes talent and technique.

Mass-produced, middling mid-century furniture made in the tens of thousands by English and European manufacturers was generally finished in a diamond-hard lacquer. Set on teak, this can in time dial up to a nauseating orange and of course it will carry dings and scratches after half a century. The trouble with modern popular icons is they look a bit new — so any damage looks like knocked about new furniture, not delightful antique distress.

Bronze carries part of its value in its natural, oxidised Verdi-gris finish. Removing it can decimate value. Dutch stylised mid-century Sphinxes, 1st Dibs
Bronze carries part of its value in its natural, oxidised Verdi-gris finish. Removing it can decimate value. Dutch stylised mid-century Sphinxes, 1st Dibs

These pieces including Fresco and G-plan’s general collections are widely available and ideal for a supervised, informed amateur restoration. This would include the removal of the original topcoat from the timbers, re-polishing, stabilising of the frame, and the replacement of soft seats with fire retardants foams and new upholstery. Antique and vintage framed furniture tends to be very strong in oak, mahogany and walnut. With the right tender treatment you can return it to all but pristine condition.

The same is not true for the top division of furniture, which should be only placed in the hands of a seasoned restoration professional with an understanding of period timbers, construction, finishes and fabrics. 

The upholstery of say a chrome-framed Mies Van der Rohe, armchair should be carefully appraised before it’s binned, and advice taken in replacing it with something appropriate to the era or naughtily rebelling against it (not a problem with dozens of fabric houses specialising in antique and vintage-inspired designs). Vintage leather can be powdery with oxide salts and even ripped, and still be regarded as a vital part of a chesterfield or wing-chair by a collector. Even rough amateur cleaning can be disastrous.

Crumbling, stained fabrics of course have to go, but if you don’t recognise something special like a 100% silk/cotton Art Deco geometric velvet on a really good club chair — mistakes can follow. 

The chair could be re-sprung, padded and its valuable pelt, carefully cleaned and replaced. Original horsehair is treasured. Baggy slip-covers on Victorian and Edwardian armchairs and sofas give them not only protection but a relaxed, lived in authentic bit of give under the bum. Sometimes you’re better living with the perfect imperfect in a grand old thing. See more about overcoming divots in old fat feather cushions and how to throw a disguising throw, here:

Many of us spend decades living with mysterious older stuff. If you decide to lay hands on something and trick it up with a deep clean or “restoration” (the parentheses are deliberate here) let’s figure out what we have first. This will avoid an attack on a vulnerable antique that could be unwittingly vandalised with a pot of chalk paint or drilling out Minton porcelain to make a cutesy cake plate.

Is your item beautifully crafted, rare and/or by a known maker? Having poured over it for any stamps or identification, a simple Google image search using a picture taken of the piece against a neutral background (we need its form to trigger the AI of the search software) will return similar items. Try starting from there. Just being old doesn’t make something valuable. If auctions are your religion, invest in a copy of Millers Antiques Handbook and Price Guide 2020 -2021 and start to develop an eye for various periods, €49, Easons.

If the piece appears to be really good, find a reputable antique/vintage dealer in your area and ask for a fully focused appraisal. 

By then, you might be putting away the super-glue you were about to lick on-to a break in that porcelain, or backing away with the night class French polish, from that little credenza Aunty Generous left you. Be wary of any advice given on the Internet unless the person showing the tip or hack is doing the work as their profession. Scrubbed out bronze, silver cleaned in a tin-foil dip, wood glue on 78” records — use your good sense. Everyone’s an expert with a ring light and a cheery delivery.

Specialists conserving and restoring antiques use processes that can be reversed if needs be. There are some exquisite specialities including caning, ceramics, textiles and even paper restoration. Ensure you get an estimate before signing off on the work. Restoring something (taking it back to near to its original state), artisans value old, honest repairs like metal staples in ancient plates — the fix is visible, there’s no attempt at disguise or fakery — it’s a chapter in its life.

If it’s an old object that you want to use, it has to be safe to handle and fit for purpose. A large leaking crack in a chaffing dish makes it completely useless for the table. A light crazing won’t matter at all. A no-account Victorian chiffonier you’ve bought to put in a brightly-lit hall will look better with a nicely-restored top to its flaming mahogany. See about spending the money on some modest refreshing, if you don’t have the skills. Less is in almost every case — exactly what a crafter will recommend.

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