Martha and John Curry Show Us How to Restore Vintage Furniture

When she discovered a few pieces of beautiful but damaged vintage furniture in Maine, Martha knew just where to take them to be restored to their full, lustrous glory. Here's a look at the hands-on process.

martha and john curry
Photo: Ngoc Minh Ngo

I love "brown," or old-wood, furniture, and have been collecting it ever since I started decorating my own homes quite a long time ago. I have found bureaus, tables, chairs, secretaries, and an occasional decorative piece at auctions, tag sales, reputable antiques dealers, and even online. When I bought Ox Ledge, the adjoining property to Skylands, last year, I was thrilled to discover a trove of it inside. (The former owners had died, and their heirs had no use for the furnishings.) I edited what remained and rescued items to be repaired, cleaned, and polished.

I was so happy to "inherit" a new secretary. I would love to have such a desk in every room in my house-it makes for a comfortable place to write and store objects, materials, and books. I also adopted a few gracious walnut Queen Anne chairs, which fit perfectly in my green parlor. They sit next to a restored Queen Anne chest on legs, also from Ox Ledge.

Younger homemakers are often looking beyond the more formal interiors they grew up in, but I implore you all to consider carefully mixing old and new elements. Some of my most creative friends are blending modern and vintage with one special antique: a highboy, for example, or an inlaid chest or a fabulous settee. Just as contemporary art can fit easily with 18th-century English furniture, so too can a Queen Anne chair in a collection of midcentury-modern pieces by Dunbar. When deciding how to refurbish something, get the advice of an expert, like John Curry of Curry & Hovis. His commonsense approach belies his much deeper knowledge of the history of fine antiques, and he can be trusted not to over-restore or diminish what is valuable.

desk refurbish before
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The mahogany slant desk was missing a piece (luckily, it had been saved), and had also suffered water damage. Previous repairs were not done properly and needed to be fixed.

desk refurbish before after
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Curry & Hovis carefully reattached the missing piece with horsehide glue. They also replaced patches from previous restorations (which had been done with inappropriate timber) using their selection of antique wood. Then they gave the desk a thorough cleaning, removing old, faded wax and polish on the water-stained top. They finished it with a French polish, which makes for a high-gloss sheen, and then softened the finish by rewaxing it.

desk refurbish after
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This refurbished desk in my Bedford dining room marries beautifully with the other mahogany finds there.

chair before refurbish
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This walnut Queen Anne chair had several chips, including one on the back splat. The seat needed to be re-covered as well.

chair refurbish before after
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To patch the back splat, Curry & Hovis found a piece of wood from their collection of old stock with the right grain and figure. It was then fitted, glued, trimmed down to shape, and toned to match the color. They also cleaned the chair, and re-covered the seat with Fortuny fabric I had. Since the wood is walnut (which was traditionally less formal), they felt a high French shine would not be appropriate, so they simply polished it slightly, then waxed it for a nice, warm glow.

chair before refurbish
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This restored chair looks right at home in my green room in Bedford. To keep wooden furniture looking tip-top, Curry recommends dusting with a cotton cloth, or a feather duster for intricate pieces. Every few years, apply a thin coat of good-quality beeswax, allow it to set, then buff with a cotton cloth. Avoid any "quick shine" polishes, which can build up and eventually make your furniture dull.

Feeling Inspired: Watch Martha learn how to decorate a garden with antiques.

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