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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.

October 25, 2017
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martha and john curry
Here I am with John Curry of Curry & Hovis. His shop in Pound Ridge, New York, specializes in the restoration of 18th-century English furniture, but they work on any time period. They also design and build lovely 18th-centurystyle reproductions.
| Credit: 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.

HUNT: For Your Own Antiques on eBay's Latest Shop
desk refurbish before
Credit: Ngoc Minh Ngo

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.

LEARN HOW: To Refresh an Antique Stand
desk refurbish before after
Credit: Ngoc Minh Ngo

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
Credit: Ngoc Minh Ngo

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

chair before refurbish
Credit: Ngoc Minh Ngo

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
Credit: Ngoc Minh Ngo

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
Credit: Ngoc Minh Ngo

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.

Comments (18)

Anonymous
March 25, 2021
Dear Young Homeowners: Please never spray paint a beautiful antique piece of furniture gloss white. There are plenty of terrible pieces of brown wood furniture you can do that to and mix with your antiques. Then, when "gloss white" becomes the shag carpet of the 80s, you still have your antiques.
Anonymous
July 9, 2020
This furniture still looks dated and unappealing to younger homeowners. My motto: spray paint it gloss-white. Works for just about every old "brown" piece.
Anonymous
July 9, 2020
This furniture still looks dated and unappealing to younger homeowners. My motto: spray paint it gloss-white. Works for just about every old "brown" piece.
Anonymous
July 9, 2020
This furniture still looks dated and unappealing to younger homeowners. My motto: spray paint it gloss-white. Works for just about every old "brown" piece.
Anonymous
July 9, 2020
This furniture still looks dated and unappealing to younger homeowners. My motto: spray paint it gloss-white. Works for just about every old "brown" piece.
Anonymous
July 9, 2020
This furniture still looks dated and unappealing to younger homeowners. My motto: spray paint it gloss-white. Works for just about every old "brown" piece.
Anonymous
July 9, 2020
This furniture still looks dated and unappealing to younger homeowners. My motto: spray paint it gloss-white. Works for just about every old "brown" piece.
Anonymous
January 26, 2020
The slant top desk is a nice piece but I've never seen mahogany with knots like that. It looks more like pine. But I guess you know best.
Anonymous
November 15, 2019
Many of your posts are very inspiring for diy-ers myself included. Now though, I would like to know what to use to remove old wax, dirt buildup on wood furniture. I have tried Murphy’s but didn’t get much results so any advice you can give me would be appreciated. Thank you, Barb
Anonymous
July 6, 2019
Hello. I have a few Drexel dressers with veneer tops that have worn down and stained. Can i sand all of the veneer off or should I try to restore the compromised finish?
Anonymous
July 5, 2019
Nothing can compare to the elegance and grace of the period furniture which was crafted with love and patience to create, by the craftsmen in yonder years. The Rosewood, found in Pakistan, is hard, has beautiful grains and lasts evermore. It is heartening to see Mr. John Curry is making great efforts to give another long life to those beautiful pieces of art. Abdul Razak
Anonymous
April 20, 2019
I totally agree with Maxine...I think the painted antique furniture will be out and real, lovely natural finishes will be back. I belong to a facebook site that is all about painting techniques to "antique" furniture and I don't mind on the new stuff, but what a shame to paint a piece when it could be cleaned and restored to the builder's design.
Anonymous
October 23, 2018
Very helpful guide in the restoration of the desk and chair. I know walnut was considered less formal
Anonymous
July 31, 2018
I too refuse to paint solid wood furniture. If you cannot afford restoration, then let someone have it who can and will love it as is. The horrid colors they are using now (unicorn spit) to apply to good pieces is a crime. If you must paint, then do it with pieces that are made out of particle board/engineered wood. Nothing lost here.
Anonymous
April 14, 2018
Thank You! That was delightful!raf
Anonymous
February 2, 2018
I love antique furniture, but recently I was dog sitting and the furniture piece is a sideboard that holds my TV, but when the dog saw another animal on tv he jumped and barked and scrape his paws and nails on the drawer of the antique sideboard. So do I sand it or what?
Anonymous
January 9, 2018
Thank you for retaining that beautiful wood. So many wood pieces nowadays get slapped with chalky paint which looks good for now but that technique should be saved for pieces that have no hope of restoring. I predict a lot of furniture paint stripping in the future for good wood. Saw this happen in the 1980s.
Anonymous
October 29, 2017
All beautiful restorations. I love the mix of contemporary with one or two select "brown" pieces to make a much more relaxed and eclectic decorating scheme.