Antique furniture is often made of solid wood, or a combination of solid and veneered wood (a thin layer of a valuable hardwood glued over a lesser quality wood base). Usually, the glues used in antique pieces are natural, as well as the fabrics and battings; that is, unless the furniture has been redone at some point using synthetic materials. Antique pieces can lend warmth and charm to your home, but they can have drawbacks. Unfortunately, perfume, tobacco and musty odors are fairly common in old pieces. Anther possible problem is mold or mildew contamination, either in the past or ongoing. Therefore, you should check all antique furniture for personal tolerance before placing it in your house. If you can detect only mild odor problems, it may be that airing the furniture outdoors for a time will make it acceptable. Make sure to choose a location that is both dry and uncontaminated with other odors.
When Refinishing is Necessary
Sometimes objectionable odors will have permeated the wood of your antique furniture. If that’s happened, you may have to strip the finish off, sand the piece and then refinish it before the furniture will become tolerable for you. (Note: Refinishing a piece of antique furniture may negatively affect its value.) If you decide to do furniture stripping yourself, you’ll want to do it outdoors if at all possible. If you have to do it indoors, you must have very good ventilation. Using a water-based, less-toxic stripping product, perhaps one whose active ingredients are dimethyl esters, is suggested over using typical solvent-based brands. Water-based strippers should be available at your local paint and hardware stores. Whenever stripping a paint or finish, be sure to wear protective eye wear, rubber or neoprene gloves and a cartridge-type respirator mask. Even with these precautions, stripping furniture generally isn’t a job for an asthmatic or chemically sensitive person to do themselves. After the antique piece has been stripped, you’ll need to lightly sand and vacuum it. Then, if necessary, you can stain the furniture using a tolerable water-based product. Finally, you’ll want to coat the piece with a pretested, tolerable, clear finish. When you’re all done, it’s usually best to place the refinished antique furniture outdoors, or perhaps in a well-ventilated room, until the newly applied finishes are no longer bothersome. As always, the place you choose for airing should be dry and free of contaminating odors. Alternatively, if you have a piece of antique furniture that has absorbed very strong perfume or tobacco odors over the years, here is a suggestion that has worked for some chemically sensitive people. Take the piece to a commercial furniture stripper and have them remove the old finish with their powerful, toxic, stripping chemicals. This will often remove any accumulated odors as well. However, the piece will then need to be aired out (in an uncontaminated area) until it loses the odor of the chemical stripper. At that point it can be coated with a tolerable, low-odor finish.
Changing the Upholstery
If antique furniture must be reupholstered, good choices for replacement materials are natural-fiber fabrics and stuffing. You can also supplement natural batting with metal springs for items requiring firmer support. It should be noted that any cloth used as a covering fabric should be laundered to remove any intolerable new-fabric odors before the actual upholstery work is done. This is particularly important for chemically sensitive people.
One very important cautionary note for sensitive individuals who want to have furniture upholstered is this: Be sure that whoever does the work does not smoke, wear perfume or work in an area where others do. Otherwise, your newly reupholstered pieces could pick up these odors and be intolerable to you. While airing could help dissipate these odors, there is, of course, no guarantee this would be absolutely successful.