Wood Workings: Conservation Expert Randy S. Wilkinson

RandyWilkinson

When Randy S. Wilkinson started his business building 18th- and 19th-century reproduction furniture, he was surprised by the number of clients who approached him with requests to repair antiques. Realizing there was more to learn, he attended Smithsonian Institution’s Furniture Conservation Training Program in 1996, and spent four years learning his craft before receiving his MA from Antioch University, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. In 2000, Mr. Wilkinson joined forces with Smithsonian classmate Tad D. Fallon and opened the private conservation practice Fallon & Wilkinson, LLC in Connecticut.

Today, Wilkinson blends his love for building outstanding examples of America’s best furniture with conserving some of our national treasures. His work is represented in museums and private collections throughout the country, and he frequently lectures and writes about conservation and woodworking. Here, Wilkinson shares why he thinks it’s actually prime time to buy brown furniture and the first question you should ask any conservator.

What first attracted you to wood antiques and reproductions?

I graduated from college with a BSEE and found myself facing a downturn in the job market. The company I had worked for as an engineer every summer for my entire four years of college placed a hiring freeze on just as I graduated. (Sounds familiar?) So I jumped ship and decided that I was going to do what I always wanted to do: build reproduction furniture. I was fortunate to meet Mr. Harold Hayes, who would serve as my mentor and dear friend until his death several years ago. Harold built the most exquisite 18th- and 19th-century reproductions, and if he could do it, so could I—the rest is history. Twenty six years later, my love for the craft still burns bright.

How did you become involved in furniture restoration?

My interest in furniture restoration grew out of my existing business of building 18th- and 19th-century reproduction furniture. People started asking me to repair their antiques. I would be in between commissions and it was a natural fit. I loved antiques, I love building reproductions, so what better way to get more access to the originals than to repair them?

I quickly realized, however, that I need to learn a lot more. Dealers were of no help. It seemed like all of them had “their guy” and they didn’t want to share the knowledge, but I was fortunate enough to learn of the Smithsonian Institution’s Furniture Conservation Training Program. It sounded like it was exactly what I was looking for: a formal graduate-level training in caring for our nation’s treasures. Sign me up.

Well, it was not as easy as that—the Smithsonian only accepted six students every four years. So in 1992, on short notice, I took my chances and applied. I did not get in to that class but was encouraged to complete my requirements of organic chemistry and art history and reapply. So four years later in 1996 I was accepted. That program, the people I met, and the experience I gained was the most valuable experience of my career. I would not be doing the level of furniture conservation today without that training.

What are the biggest challenges in preserving and restoring wood furniture?

I think one of the biggest challenges we face is the desire to fix everything. There are some inherent vices that just cannot be rectified. The other challenge we face is preserving the object as it exists. We live in a world that too often reinterprets history, and often very badly. We try very hard to maintain the integrity of the object as it is and not try to make it something it is not.

When people are buying antique wood furniture what should they be looking for? What are marks of good quality/condition and when should people walk away?

People should be buying what they are passionate about. The market is soft for brown furniture these days, which is no secret, but I see it as a golden opportunity to own a part of American history at bargain prices. Ideally you want to be looking for great forms in great condition. But the truth is there are thousands of pieces that are handmade and of superior quality at every level of the market.

With that said, the first thing you want to look at is whether the piece is structurally sound. Do all the drawers work properly, are there any missing pieces, and are all the joints tight? Has the piece been altered in any way, are there any replaced parts, is the coating in acceptable condition? If the answers to all these are promising, chances are you are in good shape. But if you do uncover bad restoration, altered forms, replaced parts, it may be good to walk away. An object in good condition will not need nearly as much, if any, conservation treatment.

Finally, don’t be afraid of the market. The truth of the matter is that antiques by and large are made to last and will be around for as long as you want to own them. Values will come and go but there is nothing like the beauty of an object that has withstood the test of time. There’s charm, character, and a warmth to real wood that somehow plastic just doesn’t have.

What should someone consider when looking for someone to restore their antiques? What questions should they ask?

People should be looking for a trained furniture conservator to treat their objects. There is no shortage of very fine craftsmen in the marketplace, but a conservator brings a level of expertise that will ensure that the integrity of the object is respected.

The first question I would ask is: “Are you a member of the American Institute of Conservation and do you abide by its Code of Ethics?” If the answer is “yes,” you are well on your way to being sure that your objects are in good hands.

Once a piece is restored are there any steps people can take to care for it so that the restoration (and the original piece) lasts as long as possible?

Absolutely. The first step is to ensure that the objects are in the right environment. Don’t place them in direct sunlight. If they need to be in a prominent place in the house that gets direct sun, at least get UV glass protection, it’s not ideal but will go a long way to preserving the coatings.

Keeping the relative humidity (RH) between 40%–60% year round is ideal. A gradual change in RH is acceptable as we change seasons but you want to avoid the big swings, i.e. 90% in summer to 20% in winter.

In addition, having a conservator conduct a condition assessment of your collection is very important. Firstly, it establishes a baseline for the condition of each object. Secondly, it will help prioritize treatment options for the most vulnerable in the collection, and lastly, the condition assessment can be used for insurance purposes. It will serve to document you collection should there be a fire or flood.

Finally, having a conservator conduct an onsite inspection of your collection once a year is a good rule of thumb. It is my experience that the first couple of years many objects may need to be treated, but once the collection is in great shape subsequent years’ visits will involve only surface cleaning and a good waxing.

In what ways can restoration affect the value of a piece of antique furniture?

That is a great question, but it is a bit complicated and one that is a bit out of my area of expertise. But what I will say is that an object that has been treated in good faith, with excellent craftsmanship, and is not meant to deceive in any way, should only add value. Whether the marketplace rewards such honesty and integrity, I don’t know. But if I were buying, I would feel a whole lot better about my purchase knowing its past.

Before and After: An antique sewing table before and after conservation treatment and a set of 10 reproduction Chinese Chippendale chairs by Fallon & Wilkinson.

The views expressed in this interview are the subject’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of Lofty’s network of experts. The market is subject to change without notice. For information on the types of items Lofty does not accept visit our help center.