In Proving An Antique, Smelling Is Telling

In proving an antique, smelling is telling

Watching an experienced antique picker examine an old cabinet is a delight. (S)he will first step back and look at the piece from a few feet away, and then walk around it for a visual inspection. Drawers will be pulled out; doors opened; joinery and hardware scrutinized; finish and stylistic elements noted. If an item is placed against a wall, (s)he will ask the proprietor to move it out so the back can be examined. If the visual elements pass muster and appear authentic, the inspection will continue.

Thoroughly inspecting antiques is a sensory experience. In addition to sight, collectors employ touch (is the feel of the finish consistent, or does occasional "drag" indicate that repairs have been done?) hearing; (when randomly tapped, are there clicks that indicate loose joints or veneer?) and smell; (is there an odor of fresh paint or varnish? Mildew? Freshly cut wood?) The only sense that isn't regularly employed by a collector is taste. Taste could be used, of course, but doing so is nasty and ill advised.

When it comes to authenticating antiques, the most trustworthy sense is smell. There are too many clever reproductions available to rely on visual and tactile clues alone. Joinery, finishes, hardware, and styling can all be faked, but it's very difficult to duplicate the smell of a genuine antique. What causes the characteristic odors of various antiques? Can anything be done about particularly offensive odors? It would be a shame to pass up a rare and valuable piece because it stinks and you don't want that odor in your home.

Fortunately, most odors can be abated. Below I will discuss some specific types of odor and how to correct them. But first, allow me to build a foundation for our discussion.

Wood, paper, and fabric fibers used in manufacturing have porous cell structures that absorb air and moisture, and any substances that are carried by air and moisture seep into those pores. Metals aren't porous, but instead pit and rust and develop a distinctive "mineral" odor. Only glass is impervious to atmospheric effects. Over the decades, furniture, books, and textiles absorb household smells from cooking, smoking, wax, paint, body oils, perspiration, mildew, mold and other airborne contaminants. Even new consumer goods have characteristic odors: the chemicals in plastics and engineered wood products are recognized pollutants of interior spaces.

Wood, paper, and fabric fibers used in manufacturing have porous cell structures that absorb air and moisture, and any substances that are carried by air and moisture seep into those pores. Metals aren't porous, but instead pit and rust and develop a distinctive "mineral" odor. Only glass is impervious to atmospheric effects. Over the decades, furniture, books, and textiles absorb household smells from cooking, smoking, wax, paint, body oils, perspiration, mildew, mold and other airborne contaminants. Even new consumer goods have characteristic odors: the chemicals in plastics and engineered wood products are recognized pollutants of interior spaces.

The level of offensiveness of an odor varies from person-to-person. Collectors with allergies or sensitivities to mold and mildew have a very low tolerance for the aggregated smells of antique stores. A consumer left a review on tripadvisor.com for an antique store in Tennessee that read: "Couldn't even last ten minutes in this place. Horrific smells smack you as soon as you walk in" (link omitted in fairness to the dealer). On the other end of the odor spectrum are collectors of old books, who are known to have such a great fondness for the smell of books that more than thirty book-scented perfumes, candles, and air fresheners are commercially available.

Smells are powerful memory triggers. An article published by the Penn State College of Medicine titled "Smells Ring Bells" reviews the brain chemistry of the smell-memory process. My summary of the article is this: If the antique desk you are inspecting smells like grandpa's pipe tobacco, and you liked grandpa, the smell will trigger those memories and you'll probably love the desk. If grandpa was a nasty old crank, you probably won't like the desk at all. If, on the other hand, you don't want any smell to emanate from your newly acquired antique, there are ways to minimize or neutralize most odors.

In doing so, it helps to know what created an odor in the first place. Tobacco, mold, mildew, and perfume are easily identified and commonplace across a wide range of porous (wood, fabric, paper) products. Here's a primer on how to treat these odors where they are most commonly found.

Wooden furniture and decor

Odors accumulate in two areas on case goods: exterior finishes and interior spaces. Although finishes prevent odors from seeping into surface wood pores, dirt and odors do seep into waxes and polishes. The way to remove these odors is to remove the dirty, built-up wax on the surface. Clean the exterior of a piece the way you clean anything else: with soap and water (lacquered and varnished finishes only, please; water will ruin shellac). You'll never remove all the wax from heavily waxed items, but you will clean it up quite well while maintaining the patina. If you have doubts about the process, start in an inconspicuous place (like a bottom stile). For a look at the process, Thomas Johnson Restorations of Gorham, Maine offers an instructive video:

The interior spaces of case goods present a different problem, because interior wood is seldom finished. Placing items with strong odors into a drawer will cause the odors to seep into the wood. Also, since interior spaces are often dark, if the interior wood becomes damp then mold and mildew will grow.

To eliminate mold and mildew, clean the drawers well with a disinfectant such as diluted household bleach. This method is once again demonstrated by Thomas Johnson:

To abate other odors, use an absorbent material such as activated charcoal, silica gel packs, or baking soda. Let the absorbent sit in the enclosed spaces; change it at least weekly until most of the odor is gone. Then, remove the drawers, open the doors, and move the piece into fresh air. This process is slow (a month or more). When strong odors resist removal, I have found a skunk-odor removal recipe that works quite well. The recipe can be found here.

This recipe has been proven to work by Myth-Busters. If it works on a skunk, it should work on cabinet drawers.

Paper

Like furniture; books, photos, and ephemera are made from wood; and, like furniture, books and photos are manufactured using high VOC chemicals. Consequently, odor removal treatments are much the same for these products. Because paper (especially old paper) is so much more fragile than furniture, extra care must be taken. First, dust the pages and binding with a soft-bristled brush. Then wipe down mildewed pages with a dry cloth. If a dry cloth doesn't remove the mildew, lightly moisten the cloth with rubbing alcohol and gently wipe the offending pages. When you're done, fanning the pages will quickly dry them, because alcohol evaporates quickly. Here's a video overview of the process from TipsNet:

Fabric

Eliminating odors from fabrics can be problematic, because there are so many different types of fabric and each requires a different cleaning technology. Natural fibers like cotton and wool have hollow fibers that hold moisture, so care must be taken not to over-wet those fabrics. Too, lignin in the cell walls of cotton fibers will leech out to the edge of any wet spot and cause a non-removable brown (lignin) stain. Cotton fabrics must be entirely wetted-out in order to avoid this problem. Rayon, a man-made fiber, can also be damaged by over-wetting. Having made those caveats, here's how to proceed with removing odors from fabrics:

  • Upholstered furniture of recent vintage should have a tag under a cushion with a cleaning code listed; the code will tell you what products to use for cleaning. Like clothing, man-made fabrics may be cleaned with water, but natural fabrics should be cleaned with waterless cleaners. Antique silks and needlepoints are delicate; don't try to clean these yourself. Instead, call a professional.
  • Removing stains and odors from clothing can be as simple as machine washing using a little bleach, but for delicate vintage clothing hand treats are advisable. Elise Tonn shares her technique in the following video: TipsNet

Don't let dirt, stains or odors deter you from collecting any piece that you feel drawn to. With some time, attention to detail, and the right methodology you can turn a smelly antique into a treasure.

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