Furniture: Veneer, Inlay, Marquetry and Boulle

Their artistry fell into four main categories: veneers, strips of mahogany or walnut, waxed and polished to enrich their grain and colour; marquetry, patterns and pictorial designs built up from a variety of different woods; inlay, which achieved a similar effect using pieces of tortoiseshell, mother of pearl, ivory and ebony; and boulle, named after a French family of cabinet makers in the 17th and 18th centuries whose furniture was decorated with designs in brass, picked out in black pigment and filled in with inlay. The skills of these craftsmen linger on in many small individual firms. Many of these antique pieces fetch an unbelievably high price at auctions around the globe, especially if they are from sought after craftsmen from early Victorian periods.

No special skills are required to repair general damage or wear to these kinds of antique furniture pieces, but the work requires extreme care and patience in tracking down suitable replacement materials.

Wood veneers can be difficult to match. It is possible to buy new veneer strips, but they are generally thinner than the old hand-sawn veneers and do not always match in colour. It often pays to go to an auction to look for a broken oddment of furniture that has suitable veneers. To remove a veneer from its backing, first clean off any old polish with white spirit and carefully clean the varnish or wax. Place a damp cloth over the cleaned strip and press with a fairly hot iron. Keep the cloth damp. This melts the Scotch glue holding down the veneer, which can then be peeled off. The same technique is used to raise small areas on the antique piece, but use a soldering iron instead of an iron. Wipe all traces of glue while it is still warm. Dampen the veneer and flatten it between two pieces of wood for about 24 hours before use. Do not let it dry completely, for veneers must be re-laid while still damp and pliable. The replacement veneer should be slightly thicker than the existing one, to allow for sanding. Stick the new strip down with Scotch glue and apply a weight or clamp until the glue has completely set. Wax and polish to match the existing finish.

The same hot iron and gluing method is used in repairing marquetry. Lay a piece of paper over the missing section and rub with a soft pencil to get an outline of the area. Cut the paper to the pattern and stick it to the replacement piece of wood. Cut the wood slightly larger than the pattern and rub down with glass-paper until the exact fit can be obtained. Stick it into place with cold wood glue. On many antique furniture pieces the marquetry tends to lift through age and using the warm iron technique will heat the glue and the raised piece can be gently pressed down back into position. If dust has been trapped under the lifted section, it should be removed, cleaned and re-stuck into position.

Finding suitable replacement materials for inlay and boulle antiques is an even greater problem. They tend to use more complex and varied materials. Antique and second-hand shops often have boxes containing suitable oddments and it is worth searching through them to find matching pieces. As a last resort, missing pieces of inlay can be built up with synthetic resins or wax, coloured to match. If boulle has lifted seriously or is bent, leave the repair to an expert restorer; but if the lifting is only slight, carefully remove the section and scrape clean all the dirt. Stick with an epoxy resin adhesive and weight it down until the glue has dried.

A simple way to improve antique pieces of furniture, such as a chest of drawers, is to fit new handles. The Victorians had a habit of replacing metal handles with round wooden knobs, often leaving the marks of the former back-plates showing. Sets of old handles can be picked up cheaply from antique and second-hand shops but make sure that the back-plates are large enough to cover any existing indentations.