Restoration Versus Conservation - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Restoration Versus Conservation

 In Shop Blog, Woodworking Blogs

foot-patchSince my post on drawboring last week (read it here), I’ve gotten a number of requests for information about furniture restoration and conservation. One common thread seems to be people using those terms interchangeably. While they may both deal with repairing furniture, I’ve never thought the two terms had the same meaning.

Restoration is something I started doing right out of high school. The cabinetmaker for whom I worked also dealt in antiques and did repair work for several dealers and collectors in his area. He dealt (and still deals) in the kind of stuff you find at estate auctions and flea markets across the country that has a few broken parts or a ruined finish; 18th- and 19th-century stuff that just needed a little help to be functional again. Not extremely rare museum quality stuff for the most part, but good, general antiques.

It’s precisely that kind of furniture to which I apply the term “restoration.” Sometimes you get a chair that’s loose and rickety and other times a chest is missing all or part of a foot. It comes in the shop, you glue it up, tighten it up, patch it up and send it back into circulation so that people can enjoy it for years to come. There’s little or no thought to preserving, as much as possible, the original object. The idea is to fix it up and make it useful again. Furniture, regardless of how well made, is meant to be used.

lip-repairWhen an object is of significant historical or financial value, the way it’s treated is usually a bit different. The idea of “conservation” is to essentially freeze the object in time. Unless the piece resides (or potentially will reside) in a private home, functionality is less of a primary concern. The idea is to stop, or limit, further degradation of the piece and restore limited functionality. For instance, the drawers should open and close but the structure of the drawer and its support might not be such as to allow daily use.

While a drawer lip might be repaired by letting in a patch, the repair is usually reversible. Efforts are also made to remove as little of the existing material as possible to allow the repair to be functional and relatively permanent (except for that reversible part). Again, these pieces are usually of significant historical or financial value, such as a piece that might end up in a museum setting.

Because I have differentiated between restoration and conservation doesn’t mean some of the methods don’t overlap. The hard part is trying to figure out when to restore and when to conserve. Hopefully, as I show a variety of repairs, the difference between restoration and conservation will become more apparent.

–– Chuck Bender

For some information on repairing finishes, check out Bob Flexner’s “Strip, Fix, Refinish” download here.


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Showing 9 comments
  • Jimboz

    Enjoyed the article. Anything that makes people think twice before opening a can of polyurethane is to be applauded. I might add that where conservation is the aim then any repairs and finishing used should be detailed for future conservators.

  • Bill Lattanzio

    As a rank amateur, I would personally rather restore furniture than “conserve” it. While I can understand the desire of a collector or museum to keep as much of the original finish or veneer etc. as possible, I would rather renew old furniture for use.

  • Orion Henderson

    Good post. I have always thought of these terms in much the same way as Chuck. I also find restoration more relevant. The idea of taking something old and broken and making it work again, while still keeping the spirit of the original seems noble to me. Not that conservation isn’t, but I don’t really relate with million dollar pieces of furniture, or their owners, as well.

  • Joshua Klein

    The way I was taught to view these terms is based on Don William’s view which essentially: “Conservation” involves two aspects: 1. Preservation (manipulating the environment the object is in) and 2. Restoration (manipulating the object itself). With this definition, all treatments are technically “restorative” whether they are filling losses, readhering loose veneer, or cleaning the surface, etc. This is bolstered by the knowledge that no treatment is technically “reversible”. (See Applebaum’s article:
    Also see Jon Brandon’s answer to this question:

  • pmac


    • pmac

      I do have a real question and I’m probably getting into the weeds here. When does a restoration become conservation? Or does it at all? I saw a Tommy Mac episode where he visited Christine Thomson to talk finishes. She had a sofa that went from basket case to complete restore. In this case, she was able to determine the original color of the fabric (it was pink when she got it, the original was black) the finish used , stuffing etc. ( And those were the materials she used to restore the piece. I also think I remember Tommy said it’s mate was in a museum somewhere where.) I know this was technically a restoration but because she kept true to the piece by restoring it to it’s original “state” and the fact that there was a similar piece in a museum would this also be considered conservation?

      • Chuck Bender
        Chuck Bender

        As you can see by Joshua’s response above, the conservation industry defines it differently that I. They consider all restoration to be part of the conservation process. From the other side of the coin, I have never looked at what I do restoring a piece as being completely in line with what, for example, Don Williams did at the museum where he worked. While some things were done the same, the methods used to reach the end goal may not be the same. In fact, the end goal may not even be the same.

        Watching the conservators at the Winterthur Museum fit small shims onto a worn drawer runner in a lowboy/dressing table then cover those shims with a veneer (I will try to mock this up at some point so you can fully understand what I’m describing) in order to allow the drawer to move in and out of the piece without causing further damage to the runner is a completely different in both method and intent to the way I would repair the same piece for daily use in a home. Their intent is to make the piece functional for the limited use it receives in a museum setting while doing little or no damage to the existing surfaces or structure of the piece. The blocks and veneer are removable (“reversible” to the extent they can be removed while only leaving minor evidence of their presence). The fix is fine and I respect what they did and their reasons for doing it.

        What I call “restoration” is far more invasive and is driven by a completely different intent. I would remove as little of the material from the worn runner as possible in order to permanently glue in a patch. I may also have to patch the bottom edge of the drawer sides (again removing as little material as possible to get a good bond) in order to make the drawer functional for repeated openings and closings each day while being fully loaded.

        I think, as I move forward in the coming months with illustrating how I repair furniture, my definitions of restoration and conservation will become more apparent. From the time I visited my first furniture conservation lab I’ve always defined what they do differently than what I do. Not that one is better than another. They’re just different. So, when does restoration become conservation? In my book that happens when you go to great lengths to repair an object of art instead of a piece of furniture. Again, as we travel down this road, I hope you (and my conservator friends) will understand why I separate the two terms.

        • pmac

          Thanks Chuck (and Joshua). I’m really looking forward to future posts and articles.

        • Joshua Klein

          I think the key to developing “appropriate” treatments is to understand what values the owner/custodian has for the object. If the piece has great research value due to remaining original varnish or upholstery, then that informs treatment to preserve this material as the primary goal. This piece may never be on display it’s role is to facilitate research in the future.
          If, however, a conservator in private practice receives a chair that does not have cultural value or research value but it has mostly utilitarian value or aesthetic value then more intrusive repairs that guarantee optimum function would be “appropriate” treatment in this situation.
          As Barbara Applebaum has said in Conservation Treatment Methodology, context is key.

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