- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2002

As the temperature drops along with the humidity, it's not just our hair and skin that turn dry and unmanageable. Anything made of wood — whether it's a chest of drawers or a table — in our heated, dry homes can suffer equal hardship.
"The main thing is you want to avoid the huge swings in heat and humidity," says Peter Hackett, a cabinetmaker who makes residential furniture in his Capitol Hill workshop.
"What we tell people is, don't place free-standing wood furniture in front of a radiator that cycles on and off all day or in front of an exterior door," Mr. Hackett says.
In the winter, the level of humidity in the District and surrounding areas may be as low as 20 percent to 30 percent, and in the summer it can be as high as 85 percent, he says.
Wood reacts to humidity like a sponge. The increased humidity swells the wood fibers, while the decreased humidity contracts the fibers. When exposed to extreme swings in humidity, the wood can react by cracking, warping or splitting, Mr. Hackett says.
The ideal level of humidity (to be maintained at all times) is 50 percent, but it's almost impossible to achieve that, says Bruce Schuettinger, a conservator of antique furniture in New Market, Md.
"Even museums have a difficult time maintaining that level of humidity," says Mr. Schuettinger, who preserves and restores American furniture that may be older than the country itself. "But museums can do it, if they have an enclosed area, which is easier to control."
Homeowners can do the same by creating a microenvironment, Mr. Schuettinger says. Instead of trying to achieve a stable humidity level in all rooms of a house (which is especially difficult in an old, poorly insulated house), they can move vulnerable furniture away from radiators, fireplaces and exterior doors as well as attics and basements.
Also, placing a humidifier in the same room as a valued piece of furniture can prolong the life and beauty of that piece, Mr. Schuettinger says.
Hardware and home-improvement stores such as Home Depot sell humidifiers. They range in price from $29.99 to $199, says Emo Egbeju, head of the paint department at Home Depot in Germantown. The cheaper ones are intended for smaller spaces, such as individual rooms, while the more expensive ones are intended for the whole heating-and-air-conditioning system, Mr. Egbeju says.
Another, low-tech way of humidifying a house is to adorn rooms with plants or conceal bowls of water close to heat sources.
To measure the humidity without regulating it, Mr. Schuettinger recommends using a hygrometer, which is available on Internet sites such as www.windandweather.com.
• • •
For a cabinetmaker, the changing humidity is very important to take into account when building a piece, Mr. Hackett says.
"If you build a tabletop in the spring that is 40 inches wide, it can experience a half-inch expansion by August," he says.
Skilled cabinetmakers have ways of avoiding the cracks and warps that can result from this kind of expansion of the wood fibers.
When it's possible practically and aesthetically cabinetmakers use plywood. As for tabletops and other wide pieces that are in plain view and where plywood is not appropriate, it's better to use several narrower pieces of wood and glue or screw them together than to use one wide piece.
The wider piece is more likely to experience the big expansion.
Another environmental hazard for wood furniture is sunlight, which can bleach a stained hardwood piece and discolor a painted piece.
If the piece is new, a coat of polyurethane with UV protection, a type of wood coating, may be in order, Mr. Egbeju says.
"When you apply polyurethane, it prevents moisture and dirt from getting into the wood," he says.
Wax is another way to protect wood, but it must be applied every six or 12 months. One application of polyurethane can last a long time, up to four or five years, Mr. Egbeju says.
Polyurethane, however, can be a very bad idea if the furniture is old and valuable. Not treating the wood right can devalue the piece dramatically, Mr. Schuettinger says.
"If you damage the original paint, for example, you can lose up to 90 percent of the value of a piece," he says. "So much damage has been done with good intentions in mind."
To protect valuable pieces of furniture from the bad effects of sunlight, Mr. Schuettinger recommends using blinds and curtains or moving a piece completely out of direct sunlight.
Dust is another environmental factor that can be damaging, but he says to be cautious with the ever-popular spray polishes because they also can damage wood.
"A slightly damp cloth is usually enough," he says.

Even when someone takes all the right steps in caring for wood furniture stabilizing the humidity, avoiding direct sunlight and dusting often wood is still wood; it's alive and bound to change some, Mr. Hackett says.
"Wood is a living material. It continues to breathe and live even after the tree has been cut down," he says. "The wood fibers keep absorbing and releasing moisture all the time."
So, when you hear that old armoire in the hall creaking and groaning, it's probably just a sign that it's alive and well.
"That's always been the human attraction to solid wood it's a living, breathing thing," Mr. Hackett says.

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