You'll need exceptional practical hand skills, including manual sensitivity and dexterity, as well as an interest in furniture and its history to work as a furniture conservator/restorer

As a furniture conservator or restorer, you'll use practical and scientific restoration techniques to conserve and restore antique and modern furniture. You'll also advise on the storage and protection of the furniture.

The relationship between conservation and restoration is complex and depends on the purpose and utility of the piece. Conservation involves ensuring that items retain their original features; restoration may involve the use of new materials to protect and update existing features.

You may specialise in a particular type or period of furniture. There is scope to work in museums or in a private business, or be self-employed. You may go on to work in the antiques sector or take on a consultancy role.

Responsibilities

Work activities vary according to the particular piece of furniture being treated and the needs of the customer. Your workload will depend on whether you're self-employed, working for a museum or heritage organisation, or employed in a private business. However, you'll typically need to:

  • liaise with clients to discuss and agree on the conservation or restoration of a piece of furniture
  • assess the state of a piece of furniture to decide on the best way to restore or conserve it
  • communicate with the client about the treatment processes involved
  • combine your specialist knowledge of furniture with practical techniques in order to prolong and protect the survival of a piece of furniture
  • take photographs of pieces of furniture and their components and keep detailed records of their condition and special features before and after work is carried out
  • provide photographs and other records for clients when work is complete
  • work closely with a range of materials and equipment in precise and detailed ways during the conservation and restoration process
  • apply preventative measures in relation to environmental, biological and human conditions, in order to protect and preserve furniture
  • source materials for use in the conservation and restoration process
  • keep up to date with research and developments in equipment and techniques
  • travel to a variety of locations to work on pieces
  • work on a number of projects concurrently
  • provide advice and information on conservation and restoration issues to the public.

If you're working as a self-employed conservator, you'll also have to manage your own marketing, financial and business activities.

Salary

  • The Institute of Conservation (Icon) recommends that interns undertaking work-based training are paid £17,000 for a 12-month internship.
  • Icon recommends a minimum salary of £24,648 for entry-level conservators.
  • As a middle-ranking conservator, you can expect to earn an average salary of £27,500, rising to an average of £30,000 for senior conservator roles.
  • The salaries of all conservators (including furniture conservators/restorers) who took part in Icon’s research range from £5,000 to £75,000.

Incomes vary considerably depending on a range of factors, including your ability to promote your own work.

Income data is provided by Icon, with figures intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are generally 9am to 5pm if you work for a company, although you may have to put in extra hours when finishing a project to deadline. Self-employed conservators/restorers tend to work more varied hours.

What to expect

  • Many furniture conservators and restorers are self-employed, often specialising in a particular type or period of furniture.
  • You'll typically be based in a workshop environment, either working alone or share the space with other furniture conservators and restorers.
  • Most furniture conservators and restorers stay in the same job for a long period. There are low levels of movement from one job to another.
  • Furniture conservation and restoration is often a second or third career.
  • The work may require a certain amount of day-to-day travel to work on different projects, although you're unlikely to stay away from home overnight or travel overseas.

Qualifications

Entry to this field is competitive and most restorers and almost all conservators gain an appropriate qualification prior to starting work. Some major museums have internship schemes that include furniture conservation and restoration and are useful for gaining practical experience.

It's possible to get into furniture conservation via a degree in conservation, although most degree courses focus on conservation of fine art or objects and archaeology, rather than on areas such as furniture. Check the content of courses thoroughly to see whether that specific course will meet your career needs. In addition to a degree, you'll need work-based experience to develop your practical skills.

A degree, HND or foundation degree in an area such as product and furniture design, furniture design and make, or art and design (craft) may be useful if you combine this with practical experience of furniture restoration.

Another route into furniture conservation is to enter as an apprentice and train on the job.

Introductory courses and workshops in areas such as furniture restoration are available from relevant professional associations such as The British Antique Furniture Restorers' Association (BAFRA) and some colleges and universities with furniture design degree courses. West Dean College in West Sussex offers a Graduate Diploma in Conservation of Furniture and Related Objects for those with a degree in conservation or a closely related field.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • excellent practical skills and technical ability to deal with the detailed and delicate nature of the work
  • a combination of artistic and scientific ability and interests
  • strong oral and written communication skills in order to explain complex information clearly to clients
  • patience and a methodical approach to work
  • self-motivation and the ability to manage an independent workload
  • the ability to work to tight deadlines
  • creative problem-solving skills
  • a flexible and adaptable approach to work
  • perseverance, commitment and a genuine enthusiasm for the work.

If you're setting up your own business, you will also need excellent administration and marketing skills.

Work experience

Paid internship opportunities are available through Icon's internship programme (IIP). Internships involve work-based learning alongside experienced practitioners and help to bridge the gap between training and a first job for new conservation graduates. Look out for opportunities in furniture conservation and restoration.

Seeking out voluntary opportunities to build your knowledge and skills, and contacting professional furniture conservators/restorers in your area to ask if you can visit them or work shadow them, is a good step forward. See the BAFRA website for a list of accredited restorers. Becoming a student member of Icon and attending conferences and events can also help you make new contacts.

Employers

Furniture conservators and restorers work with public and private collections within the heritage sector, with conservation businesses or as independent conservators, furniture makers, designers or restorers.

Typical employers include:

  • antique dealers
  • auction houses
  • furniture restoration companies
  • historical and heritage sites, such as stately homes
  • museums.

Self-employed conservators and restorers work for members of the public and other clients who require specialist skills to protect and preserve individual pieces of furniture. Building up a client base and reputation is vital when working for yourself.

Look for job vacancies at:

The websites of stately homes and auction houses may also have vacancies.

Targeted, speculative applications may be useful, particularly for work experience.

For self-employed furniture conservators and restorers, networking and establishing a reputation are central to securing work.

Professional development

There isn't a formal training structure into furniture conservation, with most learning on the job building up experience through internships or working as an assistant to a fully experienced conservator. Specialist training may be available at certain museums or heritage sites, where there are opportunities to focus on furniture from specific periods.

In order to establish and maintain a professional reputation, you should become a member of an appropriate professional body, such as BAFRA or Icon. BAFRA offers membership at various levels, including accredited membership, providing opportunities to access educational programmes and events, as well as the knowledge and expertise of other members.

Icon administers the Professional Accreditation of Conservator-Restorers (PACR), which is a professional qualification for conservators leading to accredited conservator-restorer (ACR) status. Achieving PACR shows that you've got a high degree of competence, as well as in-depth knowledge of the principles underpinning conservation practice.

You'll need to be an associate member of Icon to become accredited and will work with a mentor to help you meet the professional standards. You can usually apply for PACR at any time provided you have the evidence to show that you're able to effectively deal with complex conservation problems. This is typically five years post-training. PACR-accredited conservators can apply to join the Conservation Register (owned and operated by Icon). Accredited members of BAFRA are also eligible for inclusion on the Register.

Career prospects

There is no set progression route for most furniture restorers and conservators. However, experienced conservators and restorers working in a business, museum or heritage environment may progress to a supervisory, management or training role.

Many experienced furniture conservators and restorers go on to set up their own businesses or work on a consultancy basis for museums and stately homes, for example.

Initially, you may find attracting customers a challenge as it takes time to establish a reputation and build up a client base. It may be worthwhile working for a private company first and developing experience in dealing with customers, as well as building up useful contacts.

Generally, there is little mobility within the industry, which may slow down career progression.

For many, progression means becoming more specialised and gaining expert status. Some restorers go on to teach in further or higher education institutions.