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 its storage and protection.
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.
As a furniture conservator or restorer, you'll 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
- assess the work involved and the time it will take to complete a restoration project, bearing in mind its commercial value if restoring it
- advise the client accordingly, providing the client with a quotation for the work
- 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, providing copies to clients
- 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
- 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
- use a range of specialist skills such as Boulle work, cabinet making, French polishing, gilding, lacquer work, seat weaving, textile conservation, upholstering, veneering and wood turning
- source materials for use in the conservation and restoration process
- provide advice and guidance to clients on how to care for their restored furniture
- keep up to date with research and developments in equipment and techniques
- manage your own marketing, financial and business activities if you're self-employed.
- A minimum salary of £27,270 for entry-level conservators is recommended by The Institute of Conservation (Icon).
- As a middle-ranking conservator, you could earn a salary of around £30,000 to £40,000.
- With a specialism and experience it may be possible to earn in excess of £50,000.
Furniture restorer salaries vary depending on a range of factors, including your location, type of employer and the sector you work in, as well as your skills and experience. If you're self-employed or working on a freelance basis, it's important that you have the necessary skills to promote your own work and build a network of contacts.
Income figures intended as a guide only.
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 to meet client needs.
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 sharing 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.
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 the field 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. West Dean College offers a Graduate Diploma in Conservation Studies, specialising in furniture and related objects.
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 the field is through a furniture apprenticeship, where you'll train on the job. This could be in an area such as upholstery, furniture or cabinet making. You could then go on to develop your skills in furniture restoration or conservation.
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).
Courses in furniture making, restoration and conservation are available from a number of other providers, including colleges, adult education centres and private companies. These can range from short introductory courses of only a few days, to Diploma courses lasting one year.
Check the content of any course you are interested in doing thoroughly to see whether it will meet your career needs.
You'll 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
- the ability to work on a number of projects concurrently
- creative problem-solving skills
- a flexible and adaptable approach to work
- perseverance, commitment and a genuine enthusiasm for the work
- administration, organisation and general IT skills
- marketing and self-promotion skills (if self-employed).
You'll need work-based experience to develop your practical skills and a portfolio of work to show to prospective employers and clients. You can build up this experience in a number of ways.
Paid internship opportunities, for example, are available through the Icon 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.
Work-based training placements are advertised by employers on the Icon website. Icon recommends that conservation graduate interns undertaking work-based training are paid £17,500 for a 12-month internship (£16,500 for conservation non-graduates).
You can also look for voluntary opportunities with local museums and galleries to build your knowledge and skills. Some charities, such as the British Heart Foundation, may have opportunities to repair and restore furniture to be sold in their shops.
Contact professional furniture conservators/restorers in your area to ask if you can visit them or work shadow them. See BAFRA's list of accredited restorers. There may also be opportunities to train with established furniture conservators/restorers.
Becoming a student member of Icon and attending conferences and events can also help you make new contacts.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
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 manufacturers
- furniture restoration companies
- furniture retail chains
- historical and heritage sites, such as stately homes
You can also become self-employed and 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:
- English Heritage and Historic Environment Scotland
- Museums Association (MA) - you need to register to view jobs.
- Museum Jobs
- National Trust and National Trust for Scotland
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.
There's no formal training route into furniture conservation and most learning is done on the job. You can build 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. You may specialise in a particular type or period of furniture.
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 BAFRA Membership for experienced furniture restorers. Membership provides opportunities to access educational programmes and events as well as the knowledge and expertise of other members.
With experience, you can also apply for Icon Accreditation to become an Accredited Conservator-Restorer (ACR). Achieving ACR shows that you've got a high degree of competence, as well as in-depth knowledge of the principles underpinning conservation practice. Icon accreditation is based on an in-depth peer assessment process, during which you must show that you've met the proficient level of Icon's Professional Standards.
You must be a pathway member of Icon to become accredited and will be supported by a mentor as you work towards the accreditation application and assessment process. As an ACR, you are eligible to join Icon's Conservation Register.
Continuing professional development (CPD) is an essential part of becoming and remaining accredited. CPD activities can include attending courses, conferences, seminars and other events, reading publications, undertaking teaching and training, and getting involved in specialist groups and networks.
Icon provides advice on training and CPD and has a directory of short courses and events. There may be grants available to support training and CPD. They also have a specialist group for conservators working with furniture and wooden objects.
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.
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.
Becoming more specialised and gaining expert status can help you progress, and taking on a consultancy role is possible. There may also be opportunities to teach in further or adult education colleges or at higher education institutions.