Furniture conservators or restorers use practical and scientific restoration techniques to conserve and restore antique and modern furniture. They 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.
Furniture conservators or restorers 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.
Self-employed conservators must also manage their own marketing, financial and business activities. They may go on to work in the antiques sector or work in a consultancy role.
Work activities vary according to the particular piece of furniture being treated and the needs of the customer. They will also depend on whether you are self-employed, working for a museum or heritage organisation, or employed in a private business.
Typical activities include:
- liaising with clients to discuss and agree on the conservation or restoration of a piece of furniture;
- communicating with the client about the sometimes complex treatment processes involved;
- observing and assessing the state of a piece of furniture to decide on the best way to restore or conserve it;
- combining specialist knowledge of furniture with practical techniques in order to prolong and protect the survival of a piece of furniture;
- taking photographs of pieces of furniture and their components and maintaining detailed records of their condition and special features before and after work is carried out;
- providing photographs and other records for clients when work is complete;
- working closely with a range of materials and equipment in precise and detailed ways during the conservation and restoration process;
- applying preventative measures in relation to environmental, biological and human conditions, in order to protect and preserve furniture;
- sourcing materials for use in the conservation and restoration process;
- keeping up to date with research and developments in equipment and techniques;
- travelling to a variety of locations to work on pieces in situ;
- working on a number of projects concurrently;
- providing advice and information on conservation and restoration issues to the public.
- Graduates on paid internships can expect to earn in the region of £16,000.
- Salaries for conservation graduates working in the public or private sector are relatively low, often less than £22,000.
- Those with experience or in a senior or managerial role can make in excess of £37,000.
- It is recommended by The Institute of Conservation (Icon) that the minimum salary for entry-level conservators should be £24,648.
Salaries vary between employers but are usually relatively low, even for practitioners with a high level of experience and professional qualifications.
Income data from Icon. Figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours vary depending on whether you are self-employed or working for an organisation or small company, and on whether you are working to a deadline.
What to expect
- Many furniture conservators and restorers are self-employed, often specialising in a particular type or period of furniture. Incomes vary considerably depending on a range of factors, including your ability to promote your own work.
- Work is often based in a workshop environment, and practitioners may either work alone or share the space with other furniture conservators and restorers.
- There are opportunities for those with experience to work on a consultancy basis for museums and stately homes.
- Most furniture conservators and restorers stay in one job for a long period and 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.
- Overnight absence from home and work or travel overseas are uncommon.
Although this area of work is open to all graduates, a degree or HND in the following subjects may increase your chances:
- art and design (craft);
- furniture conservation/restoration;
- furniture design/furniture design and make;
- furniture making;
- furniture studies;
- product and furniture design;
- three-dimensional design.
Entry without a degree or HND is possible, and GCSE and A-level subjects in science or technical subjects, design technology and history are all relevant.
In order to develop your career, a recognised qualification at HND, diploma or degree level or above is generally required. Entry requirements vary from course to course, so check with individual colleges and universities.
When choosing a course, make sure it suits your career plans and personal interests. Some courses provide specialist training in antique furniture restoration, while others include aspects of furniture design and making; some are more focused on theory, while others focus on extensive practical training. Most courses include the following elements:
- business management and awareness;
- furniture history;
- practical workshop training;
- specialist crafts, such as cabinet making, upholstery and decorative techniques;
- types of materials.
Introductory courses and workshops in areas such as furniture restoration, upholstery and furniture study are available from relevant professional associations such as the British Antique Furniture Restorers' Association (BAFRA) and colleges and universities with furniture design degree courses.
Entry to this field is competitive and most restorers and almost all conservators gain an appropriate qualification prior to starting work, but there is some scope for entering as an apprentice and training on the job. Some major museums have internship schemes, which are useful for gaining practical experience.
In order to establish and maintain a professional reputation, it is recommended that you become a member of an appropriate professional body, such as BAFRA, Icon or The Guild of Master Craftsmen. This provides a recognised quality standard to work towards and routes for professional development, as well as valuable networking opportunities and access to information on vacancies.
You will need to have:
- good practical skills;
- an excellent level of 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, including the ability to explain complex information clearly to clients;
- patience and a methodical approach to work;
- creative problem-solving skills;
- perseverance, commitment and a genuine enthusiasm for the work.
If you are setting up your own business, you will also need skills in administration and marketing.
Conservation internship opportunities for new and emerging conservators with a range of organisations, including museums, are managed by Icon. Look out for opportunities in furniture conservation and restoration.
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;
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:
- English Heritage
- The Institute of Conservation (Icon)
- Museums Association (MA)
- Museum Jobs
- National Trust
- National Trust for Scotland
- National press.
- Websites of auction houses.
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.
Directories may be useful, see the:
A list of companies dealing in furniture is also available from the British Antique Dealers' Association (BADA).
The type and extent of training you receive will depend on your employer. Specialist training may be available at certain museums or heritage sites, where there are opportunities to focus on furniture from specific periods.
New skills and techniques are acquired on the job throughout your working life, and it is important to keep up to date with the latest research and techniques.
Relevant professional bodies provide accreditation schemes for continuing professional development (CPD). For example, BAFRA offers membership at various levels, providing opportunities to access educational programmes and events, as well as the knowledge and expertise of other members. See the BAFRA website for the criteria for gaining accredited membership.
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.
Continuing professional development (CPD) is common amongst conservators and restorers and is a prerequisite for the Professional Accreditation of Conservators-Restorers (PACR).
PACR is available through Icon and PACR-accredited conservators can apply to join the Conservation Register.
Accredited members of BAFRA are also eligible for inclusion on the Register.
Many furniture conservators and restorers go on to set up their own businesses or work as consultants. This often provides more flexibility to define your own career direction, although there may be fewer opportunities to specialise.
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, as furniture conservators and restorers tend to stay in one job for a number of years. This may slow down career progression.
For many, progression means becoming more specialised and gaining expert status. Some restorers go on to teach in further education (FE) or higher education (HE) institutions.