Warning: Models and Lacquered Furniture Don't Mix

Posted by Eleda Towle on

Recently, two collectors have shared with me that displaying their Breyer models on lacquered wood furniture has resulted in severe damage to the furniture (and damage to the models). We're trying to figure out what type of finish in particular might be the culprit, but wanted to send out this warning to everyone to help you keep your furniture and ponies safe.

 

First, don't panic:  Breyer has been manufacturing models since 1950, and so far we've only seen two situations where this has occurred.  Models are perfectly fine on nearly every wood surface, and my own collection (below, just to show off) has been displayed on wood shelves since my dad and I built them in the 1980s.  There has been no issue. 

 part of Eleda's collection, safely displayed on stained wood shelves

My shelves are stained (Minwax Special Walnut), but not clearcoated with lacquer.  This may be a key factor.

 

The first person to report furniture damage to me states that she has displayed her models on a variety of wood surfaces for decades and had no issue until she lined up a bunch on her name-brand dining table.  Laurie had washed them in preparation for sending them to us to sell, and had placed a vinyl tablecloth with a felt backing on the table to protect it before lining the horses up on it.  Those that were tippy, she laid down on the tablecloth. They were only there for less than two  weeks.  When she removed the horses and the tablecloth, this was the result:

Dining table with lacquer finish damage from model horses 

The finish appears to have melted under the horses, causing the white felt tablecloth backing to embed itself into the table's finish.  This is an expensive table, so she was understandably upset.  A metal candelabra that had set on the table for much longer never caused any damage, so it was specifically the models that damaged the surface.

Originally, I thought this was a one-off incident, but recently I was contacted by another collector with a totally different piece of furniture that has had the same damage caused by little plastic hooves.  Caroline reports that she originally displayed some of her collection directly on top of a wooden dresser (she couldn't find a maker's mark) that she bought in the 1990s, but when she moved them some time later, there were "hoof prints" on the top of the dresser.  In order to prevent further damage, she placed a felt-backed vinyl tablecloth over the dresser top before putting models back on it.  This time, when she tried to remove them, they were actively stuck in place.  One was stuck badly enough that it required a hair dryer to loosen it!  Here are the photos she sent:

 Dresser with lacquer finish damage from model horses

 Dresser with lacquer finish damage from model horses

You can see bits of felt stuck in some of the hoof prints here, too, as well as places where the finish completely pulled off with the horses.

I contacted an expert in furniture restoration for his thoughts on this mysterious issue.  Thomas Johnson is a second-generation antique furniture restoration specialist and host of the popular Youtube channel Thomas Johnson Antique Furniture Restoration, teaching restoration techniques and materials.  He brought chemist Tom Meisner into the conversation.

Tom Meisner  is Vice President in charge of Quality Management and Regulatory Compliance for Camger Coating Systems, Inc., a family-owned manufacturer of coatings and adhesives, including furniture finishes.  Tom says:

"After seeing the photos, reading the text and looking up [the brand name was removed because we don't want anyone to think we're targeting this brand- Eleda] dining table, I thoroughly believe that there is some kind of chemical migration coming out of the Model Horses. There must be a fair amount of chemical migration to cause the finish to dissolve – it is working like a stripper."

 

Here’s what we suspect: 

Lacquer:  We know the dining table was purchased about fifteen years ago, is oak, and that the company’s website describes their finishing process as multiple layers of stain and lacquer.  (Lacquer is a water-resistant clearcoat and can be either glossy, satin, or matte.)  The dresser was purchased about 20 years ago; the manufacturer and finish are unknown, but it has a shine that indicates it has a lacquer clearcoat as well.  I have displayed models on antique lacquered surfaces with no damage, so this may be limited to modern lacquer finishes (we don't know for certain).

Shrinky-Era Models:  Another common factor appears to be the age of the models in these two cases.  Most that were involved in these incidents are reported as having been made between 1980 and the late 1990s.  That time period may be an “Aha!” moment for many collectors:  There is a known issue with Breyer models made from the mid '80s to mid-90s, when Breyer first moved production from the US to China.  The plastic mix was off, and these models have started breaking down over the years in what is known as vinegar syndrome (also common in old movie films, which are made of the same material).  In its early stages, the model begins to give off a scent similar to vinegar.  As it progresses, the (I'm no chemist) liquid parts of the plastic very slowly begin to separate from the solids.  This can result in "wet or oily patches" on the model and a slow shrinking in size of the model, as its remaining plastic condenses.  Eventually, the models can become misshapen and lumpy, as different parts shrink faster than others.  These models are called "shrinkies."

Breyer Running Mare Shrinky next to regular  

Above is an example.  These two models were exactly the same size originally.  The one on the right was made in the 1960s with the correct plastic mix and remains as good as new.  The model on the left was made in the "Shrinky Era."

It is known that displaying models in a place with good air circulation will slow this process down to the point of nearly stopping it, while keeping them wrapped in storage boxes hastens it significantly.  However, these models were all out in the open, and to my knowledge, none of them had shown visible signs of vinegar syndrome.  Perhaps it was occurring slowly enough to not be noticeable to the eye, but the parts of the plastic in direct contact with the surface had enough reduced air flow to hasten the process in that area specifically?  Or perhaps there is simply a chemical reaction occurring between the cellulose acetate and modern lacquers.

I originally considered whether the vinyl tablecloth might have been a catalyst, but Caroline says she originally didn't have anything between the models and the wood, and only added it after she saw damage, so it appears to be just an "innocent bystander" that people commonly have on hand.  It is no barrier for this reaction, and the felt becomes easily stuck within the melted lacquer.

 

Thomas Johnson offers this advice if you want to be sure to protect your furniture surface, particularly since we haven't yet pinpointed the catalyst with certainty:

"The only thing that I can think of is to advise your customers to have a piece of glass cut to place on a surface and place the models on the glass. Most plastic would work too but I think it's best to stay away from all plastic."  

Again, the aim of this article isn't to cause panic or have you searching for new shelves.  If your models have been displayed on shelves, in a cabinet or on furniture for years and you've had no issues, they should be fine.  In both cases, this damage occurred pretty quickly:  Less than a year in one instance and only a week or so in the other.  However, to avoid destroying a beautiful piece of furniture that you love, you may want to avoid placing models onto it, even temporarily, even with a tablecloth between them and the surface.  This is particularly true if the models are from the 1980s-1990s, and the furniture was made from the 1980s forward and has a lacquered finish.

Have you had models damage a furniture surface?  We'd like to know, with as many details as you can provide:  Brand name and approximate age of the furniture, which models were on it that caused damage, were other models on it that DID NOT cause damage, how long did it take for the damage to occur?  Please comment below!

 

 

 

 


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10 comments

  • I havent had this happen all I can think is either the area the furniture and horses were in had a fair amount of sunlight and or humidity in warm climate?

    Megan on
  • Thank you for this informative article, Eleda! I had this happen twice, and I was flabbergasted. A black lacquer chair was the worst, and I have slight marks on a library table. Both were temporary storage. Now, if I am going to put models on any furniture other than a curio cabinet or model shelving, I put a paper towel between the model and the furniture, and I only place them on the piece for a few days or less. I move them as quickly as possible. I also have put them on my dining room table without issue, but I have the table pads and a tablecloth between the models and the wood surface. Thanks for these great articles!!

    Liz on
  • I have had this same thing happen too. I have a curio cabinet and the very bottom of it is wood. The horses sitting on the bottom have done this. Horses are modern day horses. I also have an old beat up antique desk that I have a bunch of horses on and it has happened to that too. Although most of them on there are Stablemates so the hoof marks are tiny and the finish on that table was worn to start with. Also had it happen on the book case headboard of a bed before.

    Sharon Long on
  • Cellulose-based lacquers were commonly used on wooden furniture. These lacquers use the same solvents as Tenite plastic, aka cellulose acetate, which is what most Breyers are made of (and Stones too).

    The fact that this damage occurred when models of that particular era were placed on the furniture in question is unlikely to be coincidental – as you say, Breyers from that particular era are known to be volatile in their chemical composition, so I’m fairly certain that what’s happened here is leaching from the Breyers (mostly probably gaseous, but just possibly liquid) has interacted with a cellulose lacquer on the furniture and softened it enough to make it tacky, and so ‘grabbed’ the felt from the tablecloth.

    An experienced cabinetmaker should be able to save the furniture by stripping off the lacquer and replacing it, but this may not be cheap :(

    Keren Gilfoyle on
  • I have had both old and new models leave hoof marks on both old and new wood furniture. On older furniture it pulled off the lacquer finish. On my newer table it left “footprints” in the finish. Shiney spots that will not come out. I have also had the flannel backed plastic covers get eaten thru on both surfaces. Hooves will also stick like glue to painted surfaces!

    Yvonne on

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