Fresh Paint Or Patina Of Ages, That’s The Antique Question

The world of antique furniture and the world of hackers rarely coincide, and perhaps the allure of the latest tech is greater for most of us than that of a Chipendale cabinet. But there are times when there are analagous situations in both worlds, so it’s worth taking a moment to consider something.

This late-17th-century dressing box would not be of such value or interest were a restoration to strip it of its patina. Daderot, CC0.
This late-17th-century dressing box would not be of such value or interest were a restoration to strip it of its patina. Daderot, CC0.

Antique furniture has survived for hundreds of years before being owned by today’s collectors. Along the way it picks up bumps and scrapes, wear, and even the occasional repair. Valuable pieces turn up all the time, having been discovered in dusty attics, cowsheds, basements, and all sorts of places where they may have been misused in ways that might horrify those who later pay big money for them. Thus there is a whole industry of craft workers in the field of furniture restoration whose speciality lies in turning the wreck of a piece of furniture into a valuable antique for the showroom.

The parallel in our community if you hadn’t already guessed, can be found in the world of retrocomputers. They are the antiques we prize, they come to us after being abused by kids and then left to languish in a box of junk somewhere. Their capacitors are leaking, their cases may be cracked or dirty, and they often possess the signature look of old ABS mouldings, their characteristic yellowing. This is caused by the gradual release of small quantities of bromine as the fire retardant contained within the plastic degrades under UV light, and causes considerable consternation among some retrocomputing enthusiasts. Considerable effort goes into mitigating it, with the favourite technique involving so-called Retr0bright recipes that use hydrogen peroxide to bleach away the colour.

Do We Lose Something In A Quest To Recreate Our Childhoods?

Is this any less a Macintosh because it shows its age? htomari, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Is this any less a Macintosh because it shows its age? htomari, CC BY-SA 2.0.

In the antique furniture world there are operators at all levels from the shysters pushing imitation furniture made last month in China to the specialist dealers in high-end genuine pieces. Antique restoration has strata to match, and at the quality end they do work to the highest possible standards.

Consider though, given a priceless antique that needs work, what is the objective? It would certainly be possible to return it to the same condition in which it left the cabinet maker’s workshop hundreds of years ago, but is that their aim? Instead they restore it to a very good condition but leave it with a patina of age. Shelves bow downwards slightly in the middle, there are slight marks under the polish, and the feet bear some of the scuffs they have picked up over the years. Over-restoration in which it looks too new just isn’t the thing, because then it ceases to look like the real thing that it is.

Spending a lot of time over the years around retrocomputers and retrocomputing enthusiasts, it’s interesting to make that comparison with antique furniture. Why do we not allow our antiques to wear with pride the patina acquired through the decades, and why do we prefer to pretend that it’s 1988 and they’ve just come out of the box? Is it because we’re really recreating our own childhoods (or perhaps those we wish we’d had) rather than appreciating the devices as relics in their own right?

With an increasing number of modern reproductions of classic cases and motherboards being produced, it seems to me that we’re blurring the line between the original and the reproduction just as an imitation furniture maker does to the genuine antique. Will we in time seek to differentiate our classic machines from the repro pretenders by the patina of age? Maybe it will be left to a future generation of retrocomputing collectors to make that jump.

Header: Mark Fosh, CC BY 2.0.

46 thoughts on “Fresh Paint Or Patina Of Ages, That’s The Antique Question

  1. Computer cases do have one quality most furniture doesn’t. The ability to be separated from their electronics with minimal damage. One could store away that historic case in exchange for something newer, reversing the decision for any future purchaser.

  2. Counterpoint: patina on old objects is inauthentic. In restoring the object, we clean and fix it to our vision of how it should look like, which has no historical relevance because this is never what the object was made to look like, nor is it how it really came to look like over time. It is just as artificial as putting on modern epoxy paint and polishing it up. It is our choice to represent the object exactly like that: to fix this blotch and leave that scratch.

    Patina is a fashion statement and a particular interpretation of the past. It literally creates a colored impression, like a yellowed out photograph or warbly voices on a stretched out tape. This “nostalgic” distortion of facts presents the past as inferior to present, which then reflects on our judgement and understanding of the people themselves. It feeds into the notions of cultural relativism, that “the past is a foreign country”, where people think differently and behave differently because their lives and their circumstances are completely different – just look at what crude objects they had. It seems as if anything in the past was ugly, broken, sloppy or barely functional; well-worn like a pauper’s boot.

    1. From “trompe l’oeil” to Japanese kintsugi, this is an age-old aesthetic discussion, I’d love to elaborate on those two in particular, but I’d probably end up writing a dissertation-long comment. Firstly, patina is valued on “handmade” items, I don’t think it applies to mass-produced goods. Please, I find refusal to “retrobrite” is quite silly, except that it can go awfully wrong. On the other hand, I’ve been finding such mass-produced furniture artificially aged, I think a bicycle chain with black paint is often used. Perhaps in coming years reproduction game consoles might be sold with similar, or at least equally ridiculous, treatment. I might add here that “bromine” is not the sole source of plastics yellowing, it’s often a more complicated chemical process.
      Torn and “stonewashed” jeans are a similar phenomenon. I think the idea is that it only looks old with a casual glance, the slightest inspection shows that the wearer is wealthy enough to have someone go through the time and effort to “age” an item with maximum aesthetics. Like with trompe l’oeil, it shows off wealth. When I was younger, I remember middle-class kids being frustrated, that their efforts to “break-in” jeans never quite seemed to match the real working-class and poor kids’ wear and tear on clothing. I think rich kids always tended to “get” that “punk” fashion is not really meant to fool anyone. But I guess I’m dating myself with that reference, Walmart and Target have sell torn and ripped items for quite a while now.
      Anyways, with maybe the exception of wooden Apple 1 cabinets, I don’t purposefully keeping old microcomputers looking old is legit. These plastic and metal contraptions aren’t a product of craftsmenship, or even a naive lack of it. Just use quality paint, because nothing is uglier than an aging bad job of, for example, putting housepaint on an old PC case. Maybe there’s an reasonable argument for making “steampunk” versions of computers, not so they just look old but impossibly so, with a vision of alternate tech. I kinda like keyboards made to look like old typewriters, and computer setups that look like the ones in the classic film “Brazil”. And I’m also reminded of “Macquariam” efforts, anyone taking a quick look on eBay might be horrified to think what their classic Macs might have been worth if they left them in storage. On the other hand leaky capacitors and batteries perhaps doomed these machines, anyways.
      IDK, your point is thoughtful, Dude, but it’s more complicated than you suggest. “As if anything in the past was ugly, broken, sloppy or barely functional”, Well, no, often things in the past were made better, to last longer, and an aged appearance can emphasize quality. To get back to the original subject, the old IBM Model Ms and Fs. They were objectively better, and now get better prices than the rest of the old IBM PCs, even in working, or mint condition. And a Kickstarter project, now at, is now reproducing them from original manufacturing equipment sells them starting at $450. They don’t have any sort of “patina”, but they are still superior to the vast majority of modern “mechanical keyboards”.
      I think I may have just circled around from my original point, (typed on an old IBM Thinkpad, BTW!), so I’ll leave it there.

      1. >often things in the past were made better

        Depends on your definition of “better”. Over-engineered isn’t necessarily better. The Eiffel Tower was built with 5x the material necessary because the designer didn’t trust the quality of the wrought iron available at the time – which is why it stands today – however, it was never made to do that. It was originally meant to be torn down after 20 year, but the City of Paris found it useful as a radio mast and kept it.

        > an aged appearance can emphasize quality

        That’s one of the modern myths behind the fashion of using patina. Old things typically broke more often and required more maintenance because of the limited engineering choices and material options. The patina of an object has nothing to do with its quality – just the fact that for some reason it has survived.

        The original Volkswagen Beetle required engine valve adjustment every 5,000 miles or it would stop running – not to mention greasing all the joints and an incredible amount of other maintenance work compared to modern cars, yet people think that an old thing like that was technically bombproof. It wasn’t. They were simply made in such huge numbers that you get a survivor bias going on.

        The Eiffel Tower was over-engineered, the VW Beetle was under-engineered even by the standards of the day, and both got to the point where people think they were “made better” because examples survive to this day.

        >old IBM Model Ms and Fs. They were objectively better

        Same thing. IBM was the business standard, everyone had IBM keyboards and people carry that experience to this day. But by what metric and quality are they actually better? If they are, is it really $450 better?

        PS. Judging quality by price is a tricky argument, because it then rolls around to justify the price by the quality, or, the price by the price. Without actual objective metrics, people judge value by impressions which includes the observation of what other people are paying.

        1. No you could actually zero maintenance flog a VW bug for a serious long time before it would strand you. You would hear the valves becoming “loose” before the motor stopped running.

          And oddly , washing your bug was considered maintenance by the manufacturer

          1. >washing your bug was considered maintenance by the manufacturer

            This could be because any coating on the paintwork was an optional extra. In principle you could just have the paint and wax, but there were also lacquer, enamel, and duracryl finishes available. Washing the car wasn’t as simple a matter as a soap and rinse.

      2. > mass-produced furniture artificially aged

        A common method is to soak the wood in a strong solvent to emulate natural degradation of the oils. Drying out the wood warps it and makes it “papery”. Greying out with vinegar and steel wool is possible, or strong lye and then vinegar, then careful application of stains etc.

        There are people who will build a table, chain it up to a tractor and then pull it down the road to make that “rustic” impression of being used for centuries. It’s all fake, but if you take a table that had been used as a chopping board and a butcher’s desk, the real deal is often just ugly and broken instead of nostalgic and interesting. That’s because the old damage is not interesting; many times the piece is just in a terrible state:

    2. +1
      The difference for us with retro computers is that’s it’s the insides not the outsides that make it a retro computer. Any idiot can stuff a raspi in a gutted old yellowed case, but those with real skill are the ones we see here carefully restoring damaged circuits and getting the original device to run.
      And then to run doom.

    3. This is the strangest justification for ruining a computer with retrobright that I’ve ever seen. The process does not “restore” anything. The result is nothing like the original plastic’s physical texture. I should know, I’ve done it. There is no going back. That’s why real “restoration” aims to save a piece from oblivion, not create some bogus facsimile of its original state. Do whatever you want, but appeals to authenticity are inherently broken.

    4. I have to disagree with you here. In horological circles removing patina is anathema. You literally ruin the value of the object you “restore”. Functional repairs are ok but messing with the appearance and removing aging is a nono in my book. A 40 years old computer is supposed to look its age, you want something looking brand spanking new you orer something new.

  3. You do have a point where you mention the yellowing of 80’s computer equipment (or other plastic items).
    I have to admit that I’ve retrobrighted my old VIC-20 to convert it from a strange smokey yellow to an almost original crispy clean white. It took me a long time (waiting for the perfect day and guts because I was scared to do it harm). But I got there and I like the end result. It felt dirty before (although dirt wasn’t an issue at all) and now it feels nice and clean again. You might say it improved the bond between me and my machine… but in the end it’s just another project. Although technically you might consider it a sort of maintenance.
    Now I use this for my VIC-20 development and programming sessions, so it isn’t even on display or such, nobody who visits will ever see it. But I can fully understand that people who do put there equipment on display feel the need to retrobright it. Although the yellowing is like a sort of patina, which might be considered an homage to the process of aging. But technically speaking, it’s a matter of taste. And the strange smokey yellow is a taste not many people seem to prefer over the original color scheme.
    You mentioned recreating our own childhood with these old machines and you are so absolutely right about that one. Because now I have the knowledge (internet with lot’s of datasheets and scanned books), the money (a decent job) and the technology (modern microcontrollers and 3D printer) to make the things that were considered impossible back then (for a teenager). And somehow that makes me feel good. The fact that I can do stuff, solve tiny technical problems nobody really cares about anymore, makes me feel sort of special. My own bright happy place.
    But… then again… my personal view might be slightly affected by the retrobright chemicals.

  4. to me, the big question comes down to: “is the Patina State intrusive to its basic functionality?” In the case of furniture, the answer is extremely variable: you come down to a decision of *repair* vs *restore*: tighten loose fasteners, restitch loose upholstery.

    But when the *repair* process requires going through the ‘patina’ layer/state to get to what needs repaired (such as having to remove the fabric to get to the leg-affixing screws), you start to get into “better-to-restore” territory.

    Which topic lands us in the Classic Computers area, where most situations it’s better to Repair than Restore because the main damage is often to the electronics, such as corrosion. But when you have traumatic damage to the external case (plastic embrittled and crushed, for example), then Restore is more desirable because it’s much harder to match a patina irregularity than the original plastic color.

    There is value in Repair (pure function), Rustoration (deliberately maintaining and stabilizing the patina, such as with a shot of matte clearcoat over deteriorated paint), and Restoration (Like-new or better), and each has its place. But where the line lies is VERY subjective and up to the individual.

    And sometimes something is so far gone you have to just rebuild it from first principles (Paging LADB@YT and My Mechanics@YT…)

    1. For the point of historical accuracy, you also have preservation which keeps everything as much as it happens to be, so historical facts are not obscured by later repairs. This means repairs should be made with original techniques and materials, so the object remains true to its origins.

      When historical accuracy is not maintained, i.e. if you tolerate fixing a missing tab with a dash of superglue and baking soda, then patina is purely an aesthetic fashion choice.

        1. Ironically, the original method to repair an injection molded plastic shell is simply to replace it. The new reproduction is closer to the original than any technique you might use to fix the broken part.

        1. A professional conservator might just do that, because using anything else could introduce chemical reactions with the old paint that would cause more damage later on.

          1. It’s not even illegal for that purpose. Leaded solder is still on the market exactly for repair work and specialist applications – you just can’t buy it as a private individual.

      1. Maybe you should visit Sturbridge Village or Williamsburg. Anything over a couple of hundreds of years, and “repairs should be made with original techniques and materials” is a bit or a farce. Often no one has skills, or materials, or is willing to recreate them without very significant fees and labor costs. Its a sad truth, but after a couple of generations it pretty much applies to nearly everything.

        1. Which simply raises the point that if you can’t fix it like it was, then you should preserve it as it is. Experimental archeology that tries to re-create the old methods is a different thing entirely.

          But again, if historical accuracy is not needed, then you can do anything you want. Paint it gold, shoot it up with model rockets, it’s just old junk after all.

  5. I see this argument a lot in the comments section of various automotive YouTube channels, and there seems to be a geographical split, at least here in North America. Those who, like myself, grew up dealing with the terrible effect that road salt has had on our vehicles tend to prefer pristine paint and no rust to be seen anywhere. Those who live further south where road salt isn’t really used tend to be more likely to consider rust as a paint choice. Not my thing, but to each his/her own.
    As for antique furniture and things like that, I say leave ’em alone and let ’em show their age.

  6. Gradually people with technical training in electronics are becoming the new specialists in restoration and conservation of electronic artefacts. In a way, they are becoming a new kind of historian and archaeologists.
    Currently, only they are able to understand the technology behind those equipments. Traditional historians/archaeologists do not yet have this ability/interest.
    Perhaps in the future there will be a specialization, as already happens with Industrial Archeology.
    Until that happens, these technicians are responsible for studying, preserving and promote this kind of heritage.
    Several Hackaday participants are already becoming aware of this.
    Modify old technology is fantastic, but when it is very rare or unique, our duty to preserve it for the future must overcome our desire to modify it without true necessity, destroying it irreversibly.
    The philosophy of traditional restoration can also be used in this field. The idea is, whenever possible, remove dirt from surfaces (ie dust,oxides, grease) as these can damage the plastics over time.
    Experimental methods to restore the original appearance should be avoided in rare objects, specially when no one knows their long term effects (that may result in irreversible damage).
    Personally it doesn’t shock me that someone return an ordinary Macintosh Classic to a pristine look and have a raspberry pi running an emulator inside. It can be a cool project to recreate a typical room from the 90s and allow visitors to interact with the object.
    But gutting a rare working Apple I, and just keeping the original keyboard to control a raspberry pi? Well this is just stupid.

      1. no one. That was a silly example. I don’t think the OP addressed problems such as with early vacuum tube computers (or radios or speakers). You can let them be until they die, but eventually restorers need “plan b”, cause they are doomed to be “for presentation only”. Many guitarists are using old Soviet stock tubes, but that’s because they believe (perhaps often incorrectly) the sound is better, not out of reverence for the historical value. And eventually those will get old and die, too. I don’t think a “philosophy of traditional restoration” really applies to computers and electronic technology at all. A lot of effort went into hiding the tech in boxes, and hiding it away in the first place!
        And most of those old Apple 1s aren’t working at all, and I’m not sure there ever was a standard keyboard for them. Maybe a PDP-11 would be a better example, but then again, hardly any are still in working condition anyways. It’s a flawed premise. I think something has to be a “first”, or the last working example of its kind, like maybe a Univac, to apply high-falutin’ preservation efforts on computer tech.

        1. Don’t take my words literally. I pointed out this crazy example on purpose, because everyone knows the Apple I. My point is that at some point someone will have to realize when we are no longer dealing with common garbage, but with unique historical testimonies. This commentator (Dude) clearly understands the subject and is able to express it better:

  7. I take the view that if it impairs functionality, I’ll repair it. If it’s purely cosmetic/patina, I’m gonna leave it alone aside from normal cleaning, because I like objects to show their history. If it’s something that threatens to impair functionality if unchecked, I’ll repair or stabilize it to prevent future damage, but I’m not going to make it look like new, because it isn’t.

    If you’re running a museum and want to show eg. an original Mac exactly as if it was new, that’s something different. But I’m not interested in that. I don’t mind that you can tell it’s a ~37 year old computer.

  8. Each class of object has its own restoration rules. This mostly relates to resale value or social acceptance of the applied practices. If its yours, you can do anything you want while knowing you may be permanently destroying its resale value.

    Some examples of these rules, such as for bronze statuary, is that making a casting and then melting down and re-pouring the statue is considered to still be the original artwork. For centuries old paintings, it is standard practice to remove the protective varnish, perform a cleaning, and reapply new varnish. For really old furniture, the original finish is hugely important. Corrosion (patina) on old telegraph keys is very important to collectors to remain, while most folks enjoy old tools that are de-rusted, polished, painted, and made to be working tools again.

    Which brings up another divide in the process; whether or not the artifact is to be preserved or made fully functional. These efforts do not always overlap. One school of thought is that certain objects of history are best interpreted by performing what they where designed for, such as the actual flying of airplanes manufactured during World War II. Countless carefully-balanced decisions are forced to be to made against historical authenticity due to reasons of safety, reliability, costs, practicality, and parts availability when attempting to display working examples of historical machinery.

    For preservation only efforts, the focus is more on the ability to be able to identify and reverse or undo any restoration effort. And all of this is a moving stream. Future generations may look in distain at some of the work of previous generations of professional restorers.

    Which artifacts that are culturally significant and worthy of preserving also changes with the times. It is easy to feel disgust at someone’s obvious amateur repair or restoration, but is very unfair if that object was something that at the time of its treatment was not valued by society and would have likely been disposed of, but instead someone found it interesting and used the only skills and materials they had available to them at the time. Of course there are plenty of examples where disgust is fully merited.

    There will always be controversy and complaining in this area of endeavor.

    1. >making a casting and then melting down and re-pouring the statue is considered to still be the original artwork

      Even though it shrinks in the process and needs a new surface finishing?

  9. And then there’s the C&R firearms crowd. You can knock hundreds and in some cases thousands off the value of an old gun by “restoring” it to “like new”. Customize something like an old 1871 Mauser and you’ve created a Pawn Shop $200 bargain out of something worth 5x that initially. Antique furniture can be worse.

    1. I used to hate my mother for your second point when I was younger – So much furniture was inherited, and it just had to be painted – My heart sank every time, not because of the money, but because of a lesson I learned from my father, a career welder;

      You can only take away from wood, but you can put metal back.

      The second you touch a piece of old woodwork, for any reason, it will never be the same, and you take something intangible away from its history that can never be brought back. No matter what you do, it will never be the same.

      As far as electronics, screw it – Preserve the history and the function. Need to pull a cap? Save it, at least the you still have it if it matters to you or the next guy.

      Vehicles? I live in NY – Four wheels and a title, no point in caring if you need to use it. Shittiest truck in the parking lot at any given time, but hey, no payments, and I’m not gonna get robbed.

      Do what you want, but know that you’re going to piss someone off no matter what.

  10. Nothing lasts forever. Everything is fashion beyond utility. So, I prefer making useful things from things headed to the landfill. Give that old thing a new life as something else.

  11. Acknowledging every point above, most of which I agree with… my feeling is that if the wear (and the modification history!) tells a story, leave it. My favorite example is the homemade black Mac SE: . Changed appearance and battle scars left intact (it did a hard life as a music producer’s machine, possibly doing live performances in clubs?) and enough internal upgrades to make it useful in a modern context. It continues the history of modifications, rather than freezing it. I may be reading too much emotion into it, but I feel like the original owner felt a kind of love toward that artifact.

  12. There’s a popular program on TV in the US (Public Broadcast System) called ‘Antiques Roadshow’. Might be on in the UK, as well. May have even originated in the UK for that matter. No matter; the main point is this–

    If anyone were to bring any piece of antique ‘something’ in for appraisal–and ‘showcasing’ on the program– and anything had been done to change the original, patina or otherwise, it would not make it onto the program.

    ‘Patina’ is not something to be added or taken away…it is a part and parcel of the normal ageing process, and one of the characteristics which determine the value of a product–wooden furniture, Saracen sword, TRS-80/Model 100…

    1. Yes it’s made by the BBC.

      The only exception is silverware, where it’s recommended to polish it, but not so much that you rub off any detailed engraving.

      Wait until you get “The Repair Shop”, that will blow your mind!

    2. Patina is dirt and chemical changes or wear on the original materials.

      What differentiates “patina” from ordinary dirt and damage is the special arbitrary rule that it must be old dirt instead of new dirt. The dirt itself makes no difference – just how long ago it was deposited. If the dirt was added yesterday, you clean it off, but if you neglect it for 50 years it becomes special dirt that has value – but only if it looks a particular way that meets a stereotype of an antique object. If for example the object got paint splashed on it 50 years ago, or got charred in a fire, that is not “patina” because it does not meet arbitrary aesthetic expectations.

      In other words, “patina” can be translated to plain English as: “selective neglect”. Whether it makes any sense to value objects by it is a matter not unlike the Giant Stone Coins of Yap. For the same outcome, you might have carved the stone on the spot, but that wouldn’t impress anyone. It’s the myth that makes it, not the stone itself.

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