Cleaning Wood Furniture


So you’ve found a steal; that coffee table you picked up is sturdy and still has its original gorgeous hardware. So what if the finish is cloudy and dark, right? It can easily be stripped and replaced! Maybe not. In many cases, all old furniture needs is a good cleaning. Here’s why: traditional thinking held that wood furniture needed to be protected with frequent coats of wax to keep it looking good. It did give it a nice luster for awhile, but then dust would build up, mix with the wax, and start looking dingy again. Instead of cleaning it off, fastidious homemakers applied another coat of wax, and the cycle began again. In this regard, modern furniture has it a distinct advantage. People simply don’t have the time to apply layer after layer of wax to their wood furniture anymore!

Removing cleaning wood furniture can take a bit of elbow grease, but the good news is the process is fairly straightforward and the materials are readily available.

What You’ll Need

  • Screwdriver
  • Vacuum cleaner with brush attachment
  • Clean, absorbent, lint free cloths
  • Murphy’s Oil Soap
  • Superfine (0000) steel wool –anything coarser will damage the underlying finish
  • Mineral spirits
  • Q tips
  • Dust mask and rubber gloves (optional)

Getting Started

First, remove any hardware. Buildup can actually form a ridge around drawer pulls and hinges, so take them off, if possible. Make sure you store any hardware with the screws that attach it to the piece; one good idea is to store all the items together in a labeled Ziploc baggie.

If the piece has been outside, in a garage, barn or other dusty place, there may be quite a lot of dirt built up on the surface. Vacuum away as much as you can, or just wipe it off with a soft, clean cloth. If the item has been home to mice (you’ll see the droppings) or if you have allergies, you’ll need to wear a dust mask to protect yourself from the dust.

Dilute ¼ to ½ cup Murphy’s Oil Soap (or a similar product) in one gallon of warm water. Slightly dampen a rag with the solution and use it to wipe the surface of the furniture. Rinse the rag frequently, and replace it when it’s so soiled that it won’t rinse clean. Work with the grain of the wood; even a soft cloth can create minor scratches in soft finishes. A Q-tip can help you work the solution into grooves, carved panels, and recessed areas. Pay special attention to any areas where hardware was attached; you may need to gently scrape away the ridges of wax using a plastic scraper.

Dampen a clean rag in fresh water and use it to rinse the furniture clean.

NOTE: Rags for cleaning and rinsing should be just barely damp! Too much moisture can penetrate unsealed areas and joints and cause damage.

In many cases, this gentle treatment will be enough to get your furniture glowing, and the soap has a pleasant scent. For particularly dirty items, you may have to repeat the process a couple of times.

If, after a good cleaning with soap and water, the finish still looks cloudy, mineral spirits are the answer. This next step requires good ventilation; it’s also a good idea to protect your hands with rubber gloves.

Pour about ½ a cup of mineral spirits directly on the furniture’s surface. There’s no real need to measure; just eyeball it. Spread the liquid to a workable depth; an area two feet in diameter is easy to work with.

Rub the mineral spirits into the wood, using the steel wool. Always work with the grain to avoid gouging or marring the finish. Continue over the entire piece, keeping the area you’re working on wet at all times. The solvent, combined with the abrasiveness of the steel wool, will loosen the wax and form a grayish haze as it evaporates.

Once the piece is completely dry, dampen a cloth in clean water and use it to wipe away the loosened wax. Change the rag frequently; you don’t want to be rubbing dirt back onto your freshly cleaned furniture. Again, the process may have to be repeated if a hundred years or more of dust and wax have built up; just keep working on it until no more film forms.

A burnishing cream polish is the final step. You may be thinking, wait a second, I just spent hours removing the old polish! Why would I want to apply more? And that’s a good question. Burnishing cream polish is a mild abrasive. When used correctly, it has the capacity to smooth out water marks, white “bloom” and the crisscrossing network of scratches that form with daily use and create dull finishes.

Howard Restor-A-Shine and Liberon Burnishing Cream are two well known brands. Apply the liquid with a soft cloth, following the direction of the wood grain, and allow it to dry until hazy. Then, buff it off- just like waxing a car!

Now is an ideal time to give the furniture a thorough once-over. Note any areas where the finish is thin, damaged, or worn away, and plan to restore it. Reattach any hardware.

Once the furniture is clean and in good condition, it’s important to maintain the finish. Little is needed except occasional dusting. Avoid silicon-based waxes at all costs- they get dull faster than any other type. Instead, use a cream polish- rarely.

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