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How To Clean Antique Wood Furniture

Updated on August 8, 2012
Learn how to properly clean you antique wood furniture without damage.
Learn how to properly clean you antique wood furniture without damage.

Should I be cleaning my antique furniture? Why does my antique table look so dull? Is it okay to wash my furniture with a wet cloth? My furniture is splitting or cracking - will oiling it help?

These are all common questions and concerns owners have about their much loved heirloom furniture. Although antique furniture has survived generations of use it does need special care and handling. Furniture from days gone by owes that rich glow to years of beeswax lovingly applied by women who invented the term "elbow grease."

You can care for your antique wood furniture with the same love but with much better products made specifically for antique wood. With regular dusting and waxing your antiques will retain that original glow and continue to add warmth and beauty for generations to come.

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Cleaning and Polishing Antique Wood Furniture

Whether your antique furniture pieces are family heirlooms--priceless in sentimental value—or an estate sale find, they probably have a layer of grunge built up from years of exposure to all kinds of substances ranging from dirt and dust to soot from oil lamps and cooking fumes.


This is often called the wood's “patina.” If the piece is very old and may be very valuable do not try to clean it yourself. Take it to a good furniture restorer, do not let anyone “refinish” it, it may make it worthless.


But if you have antique furniture that is not rare, very valuable, or teak which needs to be oiled, you can improve it's appearance by cleaning it.

Step One: Strip The Old Wax

Wax is a sealant and it's made to stay on the furniture to protect it so no ordinary cleaner will remove a buildup of it. But there are special wax cleaners and strippers that you can find online or at your local hardware store.


Move your piece to be cleaned to a well ventilated area, and while wearing a face mask and rubber gloves pour some of the cleaner in a clean glass bowl. Dip a piece of 0000 Superfine steel wool, (also available at your hardware store or online), into the cleaner and apply to your wood in a gentle circular motion.


Remember you are not sanding the finish off you are just making the wax dissolve so you can wipe it off with a cloth. Keep working on it until you are certain there's no more wax on the surface.

The first step to cleaning your antique wood flooring is stripping the old wax.
The first step to cleaning your antique wood flooring is stripping the old wax.

Step Two: Clean It

There should be a white oily substance on your wood. This is just the residue from the cleaner and it needs to be thoroughly washed off. Although I would never tell you to use soap and water—or even water—ordinarily on your wood you will need to make a fairly concentrated mixture of liquid dish soap and water and clean off the wax cleaner.


Wash a small area at a time and don't let the water soak into the wood for more than a short time. If the water beads up there's still wax that hasn't dissolved and you will need to repeat step one. After washing with soap and water wipe with clear water and let dry thoroughly.

Once you've stripped the old wax away -- it's time to clean!
Once you've stripped the old wax away -- it's time to clean!

Step Three: Touch Up

Touch up any scratches or marks with a stain pen or wood colored felt tip pen made for wood. These come in various shades to match your wood. Try to buy the type that is quick drying. A good place to buy these is on the Internet. Behlen Scratch Remover Markers are available at www.rockler.com.

Nicks and blemishes are virtually unavoidable with wood flooring. Make sure to touch them up before applying any wax.
Nicks and blemishes are virtually unavoidable with wood flooring. Make sure to touch them up before applying any wax.

Step Four: Wax

Wax it with a good wood wax like Goddard's Cabinetmakers Wax. Most good antique restorers wouldn't use anything but Goddard's. This will seal your touch up and provide all important protection to your wood and it's finish. The more you rub the greater the shine.


Never, never, never put any kind of oil on your wood unless it is an oily wood like teak. Oil will attract dirt and will not nurture your wood.

In order to make your newly finished antique flooring shine you've got to wax it.
In order to make your newly finished antique flooring shine you've got to wax it.

Cracking and Splitting

Many people notice their antique furniture cracking and splitting and assume it needs oil to keep it from drying out. The truth is the biggest threat to your antique wood is not lack of oil or even age it's lack of humidity in the air.


While too much humidity can harm wood that is used to being in a dry climate, lack of humidity in the home can make antique furniture split and crack. The wood antique furniture is made from, unlike today's kiln dried wood, was naturally seasoned and central heating can dry it out and make it brittle.


Fortunately, the solution may be as simple as keeping a vase of flowers nearby, a bowl of water or an inexpensive humidifier set on low to restore and protect your precious antiques. Always keep your antiques at least 2 feet from your radiator or other heat source like a fireplace or furnace.


The best humidity level for your antiques is 35 to 65 percent saturation and the best room temperature is between 68 and 75 degrees. Keep your furniture out of sunlight, it will fade your finish and make it look dull.

A result of a dry home is cracking and splitting. To prevent this from happening keep a vase of flowers or bowl of water nearby.
A result of a dry home is cracking and splitting. To prevent this from happening keep a vase of flowers or bowl of water nearby.

Dusting

Most people don't like to dust but it really needs to be done regularly. Dust is not at all good for your furniture—new or antique. Dust is abrasive and it will make your furniture's finish become dull and worn over time. When it builds up in carved surfaces and nooks and crannies it will harden and become difficult to get off.


Use a clean, soft, lint-free cotton cloth to dust like an old T-shirt, dish towel, chamois or a piece of flannel. Do not use a wet cloth, water is your antique's worst enemy. Be sure your cloth has no buttons, or anything hard or metal that can scratch or hanging strings or threads that can catch on knobs, moldings, etc.


Most experts recommend spraying just a light mist of water on your cloth to make the dust stick to the cloth—if you see any trace of water on the wood the cloth is too damp. Wipe gently with oval strokes. Turn the cloth over as soon as there's visible dirt on it.

One of the last steps is to dust your antique wood flooring. This is easily done with a dust mop like this - and don't worry, they're quite cheap!
One of the last steps is to dust your antique wood flooring. This is easily done with a dust mop like this - and don't worry, they're quite cheap!

How Often Should You Wax

The wax is the barrier between your precious antique and the cold, cruel world. How often you wax your furniture depends on how dusty your antique furniture gets. Each time it is dusted a small amount of the wax is removed.


Eventually there is no longer enough wax to protect your furniture from dirt and dust, wear and tear. As a rule of thumb when it no longer shines it needs to be waxed. Wax will stick to wood, but wax won't stick to wax so waxing too often won't help your wood and you will just be wasting wax..

Hardwood Flooring: Antique Restoration

Repairing & Refinishing an Antique Hardwood Floor

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    • Georgina_writes profile image

      Georgina_writes 5 years ago from Dartmoor

      Great, informative hub. I use linseed oil and methylated spirit to polish my natural wood at home.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

      This is great information, I would never have thought about using a vase of flowers to keep the wood moist enough not to crack, and each and every step was so easy to read and apply to our own furniture, sometimes it seems like an easy task until we try it and then we get stumped! lol! really good info, voted up! cheers nell

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