Homeowners have long relished the beauty, versatility, and toughness of wood furniture—and above all, they’ve appreciated its low maintenance. Like the ideal houseplant for brown thumbs, wood furniture survives on its own, requiring little intervention. Every now and again, though, whether due to an accident or normal wear and tear, it becomes necessary to clean wood furniture to renew its appearance and ensure its longevity. When that inevitable day comes, follow these steps to restore a wood finish to impeccable condition without inadvertently causing damage.
MATERIALS AND TOOLS:
- Cotton balls
- Dishwashing detergent
- Clean cloth
- Mineral spirits
- Wood wax
- Denatured alcohol
If you are certain of your wood furniture finish—paint, stain, or some other treatment—then use a cleaning method appropriate for that specific wood finish. Otherwise, it’s best to clean the furniture in stages, starting with a mild cleanser that poses no risk to the integrity of the finish, then graduating to a stronger solution only if the gentler one fails. Proceeding in this way means that you can safely clean wood furniture without knowing precisely what you’re dealing with.
Start out with perhaps the humblest of household cleaners: dishwashing detergent. Add a drop to a water-moistened cotton ball, then wipe it on an inconspicuous part of the furniture, such as the inside of a chair leg. If the detergent mars the finish in your test area, then continue without the detergent. If the test area shows no evidence of damage, it’s safe to proceed. Mix water and detergent in a bucket and use this solution to sponge down the entire piece. Be careful not to soak the wood: Brush the sponge lightly over the wood surface and don’t let the liquid linger for long. Dry thoroughly.
If you want to see if you can get your furniture a little cleaner, the next thing to try is mineral spirits. They should be harmless to wood finishes, but you should still test an inconspicuous area with a moistened cotton ball. If you see nothing suspicious, wash the piece with a clean cloth soaked in mineral spirits. (Work in a well-ventilated location.) In many cases, mineral spirits can remove years of grime. Finish by wiping away any residual cleaner with water, inspecting the wood for blemishes as you go.
If the finish reacted negatively when you tested the mineral spirits on your furniture, don’t push your luck—move on. Before you try any further interventions, you’ll need to determine the type of finish that’s on your piece. To do this, dab some denatured alcohol onto a cotton swab and test it in a small, inconspicuous area. If the finish dissolves, that means it’s probably shellac. If the finish stands up to the alcohol, it’s probably oil, lacquer, varnish, or polyurethane. Either way, if you’re still dissatisfied with your furniture’s appearance, chances are that you’ll need to refinish the piece to truly restore it.
If you are satisfied with the results of your cleaning efforts, the wise choice at this point is to protect the wood from future damage by applying furniture wax. Apply it liberally with a cheesecloth, rubbing in the direction of the grain. Afterward, buff with a clean cloth.
Note: Always dust wood furniture with soft, lint-free cloths. Avoid feather dusters, because they aren’t as effective and sometimes have sharp quills that may scratch the wood surface.