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Furniture Cleaning and Maintenance

©2015 by Charles A. Plesums, Austin, Texas, USA

If you have valuable antique furniture, any repairs and major cleaning should be done by a professional that specializes in antiques. Often part of the value of the antique is in the finish and the "patina" that comes from age, the experts can do repairs without destroying the value of the finish.

Retailers offer many products that promise to clean your furniture, extend their life, add a nice aroma, remove the dust, and so forth. Most of these probably don't do much harm, but most are unnecessary. Dusting with a dry cloth generates friction, which creates a slight static charge on the surface that in turn attracts more dust, but add a tiny bit of water to the dust cloth, which solves the static problem. Dusting/polishing sprays, such as Pledge, reduce the static and help the rag hold the dust, but a damp cloth does both these things just as well. Some sprays leave behind a thin film of oil that temporarily adds shine, but the oil builds up and just holds any dust that lands on it. A friend who restores antiques says he loves Pledge - it keeps him in business!

All you need do to keep a finish looking its best is to dust with a damp cloth, wipe up spills as soon as possible, and occasionally clean off any grease and dirt with mild dishwashing soap and water. For routine cleaning, a couple drops of dishwashing soap on a damp rag works fine, or use furniture cleaner such as Murphy Oil Soap - both are gentle and effective. One expert specifically recommends Dawn brand dish detergent in small quantities as the soap. Avoid strong alkaline- or ammonia-based detergents (like window cleaners); they can harm some finishes. And never use scrubbing cleansers (scouring powder), which contain abrasives that will wear almost any finish, and dull any shine.

One classic furniture finish is oil that soaks into the wood, covered with paste furniture wax. If dirt works into the finish, use steel wool to remove the wax and dirt, rub with a new coat of boiled linseed oil (let it dry for a week or so), and rewax with a paste furniture wax (like MinWax or Johnson's furniture wax). (This may be needed every 10-20 years.) Some furniture with a film finish (like varnish or lacquer) is waxed to get that "classic" furniture feel. The wax is far less durable than the lacquer or varnish, so if the wax becomes dirty, remove it with soap (or even paint thinner - mineral spirits), and rewax (if desired) with a paste furniture wax.

Water stains: white rings are caused when water penetrates into a finish, and can be removed by wiping them gently with a cloth barely dampened with denatured alcohol (the alcohol mixes with the water in the finish, then evaporates). Black rings are actual damage to the wood, and cannot be removed without completely refinishing the piece. Too much alcohol can damage the finish (or even remove a shellac-based finish) so be sure to only use a tiny amount of alcohol.

Never use automotive wax, cleaner, or polishes on furniture. They often include silicone, which is almost impossible to completely remove, and interferes with future furniture refinishing or repairs.

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