Common Sense Antiques: Cleaning wood furniture

Well, you bought it, got it home, lubed the drawers, leveled the doors and it looks great doesn’t it? Doesn’t it? Maybe it needs something to brighten it up. Maybe it needs refinishing – and maybe it doesn’t. Before you spend a whole lot of money to get a piece refinished, try some good old fashioned elbow grease and common sense with a little bit of information and guidance.

First, you must determine if the existing finish is sound. Does it show signs of water damage, such as white rings or shadows on the tops and legs? Does it show excessive exposure to direct sun such as flaking, peeling and discoloration or bare spots? Is the finish crazed or alligatored? If the answer is yes to any of the above, pass on the rest of this article and call someone you trust to discuss a new finish.  If the finish appears sound but just dull stay tuned.

The first step is to clean the piece. Be sure to remove all hardware such as drawer pulls. You don’t want water and cleaner to puddle up around them.

Remove mildew with a solution of one capful of bleach in a quart of warm water. Wipe off the mildew and dry the piece with a clean cloth. Clean the piece with soap. Murphy’s Oil Soap is a great cleaner. Just follow the directions on the package and go to it. Use water to rinse the soap but DO NOT let it sit on the furniture and be sure to dry the piece when you are done. Don’t let it “air dry.” Be advised that Murphy’s Oil Soap and other organic cleaners such as Flaxsoap from Sherwin-Williams are just that – cleaners. They will remove dust, dirt and general grime and grunge but not years of abuse from oil based furniture polishes. This “greasy kid stuff” must be removed with a more powerful cleaner such as mineral spirits, also known as paint thinner.

Yes, paint thinner. The chemistry is totally different from the finish and mineral spirits will not hurt any solvent based finish such as lacquer, which is the finish on almost all factory finished furniture since 1900, provided that the finish is sound as described above. The exception to this is oil finished Scandinavian furniture, which requires a whole different maintenance routine.

If the finish is sound and if it is solvent based, clean with spirits and a soft cloth such as a T-shirt or diaper (cloth only) until the rag comes up clean. When you are done, the results should look like a total disaster. The piece should look dull, dirtier than when you started, and streaky. This is the residue of the spirits so don’t worry.  Buff it with a dry cloth after letting the spirits dry for 30 minutes. This should improve the appearance slightly but don’t overdo it.

Now that you have cleaned dirt and oil from the finish, it’s time to shine it up. Use a little Jubilee Kitchen Wax, the white cream, on a damp, clean cloth. Apply it as if you are waxing your car, except don’t work so hard and don’t let the wax dry. Follow immediately with a dry soft cloth and buff the Jubilee to a mellow sheen. Severe cases may require two coats of Jubilee and sometimes it doesn’t work at all but it’s worth the effort to find out. If it does provide a benefit, don’t overdo it! A piece should only be waxed once or twice a year and left alone after that. Dry dusting with a soft cloth adds to the “patina” of an older piece after years of loving care. Lots of good furniture is ruined every year by “overlove.”

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or e-mail

Visit Fred’s website at  His book How to be a Furniture Detective is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Send check or money order for $21.95 to the address above.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, Identification of Older & Antique Furniture ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques by Fred Taylor” ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address.

For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail