It’s fairly obvious when a favorite piece of wood furniture needs attention. Food stains and water marks blemish a handsome table; after years of faithful applications, spray-on polishes leave a dark, sticky film on sideboards and chairs.
Cleaning fine wood furniture can be downright dangerous to the furniture’s finish if the wrong methods are used. The key is to start with the gentlest cleansers, working up to stronger solutions as necessary, and to test on discreet areas, such as the inside of a table leg, before tackling large expanses.
First, try a simple cleanser: Dampen a cotton swab with water, add a drop of dish-washing liquid, and test. If the finish survives, make a solution of water and detergent, and wipe the entire piece. Don’t saturate the wood; keep the sponge barely damp, and rinse often. The results can be dramatic. you can also use mineral spirits, a clean cloth, and confident, circular strokes to remove decades of grime.
Wood that remains grubby-looking after the mineral-spirits treatment needs some degree of refinishing. Try rubbing denatured alcohol on a small, hidden area. If the finish does not dissolve, it’s oil, lacquer, polyurethane, or varnish, all of which require professional treatment. If it does dissolve, the finish is shellac. The top layers should be removed and replaced with more of the same, a task that may also call for a professional.
Once it’s been cleaned — by whatever method — wood must be protected. Use wood finishes with wax, applied swiftly and liberally with cheesecloth. Before waxing, lightly rub the wood with fine steel wool, which gently roughs up the surface so that the wax can go on evenly.
For most furniture, use beeswax. We recommend dusting wood furniture with a soft cloth, never a feather duster.