Monday, June 10, 2013

Whistle While You Wax

QUESTION: I have quite a few old pieces of furniture, some of which are antiques. I’m never sure what to use to clean and polish them. Can you offer any advice?

ANSWER: You’re not alone. Many people don’t know what type of cleaners and polishers are appropriate for antiques and end up using the wrong thing.

Before you can figure out what type of cleaner and polisher to use on your furniture, you first have to know what sort of finish the maker used on it. The most common finishes found on antique furniture are waxes, oils, shellacs, and varnishes. Not only do these finishes bring out the beauty of the wood's grain and color, but they also protect the wood from moisture and heat changes that can cause shrinking, swelling, crazing, and cracking. Finishes seal the wood pores against dirt and grime, too.

But over the years, wooden furniture dries out and shrinks or expands or warps from too much moisture. Older antiques sat in rooms heated only by a fireplace. If they sat too close to the fire, they dried out—too far away from it, they tended to warp.

In order for a finish to protect the wood, you have to protect the finish. This can be done by cleaning and polishing the finish with either a wax or an oil.

Cleaning furniture is a simple process. Using a solution of Murphy’s Oil Soap or the spray version of it, apply some to a well-wrung-out old washcloth. Rub a small area of the piece at a time and immediately dry it with either paper towels or an old towel. If the piece is particularly grimy, you may have to wash it several times. Be sure not to get the wood too wet and dry each area immediately. After you finish cleaning, let the piece dry thoroughly for 24 hours. For a really bad piece, you can also use one of those green scrubby squares. But don’t rub too hard because you may rub off the finish.

Once your piece is dry, it’s time to apply a new protective coating. The preferred method of protection is a wax since they’re easy to apply and leave a brilliant shine. The best waxes to use are those in paste form. Stay away from Pledge or other so-called spray cleaners and waxes. They apply a film to the surface of furniture which attracts dust like a magnet. Instead, look for products that contain Carnuba wax, a natural substance from a palm tree native to Brazil that’s durable and produces a glossy shine when rubbed vigorously.

Another reliable polish is beeswax, which has been around for many years. A variety of paste and liquid polishes containing beeswax are available.

Minwax Paste Wax, made from petroleum products, is a third alternative. It produces a durable hard shine that lasts up to a year. The more coats you apply, the more waterproof the surface becomes.

Oils such as Tung and linseed have been used for centuries to preserve and polish furniture finishes. They're often mixed with absorption promoters, so they actually sink into the wood pores rather than remaining on top as waxes do. Oils leave a lustrous shine that's softer than a glossy wax shine, and they provide good protection against moisture. However, they do tend to darken the wood slightly over time.

Regardless of which cleaner/polisher you choose—wax, oil, or feeder—always use the same type on a particular piece of furniture. Finish surfaces that are accustomed to one type of cleaner/polisher won't accept another type. For example, an oil applied to a finish that was previously waxed will remain on the wood surface and won't soak in.

How often you need to clean and polish your antiques will depend on a number of variables, such as the type of heating and cooling system in your home, the geographical location, how you use your antiques, and the type of cleaner/polisher you're using.

Generally, you’ll need to apply a paste wax every month or so. To tell if your piece needs another layer of paste wax, buff the old finish with a soft cloth. If this polishing fails to restore shine and smoothness to the finish, it's time for a new coat of wax.

For more specific details on cleaning, check out my previous blog from August 15, 2011.

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