How to Clean Wood Furniture Like a Professional

Smoke can cling to furniture
Smoke can cling to furniture

The air in your home is full of pollutants, such as smoke from cigarettes, cigars, and pipes; grease from the kitchen; and dust. This grime can attach itself to furniture over a long periods of time. When you use furniture polish, the oils mix with these air pollutants and dead skin, and the result is a film that slowly covers the wood. This gradual process may not be noticeable at first, as you slowly forget the original color of the wood. On a chair stored in the basement or attic, the finish may be almost black by the time you get around to cleaning it. All that dirt will not only hide the wood and the finish, but also exacerbates cracks and other serious wood damage.

There are three basic ways to clean furniture:

  • Commercial wood cleaner
  • Dish detergent
  • Trisodium phosphate

The one you select depends on both your priorities, the nature of the dirt, and in part the furniture itself.

Cleaning With Commercial Wood Cleaners

You can find commercial wood cleaner in most hardware stores or home goods stores. Look for a product designed to remove old wax and dirt. Most of these products include either turpentine or mineral-spirit formulations. Mixtures that offer "conditioning" as well as cleaning properties usually contain an oil of some type, which is deposited on the wood as it is cleaned. Avoid these, since your goal is to clean down to the bare finish. Instead, select those designed specifically for wax and grime removal.

Step 1: Preparing the Product

  • Most mineral-spirit formulations work best in warm temperatures (70 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer), and when they themselves have been warmed up a bit. However, never heat any of these products over an open flame! Instead, place the cleaning bottle inside another container of warm water for 10 minutes.

Step 2: Applying the Product

  • Read the manufacturer's directions and follow them closely. Generally, you will be told to dip a soft, clean cloth (cheesecloth is excellent) in the cleaner, and to then wipe it over the surface of the furniture. Usually, the idea is to apply a coat of the cleaner and let it stand for 10 minutes or so to allow the chemicals to do their work. After the old wax or film has softened, you will wipe the wood again with a cloth dampened with more cleaner to remove the residue.

Step 3: Repeat

  • If the piece is very dirty, you may have to repeat the process several times. Some people like to rub and scrub the surface, but it usually isn't necessary. The mineral spirits will likely do their work if you let them sit for a while. Use an old toothbrush or small cotton swabs to get into corners and carvings.

Cleaning Wooden Furniture With Dish Detergent and Water

Plastic bottles of dishwashing liquid.
Plastic bottles of dishwashing liquid. | Source

You can clean old furniture with a mixture of warm water and dish soap. The detergent-and-water method is not the best, and I really don't recommend it if you have other options. But if you do it with care, it works. The mild detergents are the least likely to harm the wood's finish, while cutting grease and wax effectively. However, this procedure is best used on furniture that has been painted, enameled, or varnished; and will cause lacquer and shellac finishes to turn white as they absorb water.

Keep in mind that water is an enemy of wood. It can cause swelling, discoloration, and warping when applied to bare wood. It can soften some glues or cause veneers to separate from the base wood. For these reasons, don't soak the detergent-and-water solution generously over the wood. Instead, wipe with a cloth moistened in the mixture, and rub the wood with the cloth. The detergent needs time to soften the grease and wax, so leave the surface moist for awhile and then re-wipe. Finally, go over the piece with a cloth moistened in clear water to remove the detergent. Allow the piece to dry completely before attempting to apply any kind of finish or before sanding.

Cleaning Wood With Trisodium Phosphate (TSP)

Trisodium phosphate (TSP) is a heavy-duty cleaner, used by painters to clean mildew and accumulated dirt from exterior walls. It can be used on very dirty furniture, but I would recommend it only on painted, enameled, or varnished pieces; and not on veneers, shellac, or lacquer finishes. TSP is a "last resort" cleaner, used when a piece has been sitting in the garage for 10 years and is in really bad shape.

Step 1: Preparing the Mixture

  • Make a mixture of two tablespoons of TSP and one quart of warm water.

Step 2: Applying the Mixture

  • Because it is a powerful chemical, you must wear rubber gloves and safety goggles when using TSP. You don't want a chemical burn, and no matter how careful you may be, any liquid can splash or splatter.

Letting the Furniture Dry and Checking the Finish

Whatever cleaning method you decided to use, allow the furniture to dry for at least 24 hours before doing anything to it, including sanding. You'll only be able to see the full effect of the cleaning when the surface and the wood are totally dry.

The day after you clean the furniture piece, look at the finish and decide whether or not it needs to be repaired. If possible, you want to save the original finish, so look it over with this in mind. If the majority of the finished surface appears to be in good shape, but there are some damaged areas, consider just making finish repairs instead of stripping and refinishing.

If you have an incredible piece of furniture that requires no repair at all, simply apply a good furniture wax (preferably a paste type) with a cheesecloth pad, allow it to dry, and then buff it with the buffing pad in your electric drill. Or, you can apply a lemon oil polish.

Comments 1 comment

linda 2 years ago

I believe my dressers are shellac due to whitish color when tried w/dish soap to wash' also a little sticky, & dark color coming off or dirt on rag (when used a little pressure) they are pretty old & need to know how to just clean w/out having to refinish

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