Cleaning antique furniture requires special consideration. For example, don’t just clean old wood furniture like you would a glass coffee table. Doing so could damage the antique and permanently reduce the item’s value. The idea is to keep the antique in as original condition as possible. You don’t want to remove the finish, stain the finish, or warp the wood while cleaning.
First, inspect the piece for obvious signs of damage. Make a note of cracks, wobbly parts, missing veneer, scratches, etc. Next, determine the type of wood. Finally, see if you can figure out the wood finish and whether or not there’s visible grime or hazing. The finish might be wax, poly, shellac, or the wood could be bare.
If you’re having trouble, check out these articles:
There are several methods to clean wood furniture, but figuring out the type of wood, the finish, and the extent of any damage will help you determine which cleaning method makes the most sense. If you are cleaning hardwood furniture with an uncompromised poly finish, you can be more aggressive with your cleaning.
Gentle Wood Furniture Cleaning
For us, we prefer the least abrasive and most gentle method for antique furniture. This method will work for all types of wood, regardless of the condition or finish. To learn how we clean off our wood antiques, check out the how-to instructions below.
- Move the furniture to a well-ventilated area, preferably outdoors. Wipe down the furniture with a dry, lint-free cloth to remove loose dust and debris.
- While wearing gloves, apply some mineral spirits to an absorbent cloth and test a small area to see if any finish is removed. If the cloth only shows surface grime, rub down the entire piece. In theory, mineral spirits are gentle enough to not remove shellac, poly, or stain from the wood. On the other hand, mineral spirits are effective at removing unwanted build-up. Keep in mind that if the wood topcoat is badly damaged, you may need to reapply a new layer after cleaning.
- After your initial wipe down, locate any area with a tough layer of grime, grease, or darkened spots. Apply mineral spirits to a section of steel wool and gently buff away surface grease and grime. This step will dissolve stubborn dirt, wax, oil, and polish that dulls the original finish. Be careful not to damage the finish with too much pressure or with steel wool that is too gritty. We recommended grade #0000 for this purpose.
- Give the piece a final wipe down with a dry, clean cloth and let any remaining solvent evaporate. Once the project is complete, dispose of rags and steel wool safely. Remember, mineral spirits are flammable.
Do not mix mineral spirits with water. For different cleaning methods, be sure to use water sparingly on antique wood furniture. Excessive water can get underneath the finish, cause the joints to swell, compromise glue, and in extreme cases, water can warp the wood. This cleaning method does not require water for this reason.
We hope this simple wood cleaning method works for you! Once the antique furniture is clean, you can decide if you want to revive or refinish the wood further. Just remember to consider the pros and cons of restoring wood furniture before you do. Good luck.