How to Clean Wood Furniture to Make It Look New Again
Classic wood furniture never goes out of style and is often featured in farmhouse, vintage, and mid-century modern styles as family heirlooms and flea market finds. However, wood furniture can also be frustrating to clean. Over time, it tends to show grime or dirt that can’t be removed with a duster. And sometimes, even if you try to clean wood furniture, shiny streaks are left behind.
When it comes to wood furniture maintenance, there are a number of terms that get tossed around, such as dusting, cleaning, waxing, and polishing. To keep wood furniture looking its best, you’ll likely have to tackle all four of these cleaning tasks every now and then. While experts have varying opinions on wood furniture care, the technique you use will depend on the finish of the piece. You should always seek out specific care and cleaning guidelines when purchasing new or old furnishings. Keep reading to learn how to clean grime off wood furniture plus care tips to keep decades-old wood furniture pieces looking new.
How to Dust Wood Furniture
To keep wood furniture in its best shape, maintain frequent dusting. Dust can cause airborne deposits that eventually build up in a filmy layer and scratch the surface of wood furniture. Leaving dust on your furniture can also trigger allergies or be harmful to those with asthma. Most dust lives in fabric, so try to regularly vacuum carpets or upholstery as well.
To properly dust furniture, capture and remove dust as opposed to spreading it around the surface. To avoid scattering the dust into the air, where it’ll float until landing back on furniture surfaces, very lightly dampen a microfiber cloth before wiping down. Remove excess moisture with a dry terry towel.
Best Dusting Tools
When searching for a dusting tool for wood furniture, choose something that dust will cling to, rather than something that will pick it up only to spew it out into the air. Dry, soft cloths and feather dusters will effectively remove dust from wood furniture.
- Classic feather duster: An ostrich-feather duster ($11, Target) removes dust from easily damaged, delicate surfaces. In addition to wood furniture, feather dusters can be used on items such as silk lampshades, mirrors, picture frames, art, and fragile collectibles.
- Treated cloths: Lint-free treated non-scratching cloths ($6, Walmart) pick up and hold dirt. Use them in place of silicon sprays, which are not recommended for fine wood furniture.
- Lamb's-wool duster: These contain lanolin, which attracts dust and makes it cling to the cleaning tool. Lambs-wool dusters ($23, The Home Depot) are also effective for dusting carved or turned areas that cloths can't reach. A long handle makes them ideal for hard-to-reach areas, including high shelves, the top of tall furniture pieces, light fixtures, and ceiling fans.
- Lint-free cloths: Clean cotton T-shirts or reusable diapers are commonly used as dusters. Microfiber cloths ($20 for 3, Bed Bath & Beyond) are another lint-free dusting tool. Dampen them slightly to help trap dust.
How to Clean Wood Furniture
When cleaning wood furnishings, never use all-purpose cleaning sprays, such as the kind used on kitchen tables, unless your furniture has a plastic coating. You'll usually want to avoid cleaning wood with water as well. However, sticky spots may need to be treated with soap and water. To do this, dip a lint-free cloth in mild soap or detergent dissolved in water, wring the cloth nearly dry, and wipe the area. Rinse and immediately dry with a clean, soft cloth.
Oil polishes, cleaners, and furniture oils protect wood by making the surface more slippery. However, they do not offer a hard protective layer. Most commercial spray and liquid furniture polishes contain silicone oil, which can provide some protection. Keep in mind that products that contain a high percentage of oil will show fingerprints. If you have used wood sprays and polishes in the past or suspect that furniture has been polished with them, be aware that these residues can interfere with refinishing and may need professional attention.
Avoid polishing wood furniture with pure olive oil, which smears and attracts dust. Instead, try this homemade recipe for cleaning wood.
- To revive grimy wood furniture, mix equal parts olive oil, denatured alcohol, gum turpentine, and strained lemon juice.
- Apply with a soft cloth and buff with a clean cloth.
How to Apply Furniture Paste Wax
Typically during manufacture, varnish, polyurethane, or shellac is applied to wood to protect the surface. Applying wax or polish protects the manufacturer's finish and helps to reduce surface scratches. Wax provides a hard finish and long-lasting protection, doesn't smear, and is more durable than sprays or polishes. Use paste wax or liquid wax made specifically for furniture. Depending on use, paste wax finishes may last as long as two years. Liquid wax is easier to apply but leaves a thinner coating; it may need to be applied more frequently than paste wax.
Wax needs to be applied to furniture correctly, or it can cause streaks and a cloudy appearance. To properly apply furniture wax ($7, The Home Depot) to restore shine in your wood furnishings, remember to always apply wax in light coats, rubbing into the surface with the grain.
- Put a spoonful of wood furniture wax, about the size of a golf ball, in a square of 100% cotton fabric. Wrap the fabric around the wax ball and knead it until soft.
- Rub the wax-saturated fabric on the surface of the furniture, one small area at a time, until the surface dulls.
- Wipe off the excess wax with a clean, soft cotton cloth.
- Repeat waxing and wiping until the entire piece of wood furniture is waxed. If you notice a streak, keep wiping to remove excess wax.
- Polish wood furniture with a soft cloth or lamb's-wool pad attached to an electric drill or power buffer. If the wax smears, wipe with a soft cloth and continue buffing.
- For a deep shine, apply a second coat of wax in the same manner.
To maintain waxed furniture, dust with a lamb's-wool duster. Never use liquid or aerosol furniture polishes because they can dissolve the wax and leave a hazy film.
How to Clean Old Wood Furniture
If you have an older piece of fine wood furniture or a delicate family heirloom, you’ll likely want to treat it a little more carefully. This three-step cleaning and care routine is the best way to clean old wood furniture over time.
- Clean furniture approximately every year with a commercial cleaning product using #0000 steel wool ($4, Walmart). Work with the grain and follow product directions carefully.
- Restore as needed, especially from sun fading, using a commercial finish restoring product ($9, Walmart). Choose a shade closest to the wood stain you’re working with and apply with #0000 steel wool to a small section at a time. Work with the grain of the wood and use light to moderate pressure. Immediately wipe clean with a lint-free cloth or cheesecloth.
- Use an orange oil or wax-based conditioner ($9, The Home Depot) monthly to prevent drying and cracking.
How to Clean Mold Off Wood Furniture
If you spot a yucky patch of fungi, here’s how to clean mildew and how to clean mold from wood furniture. Begin by using a vacuum with a soft brush attachment to pick up loose spores. Then, wipe the area with a cloth dipped in mild soap or detergent dissolved in water and wrung nearly dry. Rinse and immediately dry with a clean, soft cloth. To protect the finish, apply furniture paste wax using the steps above.
How to Deep-Clean Wood Furniture
So you've found that perfect piece at a garage sale—now, how can you bring out its best? As a first step to removing layers of grime from old wood furniture, use an oil soap (Murphy Oil Soap Wood Cleaner, $4, Target) and water. Rinse and dry well. If the finish still seems dirty, clean lightly with #0000 steel wool dipped in a cleaning product. Some products with a milky appearance are formulated to dissolve both solvent-based and oil-based residues. Do not use mixtures containing boiled linseed oil, turpentine, or white vinegars. These can darken the wood and attract dust and lint. Instead, apply clear paste wax.
Wood Furniture Care Tips
Even the highest-quality wood furnishings can be susceptible to odors and kinks. Luckily, there are a few easy ways to care for your wood furniture.
- If a vintage piece has a lingering smell, air it outside on a warm, dry day. Shade from direct sunlight.
- Pour talcum powder or baking soda over the surface to absorb odors.
- Place a shallow pan of charcoal briquettes inside drawers.
- For drawers that stick, rub the upper edge with a white candle.
How to Polish Hardware
You’ll know it’s time to polish hardware when it begins to tarnish or become cloudy or discolored. If possible, remove hardware from the wood furniture piece and determine what kind of metal it is by testing a magnet against the hardware. If the magnet doesn’t stick, it’s solid brass. If it does, it’s most likely a brass plate with metal underneath. Clean with a metal or brass cleaner ($3, Walmart). Buff using a towel and reattach to furniture when completely dry.
How to Repair Surface Scratches on Wood Furniture
Scratching is almost inevitable with wood furniture. If the top of your piece is slightly scratched, apply paste wax or use a felt-tip touch-up pen ($6, The Home Depot). To treat deeper scratches that gouge into the wood, use wood filler ($4, Target) or a colored filler wax stick available at hardware and home improvement stores. Match as closely as possible to the color of your piece, applying in several thin layers rather than in one thick layer.