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How to Clean Your Wood Furniture

Antique wooden furniture
Art_Maric/Shutterstock

Some wood furniture is easy to maintain, such as wiping down your kitchen table with a sponge. But how do you clean your grandma’s antique rocking chair? While you might avoid cleaning these precious items for fear of doing damage, cleaning them can help preserve them.

Some Basic Tips

Before we get into the detailed tips for specific types of furniture, it’s important to know a few basic tips about cleaning wood.

  • Avoid submerging or soaking wood furniture. Never clean a piece in a bathtub or with a garden hose.
  • Test how the wood reacts to mild cleaning solutions before proceeding to stronger ones.
  • Dust, scrub, and polish in the direction of the grain—this will preserve the unique patterns in the wood.
  • Clean in a well-ventilated area, especially when using stronger solutions.

And with those out of the way, here we go.

Cleaning Your Wood Furniture

woman cleaning wooden shelf with pink cloth
margostock/Shutterstock

First, let’s talk about how to get your wood furniture clean. We’ll start with tips on regular and deeper cleaning and then move on to some specific circumstances like dealing with water rings and layers of old polish.

Performing Gentle Regular Cleaning

It’s best to start with mild cleaning before moving on to a deeper cleaning that you might not need. Start by dusting the wood using a dry, clean, soft cloth. Microfiber material works since it picks up dirt and dust instead of pushing it around.

Next, use a mild solution of water and dish soap. Do a test patch with a damp cotton ball, preferably in a remote spot (such as the bottom of the chair). If the test leaves a mark, consider refinishing the item. Otherwise, proceed with the full cleaning.

Dip the cloth in the solution, wring it thoroughly, and gently scrub the furniture. Rinse the cleaning cloth after every few strokes (keep a bucket of warm water nearby). Never use a dripping wet cloth.

Immediately dry the furniture with another cloth. Again, microfiber will produce the best results, but an ordinary towel or washcloth will do.

Getting a Deeper Clean

If your furniture isn’t spotless after the first cleaning, consider using mineral spirits (purchased from a hardware or home supply store). Mineral spirits have been known to dissolve years of stubborn grime.

Alternatively, you can make a good homemade cleaning solution by combining equal parts of the following:

  • Olive oil
  • Denatured alcohol
  • Gum turpentine
  • Strained lemon juice (or bottled lemon juice)

Apply either of these mixtures to the furniture, wipe it clean with a damp cloth, and then dry it immediately. Never let any wet solution sit or seep into your furniture.

Dealing with Layers of Old Polish

If you have pieces of furniture that have been subjected to decades of polish, this special cleaning method is for you.

Steep two bags of black tea in boiling water for at least five minutes. Let the tea mixture cool (you can place it in the fridge to speed up this process). Submerge a soft cloth in the tea, wring thoroughly, and wash the wood with gentle motions. The tannic acid from the black tea breaks down those layers of polish, helping your furniture shine.

Rinse with a damp cloth, and then dry completely.

Battling Water Rings

No matter how many coasters you strategically place around your house, there’s always someone who sets a mug of coffee on your pristine wooden coffee table. Don’t worry, you can conquer those stains with these quick steps.

Rub non-gel toothpaste into the stain with a soft cloth. Continue rubbing until you see it start to disappear. Wipe clean with a damp cloth, and dry completely.

If the water ring persists, try a homemade solution of equal parts baking soda and toothpaste (start with one teaspoon of each). Once the stain disappears, wipe clean with a damp cloth, and then dry completely. Never leave your furniture wet.

Removing Ink Stains

Anyone who has children (or grandchildren!) knows that random stains appear everywhere. This can include ink stains, crayon markings, and paints that claimed to be water soluble.

Try a solution of 1 tablespoon of baking soda mixed with 1 teaspoon of water. Work this paste into the stain, continuing with a gentle scrubbing motion. Wipe with a damp cloth, then dry completely.

For persistent crayon stains, consider using a piece of steel wool. Rub very gently, always doing a test patch before proceeding with the entire piece of furniture.

Caring for Your Furniture

Hand waxing wood furniture with a cloth
Egeria/Shutterstock

Cleaning your wood furniture is just one step to keeping it looking beautiful. It also needs some additional care from time to time.

Use Polish Sparingly

Once you’ve finished your deep clean, consider finishing with wood polish. You can purchase a commercially prepared lemon oil or make your own by combining one cup of olive oil with one cup of white vinegar.

Dip a soft cloth into this mixture and gently rub it onto the furniture. Pat dry with a clean cloth.

If you use spray polish, use it sparingly—over time, it can dull the wood.

Protect Your Furniture with Wax

An alternative to polishing your furniture is using wax. Look for a product that’s specifically made for wood furniture and apply it with a piece of cheesecloth. The more you buff, the more your furniture will shine.

Wax adds a hard, protective layer, keeping damage at bay. It’s usually longer-lasting than traditional sprays or polishes.

Long Term Furniture Care

Now that you’ve completed your deep clean and maybe added in polish or wax, you’re wondering what happens next?

  • Dust your furniture at least once a week to keep dirt and grime from building up.
  • Consider doing a light clean every couple of months, perhaps with water and dish soap.
  • Save the deeper cleans for once or twice a year, depending on the frequency of use.
  • If you use wax or polish, apply it every time you deep clean.

Keeping your treasured wood furniture in tip-top shape is important. You never know if your coffee table will become your grandchildren’s future prized possession.

Jill Chafin Jill Chafin
Jill Chafin is a freelance writer, aerialist, dancer, food enthusiast, outdoor adventurer, and mama, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Read Full Bio »

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