One of the most often asked question is “what should I use to clean my furniture?” The answer is can be complicated, since it can depend on what you are cleaning off, how the piece of furniture is finished, and what condition the finish is in now.
Some kinds of furniture are left unfinished, like teak, to develop a gray color. However, most furniture is given a durable finish to improve its appearance and provide a level of protection for the wood and can be safely cleaned.
Cleaning supplies that you purchase at a store are generally all-in-one products that combine solvents, water, detergents to remove a wide range of things you might find on a piece of furniture, beyond just dust, like food and drink spills, and scuff marks. They also often contain something to saturate small scratches and wear on the surface of the finish and make the finish look wet. This is often a mineral oil or a silicone-containing oil—and the source of the fallacy that you need to “feed your finish”.
While these may be safe for modern furniture with durable lacquer finishes that are not crazed or worn, they are not good to apply to antiques. When a product like Pledge is applied to an antique, it doesn’t just fill in the surface scratches, it bleeds into the small cracks and actually into the wood underneath the finish. The result is a spider-web of dark lines on your antique where the wood itself has been contaminated with a liquid that actually decreases the adhesion of the existing finish to the wood.
We recommend a much simpler solution. You can clean your furniture routinely with a soft cloth barely dampened with water. For removing more, you can add a very small amount of a mild detergent, like Murphy’s oil soap. Candle drips can be removed safely from most finishes using a common solvent that you can purchase at the hardware store like naphtha, mineral spirits, or even lighter fluid.
To saturate a finish and protect it from water damage, we recommend applying paste wax instead of a liquid cleaner/rejuvenator. Wax is a more durable product and forms a better barrier to water, particularly on table tops where water rings form. While it takes a bit more effort to apply, it only needs to be renewed every few years, not weekly. And it doesn’t bleed into the cracks in an aged finish causing more problems down the road. Several brands can be purchased at your local hardware store. You want to choose one that contains both bee’s wax and carnauba wax, since it will be harder when it is dry.