Because wood is a component in many antiques, learning its basic cleaning is beneficial to any antique owner.

The wrong way to clean wood

Unfortunately, commercial cleaning companies perpetuate misconceptions about wood needing oily substances for proper care. This is marketing hype. Not only are grocery store wood oils ineffective - unable to penetrate the surface finish on most wood objects - they’re detrimental. In a best-case scenario, these products bring temporary shine…along with a layer of dirt-catching, tough-to-remove gunk. In a worst-case scenario, their solvents irreversibly compromise fragile finishes. In fact, when applied to historic finishes requiring conservation, the destructive compounds in these products can turn salvageable antiques into total losses.

The right way to clean wood

Assess the piece’s stability and search for loose or lifting surface areas.

If stable and without damage, lightly dust with a soft-bristled brush (like a glider mop), soft cloth, or (if surface is in very good condition) forced air. Be careful not to drive loose dust into cracks, corners, or overall grain when dusting.

After dusting, softly clean with de-ionized or distilled water and mild soap. The best choices in soap are non-ionic detergents like Triton X-100 or Orvus Paste. Other options are Vulpex, or another gentle detergent such as Ivory Soap. Mix soap and water into a weak solution (at least 1:50).

Select a white cotton cloth; its paleness will reveal if you’re accidentally wiping off color or tone. Dip the cloth into the soap and water solution, ring it out completely, and blot it on another dry cloth to remove excess moisture. Before proceeding, test your mixture on a small, non-prominent surface area to check for adverse results.

Wipe from the middle of the surface outward to avoid catching cloth on the piece’s edges. Immediately wipe the surface dry with a clean cloth.

If you come upon stubborn grime and stains that aren’t helped by water and detergent alone, select a higher – yet still gentle – level of soap. Naphtha, mineral spirits, and The Sunny Side brand are all effective, benign solvents, as is a solution of 1-2% ammonia in water. Use these sparingly on problem areas only…and always test on a non-prominent area, first. Should you need a stronger cleaning solution, it’s time to contact a professional. Otherwise, you’ll risk losing the finish along with the dirt.

After the surface has dried, treat it with a protective barrier of wax. Wax is easy to apply, neutral to almost all surfaces, and removable without damaging finishes. Renaissance Wax is your best choice; a microcrystalline formula developed by the British Museum for safe use on wood, leather, stone, metal, and other materials. Renaissance Wax cleans, imparts a protective coating that can be buffed to high shine, and resists fingerprints. Regardless of your choice in wax brands, use in sparing amounts.

In the future, keep waxing to a minimum. Once or twice a year should be sufficient (no more than every few months). Before you wax the piece again, first try buffing with cloth; this alone may bring back shine. If still necessary, lightly and evenly rub wax on the piece with a soft cloth, let sit for a minimum 15-20 minutes, then buff with a second clean cloth.