Cleaning Vintage & Antique Furniture

It is an excellent idea to thoroughly check out and clean a newly acquired piece of furniture when you bring it into your home for both for the longevity of the object and for having a clean item in your home.

I would suggest taking a conservation approach to the cleaning process which goes like this:
• Check for insecure parts, a loose top, evidence of insect powder (tiny bits of fine sawdust that tell you to have a wood-borer at work)
• Look for any labels or handwriting that may be on the bottom or back. If anything is found, photograph it.
• Record missing or broken elements.
• Tap veneer with a fingernail and listen for a hollow sound that peeling veneer makes. If you hear it, note the location.
• Examine with a good light to note any bulges or dents. If the piece has a painted surface, check for flaking or lifting paint.
• Make a checklist of your new piece. I am providing a sample checklist at the end of this blog.
An accumulation of dust not only builds up an abrasive residue on furniture but it can attract and hold moisture which can damage the finish. Dusting finished surfaces once weekly is a good practice. Sometimes it becomes necessary to clean items that have accumulated more than the average amount of household dust.

Surface Cleaning
The first step in cleaning a piece of dirty furniture should be to go over it thoroughly but carefully with a vacuum cleaner. Before vacuuming, however, you should scrutinize the piece to be sure that there are no loose screws, drawer pulls, veneer, or moldings that could be pulled off by the vacuum. To protect against losing elements that are important to the piece, you should make a screening device for the vacuum hose to keep any small items from being sucked into the machine. This can be made from a portion of a patio screen or a nylon stocking.

For more substantial cleaning, always begin with the mildest methods and materials to retain the patina the finish may have. Never remove anything that shows evidence of the object’s functional use. For example, cupboard doors often show dark stains along the opening and closing edges from fingers touching this area.

Cleaning Materials
• Use a cleaning detergent mixed with distilled water at room temperature

• Mineral spirits, benzene, and turpentine. Always test first and use a cloth or piece of cotton or No. 4/0 (0000) steel wool. When using steel wool never use more than (0000). Anything else is too coarse for a furniture finish.

Before using any cleaning material, first test the cleaning material with a q-tip dipped into the material and touch the surface in an inconspicuous location. Gently rub the dampened applicator over a small test area. The applicator should pick up surface grime without softening or whiten the finish. If a white discoloration appears, this indicates that moisture is penetrating the finish.

If all goes well and there are no problems found, fill a bucket with distilled water and about a teaspoon full of detergent. Dampen a sponge with water and place it into a towel and wring it out almost dry (do not use a wet sponge). With the sponge and a dry cloth, wipe clean small areas at a time and do not rub too hard. Then dry the area with the dry towel. After the initial cleaning and drying, go over the object again with clean water to remove any detergent residue. Never scrub too hard when cleaning with solvents, dry the surface with a cloth and the piece should be ready for waxing.

After your initial cleaning, you can use a paste furniture wax. Furniture needs waxing no more than once or twice a year, and it gives the furniture a bit of protection and luster. Never use aerosol furniture polishes on fine pieces of furniture. Just dust with a dry cloth about once a week to keep your furniture clean and beautiful.

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