How to care for furniture and woodwork has to be the most confusing and misrepresented topic in all of woodworking and finishing. Claims from product manufacturers range from one absurdity to another: from replacing natural oils in wood to moisturizing the finish to causing wax build-up. The misunderstandings these claims cause lead many people to think that some products actually damage their furniture.
A discussion of these misunderstanding, or “myths,” follows at the end of this article.
With so many products on the market, and with so many confusing and even contradictory claims, how can you decide for yourself, or advise your family, friends and customers, intelligently about which product or brand to use?
I spent the entire decade of the 1990s trying to figure this out. I was building and refinishing furniture and clients often asked me which furniture polish they should use. None wanted to use paste wax because of the greater application difficulty, but woodworking magazines, on the other hand, were telling me that wax was exactly what should be used.
Furniture conservators went even further. They specified which wax to use: Renaissance Wax in the early part of the decade, changing to Butcher’s Wax later in the decade. And they were adamant against using any aerosol furniture polish—which I couldn’t understand because an aerosol is nothing more than a delivery device.
I hated feeling insecure with an answer. Usually, I just said to continue using whatever they were using.
Finally, I figured it out, and as with many confusing topics, the answer is quite simple and logical. Caring for furniture involves first: protecting it from bright UV light and physical abuse, and second: making sense of all the polishes and waxes.
Light and abuse
Bright light, especially sunlight, is the natural element most destructive to paints and finishes. Consider how much faster paint deteriorates on the south side of a house than on the north side. Or how much faster the paint on a car dulls when it’s parked daily in the sun rather than under cover. Even indoor light eventually takes its toll on a finish, especially fluorescent light.
So the first instruction for achieving the longest life for the finish is to keep the furniture away from bright light, especially sunlight.
All finishes can be physically damaged by coarse objects, heat, water, solvents, acids and alkalis. Some finishes, such as polyurethane and catalyzed finishes, are more resistant than others, but they still can be damaged.
So the second instruction for preserving a finish is to discipline children and pets, and use tablecloths, place mats and coasters.
Some minimal resistance to scratches can also be obtained from a furniture polish or paste wax, which makes the surface a little slicker.
Furniture polish and paste wax
Besides adding a little scratch resistance, furniture polishes and paste waxes do five things more or less well:
- Add shine to dull surfaces;
- Conceal light scratches;
- Help pick up dust;
- Provide some degree of cleaning; and
- Add a pleasant scent to a room.
To better understand how this works, consider the four common ingredients that make up furniture care products: petroleum-distillate solvents, water, silicone and wax.
Petroleum-distillate solvent is the primary ingredient in most furniture polishes and is often referred to as “oil.” Actually, it is a form of mineral spirits (that is, paint thinner) with a slower evaporation rate, and would more accurately be described as an oily solvent.
This liquid adds shine and scratch resistance only until it evaporates, which usually happens within a few hours. It also helps pick up dust and it removes grease and wax, but it has no cleaning effect on water-soluble dirt.
Water is added to many furniture polishes because it’s a great cleaner for most types of dirt. (Water is an even better cleaner, of course, when combined with a mild soap such as dishwater detergent, but this degree of cleaning is rarely needed.)
When water is combined with petroleum-distillate solvent to make an “emulsion polish,” the polish appears milky-white when first applied. This is how you can identify an emulsion polish.
Silicone is a very slick synthetic oil that produces the appearance of great depth in wood and remains on the surface for a week or longer. Despite claims insisting otherwise, silicone is totally inert and causes no damage to the finish or the wood.
But it does cause refinishing problems that require extra effort to overcome. As a result, many refinishers and conservators, acting in their own interests, not yours, discourage the use of silicone polishes.
Wax is a solid at room temperature and doesn’t evaporate from the furniture’s surface, so there’s no reason to apply it often. Wax is thus not effective for dusting, cleaning or adding scent. (Furniture polish removes wax, so use a water-dampened cloth or chamois for dusting.)
Sometimes wax is added to liquid polishes, and when it is, the polish is easy to identify by the wax settling in the container.
How to choose
Choosing a furniture-care product is easy because there are only four types: clear polishes, emulsion polishes, silicone polishes and wax. Within each type the only significant differences are scent, evaporation rate and sometimes, added coloring. Once you have decided on the type of furniture-care product you want, choose for these qualities.
You don’t have to use any of these products on your furniture or cabinets, of course. Simply dust with a damp cloth or chamois, as is commonly done everywhere else in the world, including in Europe and Japan.
Clear polishes are usually packaged in clear plastic containers and are based on petroleum distillates, though they sometimes contain related solvents such as citrus or turpentine.
Clear polishes clean grease and remove wax, but they don’t clean water-soluble dirt such as dried soft-drink spills or sticky fingerprints.
Choose a clear polish if you want an inexpensive, pleasant-smelling liquid to aid in dust removal.
Emulsion polishes are usually packaged in aerosol sprays and are a combination of water and petroleum distillates, which gives them a milky-white coloring when first applied. Their advantage over clear polishes is that they clean both grease and water-soluble dirt.
Choose an emulsion polish if you want a polish that aids in dusting and cleans well.
Silicone polishes have a small amount of silicone oil added to a petroleum-distillate (clear) or emulsion (milky-white) carrier. You can identify silicone polishes by the telltale marking they leave when you drag your finger over a surface, even after several days.
Choose a silicone polish if you want long lasting shine and scratch resistance along with a dusting and, sometimes, cleaning aid.
Wax is the most permanent furniture-care product and also the most difficult to apply because of the extra effort required to remove the excess. On deteriorated surfaces, wax has the advantage of not highlighting cracking and crazing as do liquid polishes.
Choose a wax polish if you want fairly permanent shine and scratch resistance on old, deteriorated finishes, or on newer finishes without using a silicone polish.
Caring for antique furniture
Unless recently refinished, the finish on antique furniture is typically dull and cracked. In addition, the joints holding the parts together may be loose and veneer may be lifting. Overall, the furniture is just more fragile than new furniture, and you should treat it as such.
All the methods mentioned previously for preserving finishes apply also to antique furniture, only more so. In other words, it’s more important to keep the furniture away from bright light, and it’s more important to protect the finish from scratches because it’s brittle and will damage easily. Paste wax does this best.
It’s also best to keep the relative humidity in your home as constant as possible, because wide swings cause further loosening of joints and lifting of veneer. Beyond this simple care, no further steps need to be taken—other than to enjoy the furniture.
Myths abound about furniture-care products. Maybe it’s because manufacturers really don’t have much to offer, so they make up good things about their products and bad, destructive things about their competition’s products.
When you understand what furniture-care products really do (and don’t do), these myths become quite funny, actually. Here are some of the most common.
Myth: Furniture polish replaces natural oils in the wood.
Fact: Common furniture woods never contained natural oils, and no wood “needs” oil. Even the few exotics, such as teak and rosewood, that do contain natural oil don’t need it replenished—especially not with the petroleum-based solvents contained in furniture polishes.
Myth: Furniture polish feeds or moisturizes wood.
Fact: To do this, the oily solvent in furniture polish would have to penetrate a finish whose primary purpose is to keep liquids, such as soft drinks, perspiration, water and “oily solvent” out of the wood. When furniture looks dull or dry, it’s not because there’s something wrong or missing in the wood: It’s simply because the finish has deteriorated. When the shine from the furniture polish you’ve applied disappears, it’s not because the polish has gone into the wood: It’s because the polish has evaporated.
Myth: Furniture polish moisturizes the finish, slowing the process of drying out and cracking.
Fact: Furniture polish has no effect on cured finishes, good or bad, except to add shine and scratch resistance. To have an actual effect would be disastrous, because “moisturizing” would cause the finish to soften and turn gummy. When a finish does soften, it’s usually because of extended contact with acidic body oils around knobs and pulls and on chair arms and backs.
Myth: Wax protects the finish against heat and water damage.
Fact: No wax provides any protection against heat because wax has a lower melting point than the finish itself. Wax is slick and causes water to bead up, but it doesn’t prevent water penetration because the wax layer is too thin.
Myth: Wax builds up, making the surface smeary.
Fact: Wax builds up only if you don’t remove all the excess after each application. Each time you apply a coat of wax, the solvents in it dissolve the existing wax, making one new mixture. If you remove the excess, you’re back to just the thin layer stuck to the surface.
For effective removal of the excess, rub with a clean cloth. To remove wax that has been allowed to build up, wipe the surface (hard if necessary) with mineral spritis, naphtha, turpentine or a clear furniture polish.
Myth: Wax stops up wood pores, preventing the wood from breathing.
Fact: Wood doesn’t breathe—at least, not air. Wood does shrink and swell as the moisture in it reaches equilibrium with the surrounding atmosphere—shrinking in dry winter months and swelling in humid summer months. The finish slows this exchange, but wax applied as a polish is too thin to have any effect on moisture exchange.