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Polishing Antique Furniture


We recommend Fiske & Freeman's Black Wax Polish.

The aim of polishing is to build a deep patina that you can really see down into. Only wax will do this. A deep wax polish is very different from a surface gloss, and is the only appropriate finish for formal antique furniture.

This article contains some general information about care of antique furniture as well as tips and solutions to common problems. Click on any topic listed below, or scroll down to read the entire article.

Traditional Waxes

Wax not only looks good, but it protects against moisture and alcohol -- but not against heat. Never put a hot dish on a wax surface. Use coasters under glasses, and mats under flower vases.

Use a good paste wax -- Goddards, Keils or Antiquewax are all good, but there are many others on the market. In general we find English waxes are better than American -- this may be because the English have a much longer tradition of waxing furniture, or it may simply be because one of us was born there!

A liquid wax, such as Finish Feeder, is also useful.

Liquid wax is good for getting into carvings, and can give a good first coat on a new or dried surface, but we recommend finishing it with a paste wax.

If the color has bleached out a little, from exposure to light or the sun, use a dark brown wax. Don't expect instant results, the color will deepen slowly with repeated waxings.

A New Wax

Traditional wax polishes are based on beeswax and/or carnuba wax. They have been around for some 300 years and work very well. In the search for perfection, however, the conservation science department of the British Museum created a new wax in the 1950s. It is commercially available as Renaissance Micro-Crystalline Wax Polish.

It is a fossil-origin wax, and has become the standard polish in major museums and collections. It is easier to use than traditional waxes because it needs no drying time but can be buffed immediately, and it requires only light hand buffing. It gives a better shine, and provides a surface that is more impervious to moisture and to finger marks. It can be used on almost anything -- wood, metal, leather, photographs etc. It is more expensive, but the best usually is, and a little goes a long way! We recommend it.

General Maintenance

  • Dust weekly with a soft, cotton cloth.
  • Never use oils, silicones or other synthetic muck.
  • Wax only when the dusting fails to restore the shine.

Wax Polishing

  • Using a soft cotton pad, apply a thin coat of wax - just enough to smear the surface. Many professionals prefer a pad of 0000 steel wool to one of cloth
  • Leave it for 60 minutes.
  • Buff with a clean soft cotton cloth, or a lambs wool bonnet on your electric drill. The softer the buffing material, the higher the gloss.
  • Wax once or twice a year.

Remember:

  • Use a little wax -- and a lot of elbow grease.
  • When waxing or buffing, use the most comfortable motion - circular, along or across the grain, it doesn't matter which.

The two most common mistakes:

  • Using too much wax.
  • Not waiting long enough before buffing.

Tips and Problem-Solving

If the surface is new or completely dried out

Take a tip from the old English craftsmen:

Wax once a day for a week,
Once a week for a month,
Once a month for a year,
And once a year for life.

If the surface is really dry, a thin coat of Finish Feeder works well. Then apply paste wax.

If the surface has suffered a glossy refinish

Rub it lightly and patiently with 0000 steel wool to reduce the worst of the gloss. Denatured Alcohol on the wool can help. Work on a small area at a time, and wipe it with a paper towel as it dries. Any white residue in the grain can be cleaned with Finish Feeder.

Wax it once a day for a week...

Grime and grunge

Grunge may be good, but grime or dirt is not. Grunge is the accumulated dust and dirt of centuries on a piece that has never been polished after the finish applied by its maker. Grunge is very valuable, particularly on an American piece, and should never be cleaned. Grime is the accumulated dirt on a piece that has not been polished for a long time -- but should have been. On an English piece, it should always be cleaned off. On an American piece, grime may eventually come to resemble grunge, and you must use your judgment about cleaning it.

Consider:

1. "Grunge is Good" is the current opinion of contemporary experts and collectors -- it is not carved into stone, and may change.

2. Grunge is often called "original finish," but it is more accurately described as "untouched finish." The original finish would have looked like a polished one today.

3. Grunge is preferred on American pieces only. On English furniture the preferred finish is a deep, glowing patina resulting from two or more centuries of waxing.

To clean furniture without disturbing the old wax surface under the grime

  • Make a good pad of paper towels.
  • Moisten it with a little warm water, not too much.
  • Rub a little facial soap onto the pad (dish washing soap is too harsh). You can also use mineral spirits instead of soap and water.
  • Carefully wipe the furniture, checking the pad to see the dirt that has come off. Continue until no more dirt appears on the pad.
  • Dry the wood with a soft cloth or paper towel.
  • Wax the cleaned surface.

Polishing carved surfaces

  • The easy way is to use liquid wax. Alternatively, take a pure bristle paint brush, about 1 to 1-1/2 inches wide, and cut its bristles with scissors so that they are one inch long. Or use an old toothbrush (bristle, not nylon).
  • Cover the metal ring of the brush with tape to avoid any danger of scratching the wood.
  • Dip the brush into a good paste wax and work the wax into the carvings and crevices -- use only enough wax to cover all the surfaces.
  • Clean off excess wax with a soft cloth or paper towel.
  • Leave for an hour.
  • Buff with a clean shoe brush.

Note: Bristles get into carvings and crevices where a cloth pad cannot, but always use natural bristle, never synthetic.

Removing black or white stains or rings

These rings are usually caused by moisture, alcohol or oil penetrating a surface, such as French Polish, that has dried or cracked with age. Often they go no deeper than the polish.

If this is the case, and the stain has not penetrated the wood, rub it with a paste wax on 0000 steel wool. If this doesn't work, use Restor-A-Finish or a liquid metal polish on 0000 steel wool.

Rub lightly, but patiently, until the stain has gone, or has been greatly reduced.

Wax the whole surface once a day for a week.

If the stain has penetrated the wood, it will need bleaching and refinishing - a job best left to a professional. Or, better yet, live with the stain -- it's part of the history of the piece!

Disguising scratches

Quick fixes for light scratches:

  • Rub the scratched area with Tibet Almond Stick or Howard's Restor-A-Finish.
  • Color the scratch, or larger blemish, with a felt-tipped pen containing a stain of the appropriate wood color. Wipe off excess stain immediately. These pens will color bare wood (like an edge chip); Almond Stick and Restor-A-Finish will not.

A more professional, if time-consuming, method:

  • Take acrylic paint (burnt umber is a useful base color) and a very fine artist's paint brush.
  • Wet the brush, and mix a small amount of paint to a medium consistency.
  • Paint it into the scratch, and wait for it to dry -- about 15 minutes.
  • Take a hard wax stick, and rub the wax into the scratch.
  • Buff it with a paper towel, and then wax polish the area.

Note: All products mentioned here are available in good hardware stores.

Fairytales and Commercial Misinformation

1. "Lemon" oil is good because it "feeds" the wood. Wrong. Wood does not need oil, wood does not need "feeding." These commercial oils give a quick, easy shine, but because they are kerosene based, in the long term they will damage an old finish. The "lemon" is merely an artificial scent masking the stink of kerosene.

2. Silicone (sprayed or wiped on) is good. Wrong. Another quick fix that damages. If you use silicone, and you ever need to refinish your furniture, you will have problems: even after stripping, its residue will prevent the new finish from adhering properly. Leave silicone for starlets' bosoms, where it does a fine job (apparently).

3. Wax "build-up" is bad. Wrong. Wax build up is precisely what you want: it is the only way to develop a true patina. Wax "builds up" clear and deep if you don't use too much, and don't use it too often.