Polishing Antique Furniture
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.
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
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.
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.
- Dust weekly with a soft, cotton cloth.
- Never use oils, silicones or other synthetic muck.
- Wax only when the dusting fails to restore the
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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
- 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.
- 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
- Clean off excess wax with a soft cloth or paper
- 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.
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!
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
- Buff it with a paper towel, and then wax polish
Note: All products mentioned here are available in
good hardware stores.
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.