Caring for Vintage Furniture

You may have noticed that a lot of furniture made today is constructed from cheap — er, “economical” — materials such as pressed composite wood, foil veneers, laminated surfaces, plastics, etc.  Almost every piece of furniture that Tom’s sells is made from real, solid wood, quality wood veneers and solid metals. These materials were made to last, however they do require a different kind of care than contemporary furniture.

Furniture that was made prior to 1980 often has accumulated grime, grunge from hand oils, buildup of furniture wax, and sometimes a layer of nicotine. Additionally there may be rings from where a drinking glass or vase was carelessly left, burns from cigarettes, tape residue, crayon marks, candle wax, and more. These are all normal signs of regular use over the years (what some lovingly refer to as “patina”), and most of these ills can be removed and your furniture rejuvenated with a few household cleaners.


Method 1) Murphy’s Oil Soap is a popular wood cleaner and easy to find at most supermarkets and hardware stores. It is available in a concentrate or a pre-mixed version. Murphy’s does a good job overall, however it can leave a film of old grime if there’s been a lot of buildup. Use method 2 or method 3 to remove any residual grime.

Method 2) An excellent cleaner for removing accumulations of grunge and grime is Waterless Hand Cleaner creme. It’s what mechanics and other tradesmen use to remove grease from their hands, and it will remove these greasy substances from your wood furniture as well. Plus, these cleaners contain lanolin and other emollients which can be beneficial to your wood furniture as well as your hands.

To use, simply wipe on with a clean cloth or paper towel, work it into the wood with a circular motion, then wipe off with a clean rag or paper towel. Sometimes it may take two or more applications to fully clean your wood furniture, depending on how much gunk is built up. Once done, buff with a microfiber towel. This method cleans down to the original finish!

If you want to try this method, be sure to buy/use only the “original creme formula” waterless hand cleaners. Do NOT use orange-based hand cleaners as they contain pumice and will scratch the finish on your furniture. The creme hand cleaners have the look and consistency of mayonnaise.

Method 3) Plastic Polish (Meguiar’s, Mother’s) may sound like a strange thing for cleaning wood, but if your furniture has a lacquer or varnish (shiny, smooth) finish, plastic polish will clean right down to the varnish and leave it clean and sparkling. Apply liberally to a rag and rub on as if you were polishing metal. In seconds the old grime rubs off. Buff with a clean, soft cloth.

Plastic polish is available at auto parts stores, hardware stores and some supermarkets. It is marketed for cleaning the haze off of auto headlight lenses.  It is also good for polishing bakelite and a variety of metals.

The concept of waxing furniture was created by floor wax manufacturers to sell more paste wax. Wax offers a certain amount of moisture protection to wood finishes, but in most cases, wax is not necessary and it creates a buildup over time that can actually make your furniture look dull and dingy. For this reason, many people prefer to use oils, like lemon oil or almond oil to keep their furniture looking good and prevent the wood from drying out. Furniture oils do need to be re-applied every couple of weeks, so they are higher maintenance than waxes. Ultimately, if you have cleaned your furniture down to the original finish that may be all you need to do. However, oils do help hide scratches and places where finish has peeled. Oils are best for oil-finished woods such as walnut or teak as they won’t impart a shine when applied to oil-finished woods.

We do not recommend the use of silicone-based polishes such as Pledge. Silicone is actually bad for wood. However, these cleaners are very good for polishing other things such as laminate finishes and lacquered brass.

Caning is made from the outer bark of the rattan palm, which is peeled off in strips, wetted and then woven. Our dry weather strips moisture from these fine strips of palm bark and causes it to become brittle. Regular oiling of caned furniture is essential here in Tucson.  It is also recommended that seat pads be used on caned chairs as they help prolong the life of the caning. CANED FURNITURE SHOULD NEVER BE USED OUTDOORS. Our harsh sun and UV rays will destroy caning. For professional caning repair, see our RESOURCES section.

Leather furniture needs periodic treatment in order to remain supple and crack-free. While this is true everywhere, it is especially true in Southern Arizona. To clean leather furniture, use a good saddle soap. To condition leather furniture, a leather conditioner such as Lexol is recommended. An application of conditioner should be done once a year.

Leather furniture should not be used outdoors. Sure, leather was suitable for outdoors when it was on the cow, but after it’s been turned into a chair, sofa or table top, leather is an indoor-only item.

Real suede should only be cleaned with a cleaner made for suede. Do not use regular leather cleaners on suede.

Mankind has been making wood furniture for 2 millennia, and yet we still put water glasses and vases on tables and other horizontal wood surfaces. Of course, COASTERS are a homeowner’s best friend, but even so, people still neglect to use them. (sigh).

There are many home remedies for the white rings left behind by sweaty glasses. The use of a fine abrasive, such as cigarette or fireplace ash, or a paste made from equal parts of baking soda and water, is one type of remedy. Along those same lines, mildly abrasive pastes also include non-gel toothpastes. Other people swear by rubbing an oily substance into the ring. These substances include mayonnaise, vaseline, or olive oil and vinegar. Some folks prefer to use heat from an iron or a blow dryer on “low” (put a soft cloth on top of the ring if using an iron).

There are also ready-made products available at hardware stores and supermarkets for removing white rings.

Dark marks are a different problem altogether. White rings are in the finish, whereas dark water stains have penetrated into the wood. Iron in the water reacts with tannin in the wood and the result is a dark brown or black rust stain. These require more care and patience to remove. If the stain is in a veneer it may be deep enough that the stained area will need to be removed and a veneer patch cut in. Oxalic acid is the usual cure for dark water marks. One common household product that contains oxalic acid is Barkeeper’s Friend cleanser. Mixed up with water into a paste and applied to the stain, it will slowly bleach out the stain. It may take a number of applications to achieve presentable results. Let the paste dry between applications. If the stain is underneath a varnish the varnish will probably need to be removed in order for the oxalic acid to work.

The best way of handling water marks on wood is to prevent them from the start. Invest in coasters and have plenty around in conspicuous places. If water marks are a continual problem in your home, you might consider getting glass cut to fit the tops of tables and dressers.

It is not uncommon to find furniture from the 1970’s or earlier that is marred by burn marks. In the Mad Men days, nearly half of the American population smoked cigarettes, and they left behind evidence on their wood furniture in the form of burns. As with water rings, some burn marks are only in the finish and others are actually burnt into the wood. Some of the remedies for removing water rings will work on surface burns, but removing a deep burn involves more than bleaching out the mark. A 1:2 mixture of toothpaste (non-gel) and baking soda and some fine steel wool can help remove the charred wood and the stain. Rub the paste carefully into the burn going in the direction of the grain and repeat as necessary until the burn is gone. Rub some beeswax or furniture polish into the burn scar to protect it. If the burn was deep, you may have to live with the depression left from the scar, or have a professional furniture refinisher fill and match the surrounding wood.

Sometimes people leave pieces of masking tape, duct tape and cellophane tape on furniture after moving, wallpapering or painting. Left for a long period of time, the tape’s adhesive dries out and remains on the furniture long after the tape itself has been peeled off or has fallen off. Removing unsightly tape residue is relatively easy. Standard window cleaner such as Windex removes most dried-on tape residue. The easy method is to spray a cleaning rag with window cleaner and dab the tape residue until it is moist. Let the window cleaner penetrate for a minute, then, rub gently with the rag (with the grain if on wood). Repeat as needed until the adhesive is removed. Towel dry.

If the adhesive is sticky, a cleaner like GooGone works better to remove the gooey stuff. Plus it has a pleasant orange fragrance, being made from citrus oils. GooGone can also remove crayon and candle wax from wood, vinyl and glass. It is not meant to be used on fabric or leather surfaces.