13 common furniture-care questions, answered! From water stains to crayon marks (use mayonnaise - no really!), these are Asher's essential tips and tricks, including his very own "wood butter" recipe.
Accidents happen. Recently, my toddler left his sippy cup on the seat of one of our dining room chairs - a solid maple Hitchcock chair. Unfortunately, the sippy cup was upside-down at the time, and it left a puddle of watered-down juice that went unnoticed the whole of nap time. Not good. Fortunately, I knew who to call right away. Asher to the rescue!
If, like me, you have a growing collection of crayon-marked, sippy-cup stained, toy-truck scratched wood furniture in your home, fear not! At my request (ok, insistence...ok, begging), Asher has compiled his list of tips and tricks for wood care. Even if you don't have an adorable two-year old actively trying to destroy your household, your furnishings could likely benefit from some TLC. Read the whole article to become an expert, or scroll to the info you need STAT. Thanks, Asher - you're a life saver! And not to worry; no furniture was harmed in the making of this blog post.
A Few Notes Before Getting Started
- Always follow manufacturer care and cleaning guidelines. The tips and tricks in this article apply broadly, but the manufacturer may have recommendations for your specific furnishing. Make it a habit to ask for care and cleaning instructions when purchasing furnishings, and file them away to access later.
- Sophisticated printing and manufacturing techniques can replicate the look and/or feel of wood on plastics and Formicas. Take a close look at your furnishing. The tips and tricks provided here are for finished wood care only.
- There are many variables that can affect care including wood species, surface finish, and previously applied care products. Always test new care solutions on a non-visible area of your furniture first. This allows you to gauge the techniques appropriateness for your application and if it will meet your needs and expectations. Also, these techniques are meant for finished wood only and do not apply to bare wood except in the case of the Kitchen & Food Safe Woodwork below.
- Before cleaning furnishings, the first and most important step is evaluating the surface and making sure the surface finish is stable and not going to be damaged by the work you are planning to perform. Do not try to clean surfaces that are severely deteriorating. Cloth fibers can catch and tear away pieces of the finish, veneer, or loose parts. Damaged surfaces should be referred to a conservator.
1. Preventable Damage
Most furniture or finish damage are caused through careless handling, uncontrolled environments (such as light, relative humidity and temperature), insufficient packing for transportation, and poor maintenance. While all things experience wear and tear, the process can be slowed through proper care.
2. Humidity & Heat Exposure
Wood is affected by humidity, expanding and contracting as the moisture in the air changes. This movement in the wood can cause warping, cracking, and stress on the joinery. The expansion and contraction of the wood can also stress the surface finish causing the coating to crack or separate from the wood. For these reasons humidity stability is important to the longevity of your furnishings. Don’t place wood furniture near heating units or vents because the dry heat will cause the wood to dry and shrink, which can cause cracks. Use a humidifier in the drier months and a dehumidifier in the humid months to help your furnishings stay within 10% up or down of the average humidity in your region.
3. Light Exposure
I recommend keeping your furniture out of the sun as much as possible. The sun can cook your fine furnishings, causing the wood to shrink, which can cause cracks. Over time light can also discolor or bleach your furnishing. Generally speaking, light damage is cumulative and irreversible, so preventative care is crucial. When not using a space, it is easy to close blinds, window shades, and screens for protection from direct sunlight. Ultraviolet filter window film can also be used. Simple measures can go a long way to protecting your piece and reducing damage. Light damage should be referred to a conservator.
Furniture is prone to collecting dust, and care tips instruct you to first and foremost dust your furniture but rarely explain why this is so important. Dust left on your furnishings for long periods of time can migrate through some surface finishes or embed itself. This can change the sheen and overall cleanliness of your coating’s aesthetic. However, using a duster or dry rag tends to push the dust around which you want to avoid. Dust is not only bad for our lungs, allergies, and general health; when pushed around, dust leaves tiny scratches in finished surfaces, which over time alter the appearance of the surface causing it to lose its sheen, and appear dry. I use a lightly dampened soft cotton cloth to wipe up the dust (rather than pushing it around) then remove any moisture with a clean dry cloth. If the piece has been stored and gathered a coating of dust, use a vacuum first. When using a vacuum, put your hand around the vacuum nozzle so your hand is in contact with the surface finish and not the nozzle of the vacuum to prevent the nozzle from damaging the finish.
During manufacturing, oil, polyurethane, varnish, or shellac are most commonly applied to wood to protect the surface. Applying a hard paste wax over the finish ensures a long-lasting and durable protection from wear and tear. Liquid wax can also be used. It is far easier to apply, but provides a thinner layer of protection and may require reapplication more regularly than hard paste wax.
Wax can be messy so here are some tips. Apply a quarter worth of paste wax onto a cotton cloth and rub a thin layer onto the surface using circular motions. Wait the directed amount of time (usually 5 to 10 minutes). Then buff lightly with a clean soft cotton cloth to remove excess wax and revive the shine. If you prefer a satin sheen I recommend using a polishing brush rather than a cotton cloth. The bristles leave miniature brush strokes that refract the light differently than a cloth-buffed surface. Wax does not degrade or remove easily so waxing is needed infrequently and too much wax can build up and appear cloudy.
For liquid wax, also work with a quarter-sized amount on a cotton cloth, applying a thin coat in a circular motion, and removing excess with a clean, dry cloth. Liquid wax will not hold texture, so a brush does not work with liquid wax, only the cloth application.
I like to wear gloves when working with wax to prevent my hands from getting all waxy. Drying oils, such as linseed, tung, or walnut oil, should not be used as maintenance products. If applied improperly these can ruin your furniture.
6. Sticking Drawers
A pretty easy fix. Remove the drawer. Wherever wood rubs against wood clean these contact areas with a damp cloth then apply a thin coat of wax. Let the wax set, remove the excess, and buff. Pop the drawer back in place and enjoy the ease of use.
7. Dirt & Grime
Commercial cleaners are widely available, but make sure you get a cleaner that is appropriate for the type of finish on your wooden furnishings. Be mindful that commercial cleaners can contain chemicals that could be harmful to your finish and your health. Always read the labels and warnings to ensure the product will meet your specific needs.
In my experience, the best remedies are made with ingredients that you probably already have at home. Immediately cleanup spills to prevent staining. Mix a solution of soap and water, dampen a soft cotton cloth with the mixture, and lightly scrub. This should be done sparingly and always use a dry cloth to wipe up excess moisture to prevent water stains from forming.
For more stubborn dirt and grime mix equal parts lemon juice and olive oil. Dip a cloth in the mixture and use it to lightly scrub away stubborn grime. Your goal is always to remove the dirt without removing or damaging the finish underneath. The acid in the lemon juice helps break down the grime and leaves a pleasant smell while the olive oil helps carry away the grime on the cloth and rehydrate the wood finish. A small amount goes a long way – apply sparingly.
8. White Water Rings
Uh oh – didn’t use a coaster? White rings most commonly form when a coaster is not used and a wet glass meets the wooden surface. Using a soft cloth, apply a paste of equal amounts white toothpaste (non-gel toothpaste) and baking soda. Yes, that’s right, toothpaste and baking soda. This mixture creates a very mild abrasive. Rub the mixture over the stain until it’s gone. Then wipe away the slurry with a soft dry cotton cloth.
9. Removing Crayon
Sometimes creativity exceeds the coloring book and ends up all over the wooden furnishings. To remove crayon, apply mayonnaise to the affected area, let sit for 3 to 5 minutes then rub clean with a damp cloth and buff with a dry cloth.
There are a variety of remedies for scratches and minor chips but my favorite is the walnut trick. This trick can be used if the scratch reveals the raw wood and the wood is unstained. Warm a walnut in your hands to heat its oils. Break off a piece and rub it back and forth over the scratch. Don’t press down hard, you don’t want to cause damage, you just want friction from the rubbing to draw out the oils and deposit a protective layer of oil into the scratch. Wipe away walnut reside with a dry cotton cloth and enjoy!
You can also use a color matching felt-tip marker or wood toned filler crayon. Some people like to use an appropriately matching shoe polish though I find that method to be very messy for a simple fix.
An awesome find from a garage sale smelling a little funky? Baking soda to the rescue! Baking soda is known to absorb odors and you can find an open box of it in many people’s fridges for just this reason. In a location where you can make a mess, pour a generous amount of baking soda on all the wooden surfaces and spread with a cotton cloth. Let sit for 6-8 hours, then wipe up the powder with a cotton cloth and apply a coat of liquid oil-wax to revive the sheen of your wooden surface. For odors inside cabinets and drawers, place a pan or bowl of charcoal briquettes, close the furnishing with the charcoal inside, and let sit for 6-8 hours. If the piece still smells funky repeat these processes. And for good measure it doesn’t hurt to use the lemon and olive oil mixture above to give it a fresh smell.
12. Kitchen & Food-Safe Woodwork
Caring for wooden counter tops, cutting boards, butcher blocks, bowls, and utensils is pretty simple. Start by cleaning up stuck-on food and crumbs using soapy water. Never soak wood items because they can absorb the moisture, expand, and warp or crack. Waxing helps repel water, but make sure the wax is food safe. The hard paste wax referred to earlier is often not food safe. I like to make my own “wood butter” by combining 1 part beeswax and 3-4 parts food-grade mineral oil in a pot on low heat to melt them together. Pour the mixture into a jar or tin. Once it has cooled and firmed up, use a dry, clean cotton cloth to apply a thin coat of your wood butter to the wooden surface. Allow it to rest for 30 minutes, then remove any excess. Reapplication is dependent on how frequently you are using your wooden items. Cleaning these items after use removes a bit of wax each time. Some people reapply weekly, others monthly, or annually. I tend to lean towards the 1 to 1.5 month reapplication, though our wooden items could probably use a bit more attention than I’ve been giving them.
13. Cleaning & Protecting Hardware
If the metal is sealed with a clear coating like lacquer you can clean it with a simple solution of soap and water using a cotton cloth. For bare metals, use a quality metal polish. Be aware that polishes can remove the hardware’s patina. If your hardware has a patina that you want to maintain, lightly wipe away any residue with a soapy water solution. To protect patinas and/or bare metal surfaces, apply a thin coat of wax to create a barrier from the oxidizing effects of air and moisture. I highly recommend removing the hardware when your cleaning it; take it off the furnishing and document which piece goes where.
Many thanks, Asher. You're truly a genius! A weirdly all-knowing, wood-care obsessed genius. But a genius none the less.