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How to Clean Antique Wood Furniture

Cleaning your antique wood furniture properly is essential. It can mean a difference between causing irreparable damage that decreases its value or elevating it into something truly special. Cleaning it correctly can bring out and accentuate decorative wood embellishments or reveal a majestic wood grain beneath. If it’s a cherished family heirloom, taking care of it and treating it with respect is probably your number one concern. So how do you go about cleaning antique wood furniture?

Glad you asked! In this guide, Van Dyke’s Restorers breaks down exactly how to clean antique wood furniture, from the supplies you will need to step-by-step procedures. 

Ready to elevate your antique furniture into a showcase-worthy piece and make it the centerpiece of a room? Let’s get started.

Determine the Wood Finish First

The initial step to learning how to clean antique wood furniture is to determine the wood finish. Only when you know the wood finish can you begin the process of cleaning away dirt, grime and mildew that has accumulated over the years. 

Luckily, determining the wood finish is relatively easy to do and all it takes is a quick test. However, make sure to perform the test on an inconspicuous area of the furniture. This way, if something goes unexpectedly wrong — which it shouldn’t, but just in case — it will never be noticed. Some good areas to test on would be inside a drawer or along the bottom of a piece. You could also perform a test on the back where it rests against a wall. 

So, to start the process of cleaning your antique wood furniture piece, you will first need to gather some supplies to test and determine the wood finish.

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Wood Finish Testing Supplies

Denatured Alcohol: Choose denatured alcohol such as methylated spirits or a wood spirit. Denatured alcohol is basically ethanol with a few extra ingredients that make it a more aggressive substance. In other words, denatured alcohol is an excellent solvent for cleaning. However, it can be toxic. Be mindful when using this substance and test your antique furniture in a well-ventilated area. 

Protective Gloves: Since denatured alcohol is toxic and can be absorbed through the skin, you should avoid touching the solvent directly. Protect your hands with a pair of gloves and wash your hands thoroughly directly after using them. 

Cotton Swabs: Grab a cotton swab or two from your bathroom. However, make sure the cotton swab is made of 100 percent cotton. Why does this matter? It prevents other agents and artificial fibers from sticking to the wood. 

Wood Finish Testing Instructions

With your gathered supplies, it’s time to test the wood finish of your antique furniture. Here are the basic steps:

Step One: Wearing the gloves, pour a minimal amount of denatured alcohol into a metal bowl or disposable cup. It only takes an ounce at most. Now, dip the cotton swab into the denatured alcohol, letting the fibers soak in the liquid a bit.

Step Two: Rub the cotton swab over a small area of the antique furniture piece. Remember to choose an area that is rarely seen, such as the back or bottom.  

Step Three: Notice how the wood reacts to the denatured alcohol. Does the wood finish dissolve or does it remain the same and unchanged? What happens here can reveal a lot about your next cleaning steps. 

wooden drawers

What Do the Test Results Indicate?

Dissolve or not dissolve: what does it mean? Let’s break it down. 

When the Finish Dissolves: Basically, this means that the wood has a shellac finish. The bad news is that it typically means that your antique wood furniture piece will be more challenging to clean. It will need much more than a deep clean. It will require a complete refinishing. 

When the Finish Stays the Same: If the finish stays the same after dabbing it with the denatured alcohol — good news! When the finish does not dissolve and remains unharmed, it indicates that it is either a lacquer, polyurethane, varnish or oil finish. This means you can most likely clean your antique wood furniture piece yourself. 

Okay, so did the finish remain the same? Then read on for how to clean antique wood furniture. 

How to Clean Antique Wood Furniture: Step by Step

Now that you know your antique wood furniture is entirely cleanable, here is a list of supplies you will need, along with a step-by-step breakdown. However, if your furniture has areas with more mildew, separate cleaning instructions are listed below specifically for that. 

Ready to clean your antique wood furniture? Here’s what you need and how to go about it. To begin, be sure to remove any knobs and pulls that might be in your way. (Hint: If they are looking a little worse for the wear, feel free to replace those, too.)

Cleaning Supplies you will need

Cleaning Supplies

Oil Soap: Unlike a typical household soap, oil soap will both clean and moisturize the existing wood finish. Pick up a bottle of something reliable like Murphy's oil soap. 

Cotton Cloths: You will need at least two clean cotton cloths. However, while you will need at least one for cleaning and one for drying, it’s wise to grab yourself a few extra for both if the furniture piece is quite large. 

Small Mixing Bowl: For containing your solution as you clean the piece.

Measuring Cup: To measure correctly and precisely.

Fork or Whisk: This is to mix the water and oil soap to create your cleaning solution.

Rubber Gloves: Wash and reuse the same gloves you used to test the finish. After cleaning the piece with oil soap, you’ll be glad you wore them.

woman restoring furniture

Cleaning the Antique Wood Furniture 

Step One: Create the cleaning solution. Put on the gloves while you handle the oil soap and for cleaning hereafter. Mix one ounce of oil soap with six ounces of water, stirring with a fork or whisking to create the solution.

Step Two: Place one of the cotton cloths into the solution, letting it soak. With the cloth or rag completely wet, wring out any excess liquid of the solution. You don’t want it oversaturated. You want just enough to clean off the grime and dirt. 

Step Three: Now you are ready to start cleaning. As you begin, keep in mind that you want to start at the top of the antique wood furniture piece and work your way down. As you do so, work along the wood grain, moving the soapy cloth in circular motions. If the cloth becomes too dirty, grab a new cloth and start fresh, repeating the soaking and wringing step. 

Step Four: When you finish cleaning the furniture piece, you want to ensure it is completely dry. So pick up a dry cloth or two and in the same fashion as step three, work your way from top to bottom, drying away any and all moisture. Use the same circular motions, too, working with the wood grain. 

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How to Clean Antique Wood Furniture with Mildew

Now that you understand the basic steps of cleaning antique wood furniture, let’s talk about mildew. Mildew can be particularly stubborn to remove from wood furniture, but it takes some extra-strength solutions when it comes to antique wood finishes.  

In addition, mildew can release particles as you clean, which can be harmful to your health, so you need to take some extra safety precautions. 

Mildew Cleaning Supplies

Mildew Cleaning Supplies

As mentioned, your cleaning solution for getting rid of mildew on antique wood furniture needs to be a bit stronger than oil soap. So how do you take it up a notch? Here’s what you’ll need:

Distilled White Vinegar: The last thing you want to do is use bleach cleaning products on your antique wood furniture’s lovely finish. So what’s the next best thing? Distilled white vinegar. While not as strong as bleach, this vinegar offers an active ingredient called acetic acid, which is 80 percent effective at killing germs and substances like mildew. 

Air Mask: An air mask can protect your lungs and keep you from inhaling mildew particles. Get yourself something like an N-95 mask that can keep out 95 percent of all airborne particles. 

Goggles: Yes, mildew can reach more areas of your body than just your lungs. In fact, if mildew spores reach your eyes, you can contract health issues like eye inflammation caused by allergic conjunctivitis

Rubber Gloves: It’s not oil soap, but vinegar and linseed oil can still be harsh against your skin — not to mention you will be touching the mold itself.  

Linseed Oil, Olive oil or Vegetable Oil: Choose a more natural oil to replace the oil soap. 

Cotton Cloths: Similar to regular cleaning, you will need several cloths for soaking and drying. 

Small Bowl and Whisk/Fork: Grab a mixing bowl to contain your solution. 

Mildew Cleaning Instructions

With your mildew-zapping supplies collected, let’s get started on the step-by-step instructions. 

Step One: Clean the antique wood furniture with a soft cloth. It doesn’t have to be quite as extensive as a thorough cleaning. Just give it a quick wipe to remove the surface-level dust. 

Step Two: Make a one-to-one solution of your oil-of-choice and vinegar in the bowl. Whisk the solution with a fork or whisk, blending the two cleaning agents together thoroughly. 

Step Three: Take another cloth (not the one you used to wipe away dust) and dip a small section of it into the solution. Work the damp cloth into the wood grain, again using circular motions. Be sure to concentrate on those milder-ridden areas. 

Step Four: Now, with another clean, dry cloth, wipe away the loosened mildew and any remaining residue. 

By now, your antique wood furniture should be looking pretty spectacular. If you like, repeat the first cleaning process with the oil soap solution. 

Adding a Wax Coating

Last, but not least, you have one more option: adding a wax coating to your antique wood furniture finish. While this is a totally optional step, adding a coat of wax can further protect the piece. You have already put so much elbow grease into it, why not take it a little further?

If you would like to add a wax coating, follow these steps:

Step One: Apply the wax coating using a dedicated wax brush or cloth. Avoid using a cloth that releases lots of tiny fibers all over the place, as this will only adhere to the wax coating. 

Step Two: Apply thin coats of the wax, allowing each coat to absorb into the newly cleaned finish and harden. Be patient, as this step does take time — but it is well worth it in the end. Otherwise, a thick coat will take forever to harden and cure and will have a waxy feel to it for a long time. 

Step Three: Wipe away any excess wax and then allow it to dry roughly 30 to 45 minutes. Once it is dry, give it a buff — by hand or using an electric polisher — to reveal a subtle or highly polished shine (your choice). However, for the best results, buff it the following day. 

Now You Know How Clean Antique Wood Furniture

Now that you know how to clean antique wood furniture, what elegant piece will you start on? Perhaps there are older pieces that have been collecting dust in the attic or have been tucked away for preservation. Maybe it’s even a passed-down furniture piece from your great grandmother. Either way, instead of hiding it away for no one to see, bring it out and give it a good polish, cleaning it up to where it looks good as new. 

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This guide and step-by-step instructions should provide lots of info on how to clean antique wood furniture. Be sure to explore many more of our expert articles on furniture restoration. 

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