Classic timber furniture should be well-maintained and cleaned to ensure its good looks for years to come. But what should you do when you need to clean its finish to restore it to glory?
Identifying the finish
It's essential to identify the type of finish so you don't waste money on useless methods, or damage a perfectly good finish. There are three types of natural finishes: shellac, lacquer or varnish.
You can identify which is which with the following methods:
- Rub a little denatured alcohol (ethanol, found in paint departments) onto an inconspicuous finished area – if the finish dissolves, it's shellac. If it partially dissolves, it might be a combination of shellac and lacquer.
- If you think it's a combination of shellac and lacquer, test the area again with a mix of denatured alcohol and lacquer thinner – if it dissolves completely, you're correct.
- If the alcohol didn't affect the finish, rub a little lacquer thinner on another spot. If the area turns rough, and then smooth again, it's lacquer. If the finish crinkles and doesn't smoothen, it's varnish.
- If neither alcohol nor lacquer thinner affect the finish, it's varnish.
After you've identified the finish, whatever problem it may have can often be solved with the following restoration techniques.
Cleaning the finish
Over time, even well-cared for timber furniture will acquire a coating of grime. Whichever of the following cleaning procedures you use, make sure to buff the wood at the end with a soft cloth to remove extra product.
It can usually be removed with an oil-based commercial wood cleaner, available at most general stores. Apply the cleaner with a soft cloth and let it sit for an hour or two, then wipe it off with another cloth. Repeat until the wood is clean and lustrous. It may take four or five passes.
For stubborn grime try a mild solution of warm water and liquid detergent. Work quickly and with little water. Don't soak or pour the solution, as it might cause a white haze to appear on shellac or lacquer. When finished, rinse off the detergent with water and dry with a soft cloth.
If there's a haze on the finish, you may be able to remove it with No. 0000 steel wool (found in most department stores), but be gentle or you might scratch the furniture.
The last resort for stubborn grime
If detergent cleaning doesn't work, you should try a solvent. It's the last resort to consider because it may damage the finish if you're too heavy-handed. Mineral spirits or turpentine work on any finish, while denatured alcohol works on varnish or lacquer. Don't use alcohol on shellac or on shellac/lacquer mixtures.
You should work in a well-ventilated area or the alcohol fumes might make you dizzy. Apply the solvent with a rough cloth, like burlap. Then, wipe the wood with another cloth until it's clean. Finally, apply a commercial cleaner or conditioner, and clean the finish as usual.
Extra care with natural ingredients
Rubbing coconut oil on your furniture will rehydrate the timber can bring out its natural colour and get rid of the musty smell. You can also use one cup of olive oil mixed with half a cup of lemon juice will act as a gentle, natural furniture polish. Perfect for sensitive antiques.
Keeping your finish clean will ensure that your classic timber furniture looks beautiful as long as possible, no matter its age. For more tips and suggestions, talk to experts such as Furniture Design Australia.