I LOVE the look of a beautiful wooden piece of furniture. My dad is a woodworker and he’s made some gorgeous pieces, including our beloved wooden cutting board. There’s something so rustic and real about wooden furniture—it feels like it has personality and history.
But not every wooden item in your house needs the same care. The laminate- or veneer-covered organizer from IKEA will require different treatment to clean and polish than the heirloom grandfather clock in your living room. There are a few basic rules to follow for all wooden pieces when it comes to furniture care, and then there are some tips and tricks to help you know how to polish furniture that requires special attention.
Let’s break it down so you can keep every wooden furniture piece in your home looking polished and new!
The Importance of Dusting
I keep my house as tidy as I can, but dusting often gets moved to the bottom of my list, especially those areas we don’t use every day, like bookshelves and display cases. However, one of the best ways to care for your wooden furniture is to dust regularly. Dust can dull the surface, lead to scratches, and eventually give your furniture a cloudy, dirty appearance. Make regular dusting part of your routine as the easiest way to keep your wooden furniture looking new.
To dust furniture, you don’t need an array of specialized tools or products. In a pinch, a clean, soft cloth will work fine. Ideally, a chamois cloth (like the type you’d use for car care) is excellent for dusting. Dry-dust furniture regularly to keep it looking clean and fresh. For extra dirt and dust build-up, use a spritz of multipurpose cleaning spray, or simply good ol’ soap and warm water to moisten the cloth. When you’re cleaning older antique pieces with a damp cloth, test it in an inconspicuous corner first.
How often should you dust furniture? Well, ideally, dusting should be a weekly activity. It’s best to work from the top down, dusting the highest shelves and room areas first. Dust everything before you vacuum so you’re cleaning up all the fallen dust and keeping allergens at bay. If you have severe allergies in your household, never use a feather duster (which can make allergies worse by forcing the dust into the air rather than trapping it). Use a soft cloth and then follow up with the brush attachment on your vacuum.
Caring for Laminate Furniture
Of course, sometimes furniture needs a little more than dusting. Pieces like my daughter’s toy organizer get used frequently, and small, sticky hands can leave smudges and “goo.” If you have toddlers, their gear can get especially grimy since they put EVERYTHING in their mouths. I remember being particularly shocked to discover one of the dirtiest items in our home was my daughter’s teething toy!
To keep your furniture clean and germ-free, it needs regular cleaning. Pieces like the IKEA organizer I use for toys are typically made of laminate–basically manufactured pressboard or particleboard covered with a laminated or synthetic “wood look” material. Laminate furniture is usually lighter weight and more resistant to staining and scratching than solid wood. It’s also less porous so that it can stand up to occasional abuse like a spill or forgotten coaster.
With laminate furniture, dusting is an essential care method. You don’t need to worry about using special sprays made for wood since the surface isn’t porous. A multipurpose spray will do just fine. The synthetic material will fade in direct sun, and yes, it can sustain moisture damage, especially if you leave something like a plant resting on the surface for a long time.
Clean up spills and marks with soap and water and use that chamois cloth to dry. A multi-surface cleaning spray is a good idea for more stubborn stains but avoid ammonia-based sprays (like glass cleaner). Ammonia will dull the look of laminate.
Should your laminate furniture sustain damage, clean it up as best you can with soap and water. You may need to scrub with a brush and some elbow grease. If there’s a darker stain (like coffee or candle wax), you can use a bit of baking soda and water to make a paste. Test this method in an unnoticeable corner first to make sure you’re not harming the finish. Some people recommend bleach or nail polish remover for particularly bad stains but I would avoid harsh cleaning methods unless it’s a last-ditch effort to save the piece.
Unfortunately, scrapes and scratches are hard to fix. Once the laminate surface has been damaged, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to repair. You can try using furniture markers or even crayons to match the piece and fill in the damage as much as possible. Otherwise, consider covering the piece with decoupage, wallpaper, or a pretty table runner. Protect laminate surfaces by never setting down hot items without a pad or trivet and using a coaster for cold drinks or anything else that condensates.
How to Care for Veneer Furniture
Mid-Century Danish-design furniture often featured veneer. Like laminate, veneer consists of a coating over a lighter wood base. Unlike laminate, however, veneer is made of very thin wood. Veneer furniture pieces may be vintage or even collectible. If you have a veneer piece of furniture, you’ll want to use care to keep it well-preserved.
Many of the guidelines that apply to solid wood also apply to veneer. You can clean and polish the furniture with a soft dry or slightly damp cloth. Always wipe the furniture in the wood grain direction when you dust and remember that regular dusting will keep the piece looking great. Some manufacturers recommend using a quality furniture polish (not a typical wax-based spray) every few months, or at the very least, as part of your spring cleaning routine.
The major drawback of veneer furniture is that the veneer coating is glued onto the base. While most pieces are durable and well-made, the veneer can start to peel away and curl up at the edges over time. Water and moisture damage are especially hard on veneer furniture pieces. If you notice this happening on a beloved piece, you may want to seek professional restoration advice.
For minor issues, a Scotchbrite pad (like you use for dishes) can remove dirt and fingerprints. Use a very light touch when doing this. Some (brave) people use fine-grain sandpaper, but you may risk damaging the furniture if you choose to do this. Home remedies and DIY fixes include rubbing a walnut on light scratches, using a furniture crayon, or a little mineral oil to restore and polish the furniture.
How to Polish Furniture Made from Solid Wood
Solid wood furniture is often high-quality. If you own a beautiful solid wood piece of furniture, you’ll want to take care of it with regular dusting and occasional polish. After a few years of use, a gorgeous oak dining table or stunning sideboard can show wear and tear from use, especially where food and drink are involved.
When you notice it’s time to polish the furniture, don’t immediately reach for the furniture spray! First, start with soapy, warm water in small amounts. Again, you should always test an area of the piece before cleaning and polishing the entire surface. Soap and water cleaning is usually plenty of treatment for most wooden furniture. If soap and water don’t get the piece clean enough to your liking, you next need to figure out whether the wood finish is oil-based or wax-based. Oil should be applied to oil-based pieces, while wax-finishes should only be polished with wax.
For oil-based finishes (that usually appear shiny), the next step for cleaning wood involves mineral spirits. Mineral spirits are a very dilute form of paint thinner made from petroleum. You can find them at most home improvement stores, near turpentine and other paint materials. Keep in mind, there is a smell associated with spirits, and they are liquid chemical solvent. If you decide to clean the piece with mineral spirits, work in circular movements, and use a minimal amount to start. Mineral spirits can help to remove layers of dirt that build up over the years. For grimy wooden furniture, Murphy’s Oil Soap is also an option. Always test before you do the surface of a piece.
Once the piece is clean, you can use a small amount of mineral oil to shine it up. Some folks like vegetable oil, and others say never to use it because it can smell rancid. Personally, I know my dad has used vegetable oil on his wooden cutting boards for years, and they smell great. But if you’re concerned about it, mineral oil is a good choice. Use a soft cloth to apply the oil and buff it off.
For furniture with wax-based finishes (that will appear satiny), once the wooden piece is clean, use a high-quality clear paste furniture wax. Some people like to rough up the surface slightly with steel wool, which helps the wax adhere to the surface. Go ahead and apply the wax to the piece (using a very thin layer). After at least 24 hours, buff, and polish furniture with a soft cloth.
Treating Scratches in Hardwood
Sometimes polishing furniture isn’t enough. If your piece has some water rings, nicks, or scratches, you have a few options. The great thing about solid wood is that, in the worst-case scenario, you can sand down a scratch and refinish the piece completely! You can stain or paint the piece depending on your preferences and end up with a whole new look.
On the other hand, some people dread the thought of making a mistake and losing the original look of a pretty piece of solid wood furniture (or simply don’t want to go through the refinishing process). If this sounds like you, don’t worry! You can still fix damage to your furniture without getting out the sander.
Believe it or not, one of the most effective ways to remove water stains on furniture is with mayonnaise! Of course, you should test this method on your piece before you start spreading the Hellman’s. Use a tiny amount of mayo on a soft cloth and rub the watermark until it comes off.
For a chipped finish, a drop or two of clear nail polish can repair the damage. Let the polish dry, and then lightly sand with very fine sandpaper to bring back the shine. If the color is missing from the chip, use a matching marker to fill in the spot first.
For scratches, wax furniture sticks often do the trick. Although deep scratches may require wood filler and a more robust restoration, most minor scratches and surface damage can be repaired without too much work. Once you’ve fixed the scratch or damage to your wooden furniture, clean and polish it, following the guidelines above.
Remember, the best way to care for your wooden furniture is to dust it regularly, keep it clean, and always use a protective pad or coaster. Wood furniture is solid and durable. Many pieces last for decades, even centuries. With regular cleaning and occasional polishing, your furniture will look great for years to come!