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How to Clean Antique Wood Furniture Like a Pro

Reviewed by Antiques Collector Kate Miller-Wilson
Smiling Woman Cleaning Antique Wooden Cabinet

Any collector needs to know how to clean antique wood furniture to prevent costly mistakes. When you know the best ways to clean your antique wood furniture, you can avoid irreparable damage and decreasing the value of your investments.

How to Clean Antique Wood Furniture

Before you jump into cleaning your antique wood furniture, you need to know the type of finish. You can quickly determine the wood finish with a quick test. Choose a spot on one side of the furniture, preferably along the bottom that is closest to the wall or elsewhere so it won't be easily noticeable.

Supplies Needed

  • Denatured alcohol (methylated spirits or wood spirit).
  • 100% cotton swab

Instructions

  1. Take the cotton swap and dip it into denatured alcohol.
  2. Rub the swab on the selected spot.
  3. The finish will either dissolve or remain the same.

What the Results of Test Means

If the wood finish dissolves under the alcohol, then it is most likely a shellac finish. This means it will be difficult to clean beyond a typical cleaning. In most instances, the furniture needs to be refinished in order to restore its beauty. However, if the finish remains unharmed, then the finish is one of the other types of finishes, such as lacquer, polyurethane, varnish, or oil.

Best Way to Clean Antique Wood Furniture

You can use oil soap and a little warm water to remove dirt and grim. You will need to use two 100% cotton cloths or rags. One cloth is for cleaning, and the other is for drying. For larger pieces of furniture, you may need several cloths or rags.

Supplies Needed

  • Oil soap (Murphy or other product)
  • Two cotton cloths/rags
  • Small bowl
  • Measuring cup
  • Fork (to mix water and oil soap)
  • Rubber gloves (optional)

Instructions

  1. Don a pair of rubber gloves.
  2. Pour one ounce of oil soap into six ounces of water.
  3. Mix with a fork.
  4. Gently press a dry, soft cloth into bowl.
  5. Lift the cloth and wring excess water/soap mixture from it.
  6. Move the soapy cloth in small circular motions along the grain of the wood.
  7. Work along the wood grain, down the length of the furniture.
  8. Once you've worked the wood surface, use the dry cloth to wipe away any moisture.
  9. Gently rub the wood in small circular motions, making sure you get all the moisture out.
  10. Once you've gone over the furniture, if the wood is damp, use a fresh, dry cloth to remove any remaining moisture.

Optional Wax Application

You can either leave your furniture in its newly cleaned status or apply furniture wax to give it a layer of protection. Once you've waxed the furniture piece, you'll need a soft cloth to buff it by moving along the wood grain in small circular motions.

Craftsman applying wax finish to furniture

How to Clean Mildew on Antique Wood Furniture

Anytime you work with particulates that can get into your airways, lungs, and eyes, you need to wear protective gear such as goggles and an air mask. This is true when you need to clean mildew off antique wood furniture. Some mildew can be tackled with dish soap and warm water. More stubborn mildew may need a mildew killer like distilled white vinegar.

Supplies Needed

  • Distilled white vinegar
  • Air mask
  • Goggles
  • Rubber gloves
  • 3-4 Soft cotton cloths
  • Linseed oil, olive or vegetable oil
  • Small bowl
  • Whisk or fork

Instructions

  1. Clean the furniture with a soft cloth to remove superficial dust and debris.
  2. Mix oil and vinegar in a 1:1 ratio in the bowl using a whisk or fork.
  3. Dip a small area of the cloth into the mixture and work it into the wood along the wood grain in small circular motions.
  4. Wipe away the loosened mildew and residue with a clean dry cloth.
White Vinegar In Jar On Table

Mineral Spirits to Clean Antiques

You can use mineral spirits to clean some wood antiques. Use the mineral spirits sparingly since it can damage some finishes. It's always best to spot test before tackling any antique cleaning.

Supplies Needed

  • Soft, 100% cotton cloth
  • Mineral spirits

Instructions

  1. Dab a little mineral spirits on a clean cloth.
  2. Work quickly before the mineral spirits evaporate.
  3. Move the cloth in small circular motions along the grain of the wood.

Do Not Wash Furniture

A common mistake when cleaning furniture is the introduction of water and soap. Water can easily get into the wood grain or between wood veneers and cause all types of problems, such as swelling, buckling, and separation of the wood. Avoid using products that require diluting with a lot of water or any high-liquid cleaning solution to preserve the quality of your antiques.

Learn Best Ways to Clean Antique Wood Furniture

Learning how to clean antique wood furniture is easy. You can clean your antique wood furniture like a pro once you understand what to do, and more importantly, what not to do.

How to Clean Antique Wood Furniture Like a Pro