Inherited an Edwardian desk that has you feeling more distressed than impressed? Notice that your prized Biedermeier bureau is feeling more beat-up than baronial these days? Chances are a cleaning of your antiques is in order. If you’ve cleaned antique furniture before, then you know the process quickly becomes old hat. But for rookies, the proposition of applying water to wood or superannuated fabric can seem daunting (if not straight-up madness). That said, your first foray needn’t be littered with first-time flubs. To help, we’ve created a series of step-by-step guides for cleaning antique furniture. From Empire tables to Queen Anne settees, here’s everything you need to know to bring your patinaed pieces back to the peak of perfection.

Blue office with burl wood desk, sculptural gold table lamp, white desk chair, and blue patterned bench
Design by Brockschmidt & Coleman, LLC / Photo by George Ross

Appraise Your Furniture’s Finish

Prior to cleaning your antique furniture, it’s worth executing a spot test to determine what kind of finish it’s had applied to its surface. Different finishes will react in different ways to water and cleaners, so it’s wise to test an inconspicuous area with alcohol first to see what you’re dealing with. 

What is a Wood Finish? 

As a defense against dirt and moisture, most wood furniture is treated with a finish. Occasionally, finishes are applied for aesthetic purposes to create a shiny appearance. Finishes can include shellac, lacquer, polyurethane, varnish, or oil finish. 

Synthetic finishes like polyurethane and varnish are generally favored today. Both are resilient and stand up to all of the cleaning methods outlined below. Shellac, however, a first-gen finish derived from the natural resin secreted by lac beetles (fun fact: shellac also coats concession classics like Junior Mints and Whoppers!), doesn’t fare as well when exposed to water, heat, and alcohol-based cleaners. It’s also easily scratched. Should your furniture piece be treated with shellac it will be very difficult to clean it without stripping it. Generally, dusting is the safest route. Should a deep clean be required, your best course will be stripping and refinishing the piece. 

How to Test Your Finish

  1. Apply a few drops of denatured alcohol to your furniture. Wait about twenty seconds and then dab at the spot with a cloth. If your piece is finished in shellac the spot will turn tacky. 
Antique wood sideboard with carved portraits and bar tray with floral wallpaper
Design by Brockschmidt & Coleman, LLC / Photo by Richard Leo Johnson

How to Clean Antique Wood Furniture

You don’t need to be a conservator to know that wood and water are normally at odds. Mildew and rot are common defilers of antique wood furniture. With that in mind, the technique below should be carried out with the lightest of hands. 

Step 1: Bust Out the Duster

Before throwing in the towel (duster?) on this step, consider this. Dust is abrasive and can leave microscopic scratches that cloud a wood furniture piece’s finish. Dust is also a magnet for moisture, which can slowly wear away a finish coat. In the case of metal antique furniture, it can invite rust. Which is all to say: don’t try to justify skipping a deep dusting! It’ll pay off down the road.

  1. First, break out a vacuum with a soft brush attachment. Honestly assess your brush attachment. If its bristles skew more stiff than soft and pliable, consider abandoning it for a soft cloth. Use the vacuum to suction up dust on hard-to-reach places, recesses, and relief carvings.

Step 2: Soap and Water Wipe-Down

If you have worked-in grime or sticky spots that won’t budge with dusting, kick things up with a soap and water scrub-down. Again, remember that you’re not washing a car. Wood doesn’t repel water; it absorbs it and excessive water absorption can cause the joints to swell and compromise glue. In extreme cases, water can also warp the wood.

  1. Mix one ounce of soap with about six ounces of water. Have a fleet of antiques to work through? Upgrade to 1/4 c. soap in 1 gallon of warm water. You can use a mild dish detergent for this, although many purists will guide you toward Murphy Oil Soap
  2. Dip a 100% cotton cloth into the soapy solution. Begin to clean your antique in a circular motion that follows the grain of the wood. Apply a bit of extra pressure to areas with visible grime or stickiness. 
  3. Once you’ve wiped down the entire piece, go back with a dry cloth (or one moistened with a bit of distilled water) and buff the piece to a shine. Again, use a circular motion. 
Mint dining room with wood dining table and white dining chairs and blue patterned textiles
Design by Meredith Ellis / Photo by Ryann Ford Photography

Step 3: Mineral Spirit Finisher 

Made of 100-percent petroleum distillates, mineral spirits are your next line of defense if you have oil-based stains like fingerprints still sticking around after your soap and water scrub-down. Worth noting is that mineral oils require ventilation. They yield an odor similar to camping lantern oil or kerosene. 

  1. Submerge a portion of a 100% cotton cloth in the mineral spirits, then wipe down the wood whose finish needs a refresh.
  2. Apply more mineral spirits to the cloth as needed and continue burnishing the wood until the cloth no longer picks up any residue.
  3. If spots persist, go for the steel wool. Add mineral spirits to a section of steel wool and gently buff the problem spots. Take care not to scuff the finish by applying too much pressure or using overly abrasive steel wool. To avoid blunders, go with grade #0000.

Step 4: Wax Job

You don’t need to be a preservation purist to wax your antique furniture. In addition to providing a barrier against dust and lending a showstopping shine, applying furniture wax is nearly foolproof. That said, avoid the temptation to short-cut it with spray polishes and stick to a basic beeswax. 

  1. A half an hour after cleaning your piece with mineral spirits (you want to allow time for the solvent to evaporate), apply a small amount of wax to a 100% cotton cloth. Begin to rub your antique in a circular motion until the surface looks slightly wet or glossy.
  2. Allow the wax to set for the length of time as indicated in the manufacturer’s instructions. 
  3. Once set, use a clean rag to remove the excess surface wax. Again, use circular motions to buff to a shine. The harder you buff the more the wax will melt, thereby making your furniture’s surface shinier. 
Traditional bedroom seating area with floral couch and matching drapes, pink accent chairs, and yellow armchair
Design by Brockschmidt & Coleman, LLC / Photo by Tria Giovan

How to Clean Antique Upholstered Furniture

The notion of running delicate, decades-old fabrics through the ringer can be butterfly-inducing, to say the least. Thankfully, cleaning antique upholstery is straight-froward and simple. Your biggest hang-up will likely be the time and patience involved.

Step 1: Vaccuum & Spot-Clean

  1. To begin, vacuum your upholstery with a soft bristle attachment. While it can seem like an easy-to-overlook step, it’s estimated that a simple vacuum can remove up to nearly 70% of dist and particles on furniture. 
  2. For spot-cleaning, create a mixture of one cup warm water, a quarter cup white vinegar, and a tablespoon of dish detergent. Spray or dab the mixture on the problem spots and work it into the fabric with a toothbrush. Blot up the mixture with a dry cloth and go over with a damp towel.

Step 2: DIY Dry Clean

Chances are if you’re not looking to remedy a rogue red wine stain, you’re vying for an all-over clean.  While more difficult to achieve, it can be done with the help of “dry” cleaners (i.e. steam cleaning and extraction foram cleaning).

Steam cleaning utilizes hot water which can cause antiquated fabric to shrink or weaken. For this reason, foam extraction is the safest best for first-time DIY-ers. That said if you’re attracted to the dirt-lifting capabilities of steam cleaning, or you don’t want to attempt either method yourself, it’s easy to hire a professional who can knock out the whole process for you, anxiety not included.

  1. Apply a specialty extraction foam cleaner to your fabric. If you’re looking for a trusted cleaner, most vacuum companies like Hoover and Bissell make a reputable version of foam cleaner. 
  2. Allow the foam to set for the amount of time outlined in your specific product’s instructions. Afterward, gently remove the cleaner with a dry or wet cloth.

Lead photo design by Sherry Shirah Design / Photo by Jacqueline Marque


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September 7, 2021

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