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Cleaning and Caring for Solid Hardwood Furniture

What's the best way to care for wood furniture? Ask a few different people, and you'll probably get a few different answers. But the experts agree on a few wood-care basics.

Review these guidelines from Charles Sutton, president of Sutton House Furniture, and a designer and consultant for fine furniture manufacturers.

With a little tender loving care, your beautiful hardwood furniture can last a lifetime and beyond.

"Care entails understanding the nature of wood as well as knowing how to prolong the life of the finish film that protects the wood,'' says Sutton.

He says changes in relative humidity are wood's No. 1 enemy.

Sutton suggests trying to keep your home's temperature to 70 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Relative humidity should be 50 percent to 55 percent. Specific levels, however, are not as important as avoiding radical swings in the temperature and the amount of moisture in the air.

Other tips from Sutton on dealing with expansion and contraction include:

1. If furniture is to be stored, it generally does better in an unheated environment because the relative humidity will fluctuate within a much narrower range. Air can hold more moisture at a high temperature than at a low one.

2. Wood can best handle temperature changes and relative humidity if they occur gradually. Abrupt changes (closing or opening a vacation home, for example) can stress your furniture.

3. When air conditioning your home, keep the intake of outside humid air to a minimum.

4. Add humidifiers or vaporizing units to a heating/air conditioning central system to help stabilize the humidity level.

5. Use dehumidifiers during wet, rainy times and in damp rooms to remove excess moisture from the air.

Your mother was right: DUST FREQUENTLY.

DO NOT USE A FEATHER DUSTER because it will simply move dust around, flinging it into the air. Feather dusters can't be washed, and a quill could scratch the wood surface if a feather breaks off. Dust is abrasive so infrequent or improper dusting can create a worn, dull surface over the years. Dust can accumulate in carvings, cracks and grooves and make wood look dark and unattractive. This dusty buildup eventually becomes hard to remove.

BE VERY CAREFUL USING WATER to clean wood. Wood should never get wet or soaked. Water can cause swelling, warping or staining when it penetrates a finish. Use coasters, pads, cloths or runners to protect against spills and water rings.

How to Dust

You think you know how to dust? Here are some detailed tips from the experts. Use a clean, washable cloth made of soft, lint-free cotton. The best choices include an old T- shirt, diaper, cheesecloth, dish towel, piece of flannel, or chamois. The cloth should have no snaps, buttons, zippers or thick seams that could scratch furniture surfaces. Do not use a cloth that has hanging threads or unraveling edges. These could catch on wood slivers, molding, knobs or other loose pieces.

Dry Dusting Versus Damp Dusting

Many experts believe that dusting with a dry cloth is abrasive and will ultimately dull the finish. A dry cloth will not really remove dust, they say.

These experts typically recommend sprinkling a few drops of water onto the dusting cloth. The trick is to moisten the cloth just enough to make dust adhere to it. The cloth should not be so damp that it wets the wood. If you can see any trace of water on the wood after you wipe, your cloth is too damp. Some conservators recommend using distilled water for heirlooms or antiques.

You might want to use a spray-on dusting aid or polish. If so, consider whether you want to apply silicone oil to your finishes. This type of oil is used in most commercial furniture sprays and polishes. To find out if your product contains silicone oil, consult the label or call the manufacturer.

Follow the Grain

Wipe off dust using gentle, oval motions along the grain of the wood. Turn or fold the cloth as soon as dirt is visible on any section. Keep a pile of clean cloths handy so you don't move dust and dirt from one spot to another. Lift, don't slide, lamps and objects to dust under and around them. Avoid soiling adjoining upholstery. Launder soiled dusting cloths immediately.

Carefully Choose Wood Care Products

It's no wonder there's a lot of confusion about what wood-care products to use. Store shelves are stacked with countless brands of wax, polish, spray and oil. Unless your furniture is sold as unfinished, or the finish has deteriorated, when you clean your furniture you're actually cleaning the finish, not the wood. Proper care can prolong the life of a finish, making the surface of furniture slippery so that objects slide along it without scratching. For new furniture, read manufacturers' tags and literature. Consider consulting a conservator for tips on caring for especially valuable antiques and heirlooms.

One common myth is that wood furniture is "alive." It does not "breathe," so don't worry about clogging up pores with wax. It does not need to be "nourished" or "fed'' with oily polishes. Changes in humidity, not a lack of oil, cause wood to crack.

PASTE WAX has been used for centuries as a finishing material and a furniture care product. If used properly, paste wax will provide a thick, hard, lasting finish. Liquid wax is similar, but typically provides a thinner coating. Waxes dry hard so they do not smear and attract dust and dirt. Paste wax typically lasts six months to a couple years, depending on how much the furniture is used and how many coats are applied. Paste wax will help delay the formation of water rings, giving you a little extra time to wipe up the moisture. Some people, especially antique lovers, prefer the soft sheen provided by waxes. Wax will not interfere with future refinishing.

Make sure you buy a wax designed especially for wood furniture. Waxes for cars, shoes or other finishes might harm furniture.

OILY CLEANERS and polishes will not provide a lasting, hard coat. Those containing silicone oil will create a nice shine and a slippery surface, but they can interfere with refinishing. This type of oil can seep through cracks in the finish into the wood. That can ruin the new finish later. Be aware that labels often fail to say whether products contain silicone oil. Follow the manufacturers' instructions when using spray or liquid polishes.

If you have waxed your furniture and want to switch to an oil-based polish or vice-versa, first clean the furniture with mineral spirits or a solvent-based wax remover. Do this in a spot with plenty of ventilation away from any heat source or sparks. First test the product you are using in an inconspicuous spot. When the piece is clean and dry, wax or polish. If you accidentally mix wax and oil, the finish will turn cloudy. In that case, wipe the finish off and clean it with mineral spirits or a solvent-based wax remover. Wax or polish when the finish is dry.

CLEAN BRASS HARDWARE with caution. If the brass hardware on your furniture has a protective lacquer coating, it probably will not tarnish and will only need to be dusted. If the brass is tarnishing and you want to polish it, either remove the brass or slide a piece of mylar plastic behind the hardware so that the brass cleaner does not touch the finish.

Watch the Humidity

Furniture ages more quickly if stored in a basement, attic, garage or warehouse. Place furniture away from all heat sources, if possible. If you must put furniture near an air duct, use a shield or guard plate to direct heat away.

Avoid placing furniture in front of radiators, heat runs or fireplaces. Store table leaves as close as possible to the table so they adjust to the same humidity conditions.

Avoid Direct Sunlight

The ultraviolet rays of the sun will damage a finish and bleach the wood underneath. Prolonged exposure to sunlight can cause the finish to crack, sometimes in a pattern resembling the skin of an alligator. Tablecloths and doilies slow down the process, but they don't stop it. Try to keep furniture out of direct sunlight. When that's not possible, reduce the amount of light streaming on any piece of furniture. Consider planting shrubs in front of windows to block direct sunlight. Use window shades, drapes or blinds to block light during the time of day the furniture is exposed. Consider using UV screening films or tinting windows and skylights.

Uniformly expose surfaces to light. Especially avoid letting the sun hit only part of a surface. Occasionally move lamps, doilies and other objects so the wood bleaches uniformly. Consider covering furniture with sheets or blankets if you leave your home for part of the year. Consider moving furniture around periodically so that the same piece does not absorb light all the time. Remember that some bleaching can be desirable. Antique collectors actually look for the rich, soft tones that slight fading can bring.

Avoid Chemical Exposure

Keep solvents such as nail polish remover, alcohol and paint thinner away from wood furniture because they can harm the finish. Alcohol is contained in colognes, perfumes and medications as well as in wine, beer and liquor. Fingerprints, perspiration and body oils can harm a finish over time, especially on chairs. Plants and flower nectar that touch the finish can also cause permanent stains.

Placing hot items on furniture can cause a chemical change in the finish that results in white rings or spots.

Keep Plastic Off Wood

Do not leave plastic objects lying on wood surfaces. Color from plastic tablecloths, appliance covers, wrappers, place mats and toys can leach into wood over time. Plastic can also stick to a finish, damaging it when it is pulled up.

Guard Against Scratches

Lift, don't slide, objects on wood. Place objects on trivets, tablecloths, doilies or others covers to protect the finish. Use felt bottoms on lamps and other decorative objects. Avoid brightly colored felt because its color could leach into the wood. Some experts say brown is the best color choice.

Carefully Move Furniture

Lift heavy furniture with the help of at least two people. Sliding pieces could hurt the wood floor and damage furniture legs by applying too much sideways pressure. If a drawer has two handles, use both to open it. Don't stuff drawers with too many items.

Sutton's book, "How to Care for Your Old and New Wood Furniture," is sold by The Furniture Library, a research center in High Point, N.C., at

Article reproduced with permission from Hardwood Manufacturers Association.

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