Caring For Your Fine Wood Furniture
Every antique, relic, or vestige of the past that exists today owes its survival to its custodians. Throughout the years (or throughout the ages, as the case may be), these caretakers exerted whatever effort was necessary to preserve and maintain them for their beauty, the joy of ownership, and ultimately, for posterity.
The oak desk you purchased new last year will one day be considered a desirable “vintage collectible”. As even more time passes, it will be revered as a Turn-of-the-21st Century antique. Its value in 75 to 100 years rests entirely on the care it has received up to that point.
Most of us, though, are concerned mainly with caring for and preserving our fine wood furniture in the present tense. And with just a little effort and awareness, it’s easy to do.
Your Table is Alive!
It is an often-overlooked fact that every piece of wood furniture is, in its own way, one-of-a-kind.
Your table (desk, chair, bench, etc) is like no other. Each tree has its own distinct grain patterns, as individual as a fingerprint. Each wave and blip of the grain tells the story of that individual tree’s journey through life. Every species has its own unique characteristics and special beauty, its own growing region, its own unique “experiences”.
Wood is alive. Your wood furniture continues to breathe and react to its environment. It is important to keep this in mind in order to care for it properly.
Did you know that half the weight of freshly sawn wood is water? Fine hardwood furniture is crafted from wood that is kiln-dried to retain about 6% moisture content. This allows the finished furniture to acclimate to the relative humidity of your home. Wood furniture reacts to climate and humidity levels much the same way as you do. Extremely dry air dries the wood and causes it to lose moisture, as it does with our skin. The result is shrinkage, which can be observed in dining tables, when their leaves suddenly don’t quite fit. Drawers may appear a bit small for their openings. In the opposite extreme, humid conditions can cause hardwood to absorb moisture, resulting in doors which are swollen and won’t close properly, or drawers which may stick. This will correct itself as your home’s relative humidity level returns to normal.
To best protect your wood furniture from possible damage due to climate and moisture fluctuations, use a humidifier in the winter, and an air conditioner in the summer. Aim to keep the relative humidity at about 30%. As a general rule, if you are comfortable in your surroundings, your furniture is probably fine, as well.
Avoid placing wood furniture directly in front of a heat source such as radiators, vents, or fireplaces. There are instances when this simply cannot be avoided; just be aware that heat is not kind to wood. Be judicious, and don’t place a priceless heirloom in a hot spot. The same goes for direct sunlight, which can, within weeks, virtually destroy a piece of beauty. Ultraviolet rays penetrate the molecular structure of the finish, and, ultimately, of the wood itself. We have all seen the “alligator skin” effect of sun damage on wood. Count window shades among your best friends. Keep them pulled down during the day when you are not at home, or during the hours of most severe sun exposure. All of your furnishings, wood, upholstery, and carpets will thank you for this by retaining their beauty over a longer period of time.
Store the leaves to your dining table in the vicinity of the table itself, so that they will be able to adjust to the same relative humidity as that of your table. Never store them in a damp basement, or hot, dry, attic.
Don’t Be Pushy With Your Furniture
Never drag or push your wood furniture across the floor or carpeting. This practice risks damage to your floor, and worse, is extremely damaging to your furniture. Even the sturdiest piece of furniture is carefully constructed with precision joins and glues. Pushing or pulling will certainly loosen and weaken its construction, resulting in “racking” – the term used when furniture begins to creak, wobble, and sway. This can be seen often in sofas, which have been pushed and pulled around carelessly. Always lift your furniture (with another person) to move it. Or purchase some of the new and wonderful Teflon furniture moving pads (available in housewares departments) to place under the piece; they will allow it to “glide” over the floor, making pushing or pulling unnecessary.
Maintaining the beauty of your fine wood furniture is simple.
First, read the manufacturer’s care instructions carefully and file them where you can find them for later reference. Furniture produced today can have a range of finishes, from oil to polyurethane. Ask, when you purchase, what kind of finish this item has. When you have older pieces refinished, discuss with the refinisher what will be used, and how it should be cared for.
Some of the newer finishes offer a lot of protection from damage. Never assume. Ask. Be sure that you obtain printed “Care Instructions”. The type of finish your piece has will determine the method of polishing needed.
You may have purchased an older piece, which came with no specific care instructions. If it seems heavily soiled or has spots which need to be cleaned, use a sponge moistened with water and a mild wood soap. The sponge should be on the dry side, never wet and drippy. Carefully wipe off soil, then repeat the process with a separate damp sponge which is free of soap, until the piece is “rinsed”. Dry immediately with a soft, dry, cotton cloth, and buff lightly, following the grain.
Older pieces can benefit from an occasional polishing and/or moisturizing. Use only polishes of the highest quality. Some supermarket aerosols contain silicone, which can soften the varnish and damage the surface over time. I have always felt confident using Guardsman’s products. Remember always to dust thoroughly before you polish. Dust and grit can scratch the surface, so you must remove it beforehand.
Repairing Nicks or Scratches
There are many “tricks of the trade” for filling in nicks and disguising scratches. Personally, I prefer felt-tip touch-up pens, which can, in some cases, be obtained from the furniture manufacturer/retailer, or from a good hardware store. If it is not possible to obtain the exact touch-up color, choose a tone as close to your wood as possible. Lighter is better than darker. Always be sure to test in an unobtrusive place on the underside of the furniture before undertaking the repair. Approach it artfully, with a light hand. Usually, just a light touch is all that is needed.
Some people use shoe polish that matches the lightest shade of the finish.
An old trick is to rub walnut meat in the direction of the scratch.
Wood furniture featuring veneers can pose a more difficult challenge when it comes to nicks and scratches. Due to the extreme thin-ness of the veneers themselves, damages cannot always be buffed out as readily as in furniture constructed of solid wood. Veneer is therefore much more vulnerable and difficult to repair, usually requiring the skill and discretion of a professional refinisher.
The general care and maintenance of your fine veneer furniture is the same as for any other wood pieces.
Stains can be tricky. If you are unsure, recruit a professional refinisher to take care of the job.
For common discolorations such as glass rings or watermarks, try rubbing the stain with salad oil (Canola is good) or mayonnaise. Wipe dry with a soft cotton cloth, in the direction of the grain, and polish.
Other common mishaps to wood furniture are cigarette burns, heat marks, stuck paper, and wax:
Cigarette burns – Rub with a scratch-concealing polish. Note: Severe burns should be entrusted to a professional!
Heat marks – Although often easy to remedy, this task should be left to a professional.
Stuck paper – Dab thoroughly with salad oil. Let sit five minutes, and rub lightly along grain with extra-fine (0000) steel wool. Wipe dry and polish.
Wax – Wrap an ice cube in a cloth and hold it against the wax. Use a plastic credit card and gently remove wax. Wipe and polish.
The Best Remedy is Prevention
Use coasters to prevent watermarks, and thick trivets to protect wood surfaces from heat damage. Blot all spills immediately.
Keep all solvents, detergents, alcohol, nail polish, and nail polish removers AWAY from wood surfaces.
This subject brings me, painfully, back to childhood. At about age 6, I entered a phase of domestic “helpfulness”. Drying the dishes and dusting the furniture was an empowering experience. I felt most important to be allowed to do these “grown-up’ tasks. One day (a day which went down in infamy), I decided to polish the baby grand piano with my mother’s nail polish remover. I could read one word only on the bottle: “polish”… I still remember my disappointment as the “polish”, instead of producing the satiny shine I had anticipated, bubbled and pitted the surface as I wiped. This dismay was minor compared to my mother’s horror when she discovered my latest housekeeping contribution. The piano’s finish, of course, was ruined.
To this day I will not go near any wood surface with that most powerful of paint removers!
Never slide items across a wood surface. Lamps, pictures, and all decorative items should always be lifted off the wood surface, and replaced carefully. Use protective felt pads on lamp and vase bases, or place items on a fabric runner. Never, ever, use rubber or plastic pads under anything you might place on a wood table, as they can harm the finish of the wood.
With these few common sense practices and precautions, your precious wood furniture will become more and more beautiful over the years. It will not only have been given the TLC it deserves, but it will become “imprinted” with your own family history… the very thing that gives antiques their unique quality and very special desirability.
~ Karen Saloomey
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“It’s a sure sign of summer when the chair gets up when you do.”
- Walter Winchell