Cleaning Up Your Act

Well, you bought it, got it home, lubed the drawers, leveled the doors and it looks great doesn't it? Doesn't it? Maybe it needs something to brighten it up. Maybe it needs refinishing- and maybe it doesn't. Before you spend a whole lot of money to get a piece refinished, try some good old fashioned elbow grease and common sense with a little bit of information and guidance.

First off, you must determine if the existing finish is sound. Does it show signs of water damage, i.e. white rings or shadows on the tops and legs or does it show excessive exposure to direct sun such as flaking, peeling and discoloration or bare spots? Is the finish "crazed" or "alligatored"? If the answer is yes to any of the above, pass on the rest of this article and call someone you trust to discuss a new finish. If the finish appears sound but just dull stay tuned.

The first step is to clean the piece. Be sure to remove all hardware such as drawer pulls. You don't want water and cleaner to puddle up around them. First, remove mildew with a solution of one capful of bleach in a quart of warm water. Wipe off the mildew and then dry the piece with a clean cloth. Next, clean the piece with soap. Murphy's Oil Soap is a great cleaner. Just follow the directions on the package and go to it. Use water to rinse the Soap but DO NOT let it sit on the furniture and be sure to dry the piece when you are done. Don't let it "air dry". Be advised that Murphy's Oil Soap and other organic cleaners such as Flax soap from Sherwin-Williams are just that-cleaners. They will remove dust, dirt and general grime and grunge but not years of abuse from oil based furniture "polishes". This "greasy kid stuff" must be removed with a more powerful cleaner such as mineral spirits, also known as paint thinner. Yes, paint thinner. The chemistry is totally different from the finish and mineral spirits will not hurt any solvent based finish such as lacquer, which is the finish on almost all factory finished furniture since 1900, provided that the finish is sound as described above. The exception to this is oil finished Scandinavian furniture which requires a whole different maintenance routine.

If the finish is sound and if it is solvent based, clean with spirits and a soft cloth such as a "Tee" shirt or diaper (cloth only) until the rag comes up clean. When you are done, the results should look like a total disaster. The piece should look dull, dirtier that when you started and streaky. This is the residue of the spirits so don't worry. Buff it with a dry cloth after letting the spirits dry for 30 minutes. This should improve the appearance slightly but don't over do it.

Now that you have cleaned dirt and oil from the finish, it's time to shine it up. Use a little Jubilee Kitchen Wax, the white cream, on a damp, clean cloth. Just act like you are waxing your car except don't work so hard and don't let the wax dry. Follow immediately with a dry soft cloth and buff the Jubilee to a mellow sheen. Severe cases may require two coats of Jubilee and sometimes it doesn't work at all but it's worth the effort to find out. If it does provide a benefit, don't overdo it! A piece should only be waxed once or twice a year and left alone after that. Dry dusting with a soft cloth adds to the "patina" of an older piece after years of loving care. Lots of good furniture is ruined every year by "over love". LEAVE IT ALONE.

Cleaning up your act part II

Most traditional furniture hardware is brass or brass looking but that covers a multitude of sins. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc and is a non-ferrous (no iron or steel) metal. Brass that is 70% copper is known as bright brass or high brass and shines up to be bright yellow. A higher copper content produces a pinker hue and is known as low brass. No amount of polishing will make it bright brass. This type of hardware is common on early 20th century English pieces.

You will encounter three basic types of brass hardware; solid brass, either cast or stamped, brass plated steel and brass plated non-ferrous (pot metal). Before you start cleaning you need to determine which type you have to know how vigorously you can clean it.

Remove a piece of hardware from the furniture. Drawer pulls are usually the easiest. Touch it with a magnet. If the magnet is attracted you have brass plated steel. If the magnet is not attracted you have one of the other two types. Turn the hardware over and scratch it hard with a pocket knife or screw driver. If you see what looks like silver or pewter, it's brass plated pot metal. If all you see is more brass in the scratch, congratulations, you have solid brass. If you determined that you have one of the plated varieties, be careful cleaning it because the brass can very easily be accidentally removed from the background during the cleaning process.

Most brass furniture hardware has a clear coat on it to prevent tarnishing. The fact that the brass has tarnished means only that the clear coat has been penetrated and it may still be there. It must be removed in order to clean the brass and the brass must be removed from the furniture in order to remove the clear coat. Strip the hardware with lacquer thinner or stripper after removing from the furniture. Be sure it is rinsed clean and dry before the next step.

Using your favorite brass cleaner (we use Noxon), attack using a soft cloth and a soft toothbrush. Stubborn or intricate pieces often clean better after soaking in a butter tub of cleaner for awhile. While rubbing away, keep checking to make sure you have not penetrated the brass plating if dealing with non-solids. Rinse the hardware with water and a clean toothbrush to remove all traces of cleaner. At this point you may want to start over again. The results will be amazing. If you do not like the look of new "hardware store" brass, try cleaning only the highlights of the piece, leaving some darkness in the details of the brass. This method adds dimension and depth. When you are happy with the way the brass looks, dry it well with a towel and then let it air dry a couple of hours. To prevent immediate re-tarnishing, clear coat the brass with clear lacquer from a craft store. This is highly recommended not only to prevent tarnishing but to give the brass "sparkle".

Plating that has been removed by the cleaning process can be simulated by gold or brass waxes such as "Rub 'N Buff" and "Decorator's Gilt" available in craft and art supply stores. These should be sealed in with clear lacquer after they dry. Avoid gold or brass spray paints. The results are very cheap looking!

Good Luck. One final hint - clean until your fingers hurt then clean a little bit more - the extra effort will show.

For more information please contact Fred Taylor at or visit