The finish on wood furniture dulls with age, exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays and also the application of several wax layers over the years. However, before you can begin the cleanup procedure to restore your furniture’s finish, you have to identify it to learn the proper products to use. Possible finishes include penetrating oil, varnish, lacquer, shellac and wax. Once you decide the final finish coat, if it’s not blistered or cracked, then you can clean and restore it rather than removing and reapplying it. Select a concealed area on the wooden object — the rear that faces the wall, the inside of a leg or beneath an edge or lip — to check the kind of finish.
Identify the Finish
Daub the cotton ball or clean cloth in denatured or rubbing alcohol. Rub on the chosen, but unseen, place on the wood object with the cotton ball or cloth.
Watch the area closely for changes to this finish. Rubbing alcohol softens shellac finishes, but turns lacquered finishes milky white. If the rubbing alcohol had no effect on the finish, the finish could consist of wax, penetrating oil or masonry. Check the item to get a coat of masonry — a challenging finish — simply by digging a fingernail or a little toothpick into a hidden area of the finish. A varnish coat does not score and contains a luster for it. A toothpick mars the wood itself if the product was completed with penetrating oil or wax.
Confirm a lacquer finish by applying lacquer thinner to a cotton ball or ball. Rub a place near the place you first tested with the lacquer thinner. If you notice that the lacquer becomes soft with the application of lacquer thinner, you’ve identified the finish.
Evaluation for the existence of wax by dabbing the unseen area with a little bit of mineral spirits on a cotton ball or rag if the other methods did nothing. If the finish dissolves once you dab it with the mineral spirits, then it includes wax. If you test with these methods and the finish does not change, penetrating oil has been used as the final finish. You cannot eliminate a penetrating oil finish, because it has soaked into the wood already — however, you can restore it.
Wash and Restore the Finish
Remove all of the hardware in the wood furniture before proceeding. Eliminate casters, escutcheons — little shields, emblems or coats of arms — hinges, drawer pulls and knobs. Wash and polish the hardware before placing these items apart with their screws.
Separate a piece of 0000 steel wool and dip it in the correct diluent for shellac or lacquer finishes — rubbing alcohol or lacquer thinner — and rub the wood surface, working at the direction of the grain. You need to work fast, because the solvent causes the finish to turn sticky and gummy after softening. Apply even and smooth, but fast, strokes in the direction of the wood grain. For light cracks in the finish, use a paintbrush to apply the solvent. Smooth the softened finish by working the paintbrush or steel wool with the grain. Keep working until the finish takes on a flat, even and smooth appearance. When finish becomes smooth, allow it to dry.
Dampen an area of a clean fabric with a little bit of mineral spirits to get items with wax finishes. When the wax finish dulls, you need to totally eliminate the wax and then reapply it to revive its finish. Rub the dampened fabric on the wood at the direction of the grain. Permit the mineral spirits to sit around the wax surface to get a couple of minutes to help soften and loosen dirt and grunge. Remove the dirt and old wax with a clean, soft cloth. Repeat as needed until the wax is gone.
Clean the surface of a wood piece covered with a penetrating oil with a little bit of turpentine rubbed into the wood’s surface. Work at the direction of the grain with a piece of steel wool. Thoroughly clean the entire surface of the wood object, paying attention to water-stained or discolored areas. Let it dry.
Recondition a varnish finish by combining 1 part turpentine with 3 parts of boiled linseed oil completely. Employ a dime-sized amount to some piece of steel wool. Wipe the steel wool in the direction of the grain. If this does not have any effect — and it may not because of unique varnishes — include the turpentine and linseed oil mixture to a small jar with a lid. Shake the jar thoroughly before emptying the contents on the surface of a little bowl that contains heated water. Dunk a corner of a clean cloth into the oily mixture atop the water and then apply it into the wood in the direction of the grain, working in small sections. After cleaning, wipe the object with a cloth soaked in warm, clean water and wrung out to get rid of excess moisture. Dry with a clean, soft cloth.
Finish the restoration by applying another coat of lacquer, shellac, varnish or penetrating oil, if needed. You can also apply a coat of beeswax, furniture cream or paste wax as desired or needed. For older varnished pieces, use a furniture polish instead.