Furniture Care: Polish & Wax **
By David Moncrief
For those fortunate to own antique furniture, the care of these pieces is pretty easy - assuming it is in good shape and over the years nothing has gone missing or been replaced - or refinished. An antique piece of furniture that is old most likely has a finish of shellac, and as such, has developed a lovely patina over the years adding to its value. Do not be tempted to refinish a piece that has a rich patina, as these pieces are few and far between - and doing so can diminish the overall value significantly.
Applying furniture polish, beeswax and any of the other 'polishes' does nothing to help a well sealed piece of furniture - other than make the one applying the product feel productive - and in some cases the result can be damaging to the piece.
However, for those that want to polish their furniture - this meaning more than using a spray can of Pledge - we recommend that you know the value before you begin and be ready to call the professional if you run into trouble or find you're causing more damage than the piece originally had.
The following should be considered before starting:
Dust the piece first so the dust and dirt grit does not get ground into the finish causing surface scratches. Note: If you are using a wax, these bits of debris will be ground into the wax and, if the wax is clear or pale, you may notice a white smear.
Many older true antiques were finished using a process called French polish. This process produced a high gloss surface with a deep color and a pleasing 'texture' not unlike the pattern of a cat's eye gemstone. The process was accomplished by the application of multiple thin coats of shellac that had been dissolved in alcohol - then applied using a rubbing pad lubricated with oil. This type of finish was popular during the Victorian era and is considered to be one of the most beautiful ways to finish furniture. It does have its draw-backs. It produces a softer finish than more modern varnishes and lacquers and reacts to spills of water or alcohol - producing white cloudy marks. Damage marks such as these can be more easily repaired by working the new finish into the surrounding area rather than refinishing the whole piece. If you choose to have damage repaired using the French polishing technique, it should only be done by a professional familiar with the process. Ask to see some past work or get references.||
And, simply put, the daily care for French polish is a wipe with non-abrasive soap and lukewarm water. Do not leave any moisture on the finish.
For furniture with a dull finish that is not expensive or sophisticated, and does not have any other damage, ie., scratches, dents, spots, then using a wax polish works well. While the older furniture waxes had a harder finish, the more modern ones are much softer - and I might add more easily applied. They also have a wide variety of ingredients. You can look for a typical wax to contain half paraffin wax and half beeswax - with a carnauba added in (for hardness). Note: Some that want to build up a shine have used Simonize car wax, although we don't recommend this. Be sure to follow directions if using any commercial furniture waxes.
Reviving the Finish
If the finish is dull as well as worn with dirt, stains and small scratches - and you don't want the expense of having it professionally French polished, you may want to try one of the products on the market - Formby being a well known name in furniture products - that tout restoring a finish. (Read and follow all product instructions and cautions.)
While we prefer and recommend using products that can be purchased 'off the shelf', there are some that may want to try mixing one of the older-type formulas below that have been around for a while. After mixing up the ingredients, apply to the wood wiping along the wood grain with a soft cloth, wipe off any excess, allow to dry and then build up the surface with a wax polish to complete the process. Again, before you begin applying any cleaner, wax, polish, etc. to the furniture, be sure it is free of dust and gritty dirt so as not to further damage the finish. We also recommend testing the procedure you plan on using on a place that cannot be seen or on a 'test' piece of furniture beforehand. Get comfortable with what you are planning on doing - and if in doubt DON'T !
Formula 1. One (1) quart warm water, 3 tablespoons boiled linseed oil, 1 tablespoon turpentine
Formula 2. Two (2) tablespoons linseed oil, 1 tablespoon turpentine, 5 tablespoons alcohol
Formula 3. One-half (1/2) pint each linseed oil, turpentine, vinegar; scant teaspoon alcohol
Formula 4. One (1) pint raw linseed oil, 1 pint vinegar.
All of these formulas should be mixed with good ventilation away from any flame, wearing gloves, eye protection and a mask, particularly if you are sensitive to chemical smells. Any left-over liquids should be either disposed of in a safe manner or stored in a proper container that is labeled with the contents and date.
Keeping your antique furniture looking good is not terribly difficult - just be careful and if you are unsure about anything concerning the finish, the value of the item or the ingredients of the product you are using - DON'T DO ANYTHING - rather contact a professional.**
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