5 Steps to Cleaning Grimy Antique Furniture

Erik Buck suite
Cleaning antique furniture can make it glow again.

Years ago a client of mine purchased a dining room suite at an auction. It had seen better days to be sure and she was understandably concerned about the high cost of having the suite professionally re-finished. I suggested an alternative – to clean and re-coat the finish without stripping it.

I thought I would share my technique with you. The transformation can be quite amazing.

Scroll to the bottom of this post to see a picture of before and after I cleaned some millwork in our home using this technique.

Before you use this method, which can be used for mill work and cabinetry as well, be aware of the following:

  • Don’t clean furniture that doesn’t need it.   Use these techniques only if your furniture pieces have grime resulting from too much wax, yellow nicotine from cigarettes, or  handling with dirty hands. Certain parts of your furniture will have a greater build-up than others. For example, chairs will be their grimiest at the top of the chair rail or on the arms where hands are placed.
  • Don’t use this technique on pieces that you know to be very old or valuable. The build up of grime, if rather evenly distributed, hardens with age and can be quite beautiful. This is called patina and it should not be removed. Just don’t add more wax or the piece will look dull. Save this technique for pieces that are most commonly available and for furniture that will be thrown away if it doesn’t look better.
  • You may use the cleaning technique for teak furniture but do not use a teak or Danish oil that has Urethane or Varathane in it as it will seal the finish, which you don’t want.
  • Practise on a piece of wood or furniture that you don’t care about. This technique works best on pieces of furniture that have their original varnished finish intact.
Dining room chair
Cleaned and “Refinished” Dining room chair

Assemble the following: A plastic sheet for the floor, goggles to protect your eyes, heavy rubber gloves, a plastic pail, liquid dish soap, liquid ammonia, warm, not hot water, vinegar, rags (cotton t-shirts or flannel is best), a measuring cup and a plastic/sponge scrubbing tampons like those you use for dishes. (better than steel wool as steel wool can rust) Use a fan for ventilation if you are not doing this outdoors.

Purchase a litre or quart of a teak or Danish oil product that has Varathane or Urethane in it. I have had the best results with Deft Oil – Danish Oil Finish by Deft.  Choose a shade darker than the colour of your furniture piece. I use their Dark Walnut for everything I work on as I find it to be a very neutral brown that works for oak, dark pine, dark mahogany as well as walnut.

Arne Vodder Credenza
Don’t use an oil with varathane or urethane in it for teak furniture.

Here is the technique:

  1. Place sheeting on floor and put on your rubber gloves and goggles.  Measure one part ammonia to four parts warm, not hot, water into a pail and add a squirt of liquid dish soap. Mix well.
  2. Dip one corner of the sponge scrubber into the solution of ammonia, soap and water. Be careful doing this or the drips will make a mess on the section of furniture you have not yet cleaned. Start by gently scrubbing  the furniture starting from the bottom of the piece (legs or feet) and working your way up.  Work with the grain of the wood. Remember the point of this exercise is to dissolve grime so you need to give the solution time to work.
  3. As the grime melts wipe the residue off with a clean cloth. Do not let the wood stay wet for long. Work in small sections. Your cloth will tell you how well the work is progressing. If there is very little grime on the cloth you may have furniture that really does not need much cleaning or your solution is too weak. You can experiment by adding a bit more ammonia, however don’t add too much or you may remove the finish – especially in parts where the finish is already very thin. It is important that the original finish be clean of wax, oils, soot and nicotine otherwise the final product will not stick to the furniture.
  4. Once the piece has been thoroughly cleaned rinse it with a solution of water and vinegar and wipe dry. Let dry overnight. Your furniture may look dull at this point but that will change.
  5. On the next day, create a French pad by folding a clean cloth into a small square that you can fit easily into the palm of your hand. Pour Deft oil into a shallow bowl and place the pad into the oil. It is not necessary to soak the entire pad – you need just enough to wipe onto the clean wood surface. Wipe the pad onto the furniture,  working with the grain of the wood. Immediately  wipe the excess with a clean cloth. Do this over the entire item. Replace your wiping cloth when it gets too dirty. Let dry at least a week if you intend to wax the piece.
This is an example of the before and after effects of cleaning 100 year old millwork with this technique.
This is an example of the before and after effects of cleaning 100 year old millwork with this technique.

So there you have it. Some final tips: If some parts of the piece look dull compared to others it may be because the finish was completely gone. In that case the Deft oil has been absorbed into the wood. It means that you will have to build up the finish in those dull areas.

Oh, I forgot. The last thing you need to do:

6. Stand back and admire your work!

5 thoughts on “5 Steps to Cleaning Grimy Antique Furniture

  1. Thank you so much for this tutorial. I have a dining room table and chairs that I’ve cleaned with Murphy’s Oil Soap and now it needs to shine. Waxing doesn’t give me the shine I want. I’ll try the Deft oil on a small spot and if it works I’ll apply it all over before waxing. Also have some millwork that could use this technique.

    1. Linda- you will have to clean the wood to make sure it is free of Murphy’s soap before you put the Deftoil on or it will not adhere or dry – it will forever remain tacky. Test an inconspicuous spot first. Also when working on a large surface you must work fast and do it in chunks with the grain of the wood. Don’t let the wood stay wet.
      Good luck!

      1. Thanks for the tips. I really would be sick if my table and chairs wound up forever sticky. Will certainly test first!

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