Furniture Grime versus Patina

Patina gives antique objects a wonderful glow

Patina gives antique objects a wonderful glow

What exactly is patina? This is a question I get asked fairly often when I do talks about antiques. I have to answer honestly and tell the person that patina is dirt – just more expensive dirt.

Patina is the kind of dirt that builds up slowly so it’s dry and never sticky. It’s the kind of dirt that mellows and gives an object a wonderful depth and glow. It’s also the type of dirt that if you remove it (which is what happens when you strip wood with chemicals), you’ve affected the value of the piece.

Antique dealers and auctioneers go on and on about the beauty of an object’s patina -even when it’s not totally warranted. Patina won’t make a poor quality antique worth more, but removing patina will make a good quality piece worth less.

Antique sideboard with original patina

Antique sideboard with original patina

But what happens when you have a piece of furniture that is sticky and dull? A reader emailed me with this question:

Dear Johanne: I found your blog on caring for mid-century teak furniture. I have a lot of pieces, they all have the beautiful, satiny feel except for dining room table. (teak veneer). I have never used anything but teak oil from a Scandinavian store, but the top of the table is so sticky. So I recently cleaned with Murphy’s Oil Soap and finest steel wool after trying a lot of other combinations. It got the sticky off, but now it needs oiling and I am afraid to use that same teak oil that seemed to make it sticky. It is a pretty old bottle too. You mentioned one you would use with a stain, but I wondered if you have a recommendation for one without?             Sue

Dear Sue: There are several reasons why tables, or any piece of furniture for that matter, may be sticky:

  • The product used may be too old. These products don’t last forever. The chemical that keeps the product thin enough to spread easily and to dry once it has been applied, seems to evaporate. What’s left behind is the gooey, sticky oil.
Entrance Hall of the Hill and Dale Inn in Port Hope

Entrance Hall of the Hill and Dale Inn in Port Hope

  • Every piece of furniture requires a bit of cleaning now and then. When cleaning a table such as yours with chemicals, make sure that the product does not contain any oils. This is especially true for teak. Teak furniture needs special teak oil that is meant to be absorbed into the pores of the wood giving more and more protection as time goes on. If the product contains oil of any other kind it may act as a sealant, not allowing the proper teak oil to penetrate thereby leaving the teak oil on top. It can’t dry then.
  • It usually takes many years for products to build up on a piece of furniture, unless some of the following happens: 1. a person applies  product too often without giving product time to dry thoroughly. 2. The environment where the item is stored is exposed to cooking or cigarette smoke. If product is  applied onto such surfaces without first removing the layers of nicotine or grease the new finish won’t adhere and will stay sticky. 3. The wrong products are used together. Not all products are compatible. It is necessary to check the product labels to see if they are water or oil/solvent based. 4> In spite of the marketing and commercials do not use an aerosol wax product. It is not compatible with antique finishes at all.

If your table has been well cleaned then there’s good chance that a new bottle of good quality teak oil will work – just toss out the old bottle and buy the absolute smallest bottle of teak oil you can find. The same goes with stains and varnishes on any piece of furniture. Buy the smallest amount that will serve your needs.

One final tip. Don’t use steel wool. It gets lodged in the pores or grain of the wood and eventually rusts and stains.

Good luck!

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