For many people, using some form of polish on wood surfaces is standard practice during routine dusting and cleaning chores. We do this without giving much thought to it, but is it a necessary? And is it possible that it might actually harm our fine wood surfaces?
According to Donald C. Williams, Senior Furniture Conservator, Conservation Analytical Laboratory at the Smithsonian Institution, it depends on a lot on what type of polish you're using. There are three different types of polish commonly used, and in some of them, the chemicals and natural products they contain can dull the finish or even attract dust. Over time, polishes may build up and darken furniture, making it look dirtier.
Types of Wood Polish
Aerosol polishes are very convenient to use but they have significant downsides in terms of damaging the surfaces of wood furniture. They also add silicone oil and other contaminants to furniture and also contain various solvents which can eat through varnish. Other types of surface finish, such as polyurethane, are less susceptible to these solvents.
Liquid polishes are also easy to use. There are two types: oil polishes and emulsion cleaners, which are water-based. Both are powerful cleaners which leave a lovely sheen. However, this sheen will be short-lived as the liquid dries. Oils can contain a variety of ingredients, from waxes and perfumes to colorants and organic solvents. There are drying oils and non-drying oils, but both pose issues because dust easily sticks to wet surfaces. In addition, as drying oils get older, they turn yellow or brown, causing furniture to take on a muddy appearance.
Semi-solid polishes are the best for wood. Often called “paste wax,” these products are comprised of a concentrated mixture of wax in an organic solvent or emulsion. Semi-solid polishes are stable materials as long as they don't include silicone, so this is the method of choice for polishing wood furniture. However, it does take more elbow grease to get the job done—the better the wax, the harder to you need to buff. Waxing should only be done twice a year for furniture that gets heavy wear, such as chair arms and desktops, and every three to four years for items like table and chair legs. If you can’t buff a surface to a sheen, you can assume the wax has worn off and it’s ready for another application.
The best advice is to use what is recommended by your furniture manufacturer and to use it sparingly. Most fine furniture will benefit from regular dry dusting using a lambswool or microfiber duster, which can attract the dust from furniture without pitting or scratching the surface. They won't leave any type of buildup or chemical residue. Be especially careful about using polish products on furniture that has damage to its surfaces.
DIY Furniture-Cleaning Products
To avoid the solvent issues common with commercial wood cleaners/polishers, there are a couple of home-made wood cleaner "recipes" you might want to try.
- Wood cleaner #1: 1 cup mineral oil mixed with 3 drops lemon oil or extract. Store in a clean glass or plastic container.
- Wood cleaner #2: 1 cup olive oil mixed with 1/4 cup white vinegar. In this mixture, the oil protects the wood while the vinegar cleans it. This solution can be used in a spray bottle.
- Spray or pour the solution on a soft cloth and work it into the wood, wiping in the same direction as the wood grain. If the wood seems dry, let the solution sit and then go over it again. Don't pour or spray directly on the wood—always use a cloth.
- On detailed area, apply additional homemade cleaner with a cloth, then work it into the contours with a soft-bristled brush. Buff the area with a fresh soft cloth.