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How to....Clean very dirty old furniture

Antique furniture care maintenance Antiques Restoration Vintage furniture

Sometimes old furniture has just got mucky over the years.

The finishes have been exposed to wood smoke & tobacco smoke which has darkened them. The wax has collected lots of dirt & dust. Luckily with lots of elbow grease they can be quickly cheered up (although it's never the same as refinishing the piece)

The method below should work for french polished, lacquered & waxed pieces.You can try if it's varnished but as the varnish creates and impenetrable layer it's less likely to work. Not sure ? See our Guide to identifying finishes

Note, this method removes old wax so you'll probably need to plan to rewax your piece once finished unless you like the matt effect wood. See our guide to re waxing to help. 

First step 

Work out what finish is on the piece to ensure you aren't scrubbing away at varnish. Not sure ? See our guide to help you. | Wooden furniture Finish Identification Guide |

You'll need 



  • 00000 ( yes 5) zeros ultrafine wire wool ( Steel wool), fold over to double thickness & create a pad roughly 3"x3" (8*8cm)
  • The amount of these required depends on the size of the item. Typically we would use 6-8 on a chest of drawers. 
  • c250ml of White spirit (aka, Turpentine substitute, Mineral Spirits)
  • A roll of kitchen towel, old cotton rags or hand-drying blue paper roll 






  • Take the pad of wire wool hold it across the top of the white spirit container and tip 2x to get some spirit into the wire wool but not so much it pools on the piece. 
  • Rubbing strait along the grain of the wood & in gentle circles. Work across the piece, re charging the wire wool pad with white spirit when appropriate. 
  • Before the white spirit dries use a piece of absorbent paper or a soft cloth to wipe across the area just cleaned. This cloth should come away dirty as the muck etc is removed.
  • Work in sections of about 1 foot square & repeat all over the piece. 
  • Leave to dry for about 1 hr. If you can see cloudy patches get a clean dry pad of wire wool and then rub along the grain over those areas ( you'll see the cloudyness come off as dust so a mask is advisable ) 

Variation Method  

Some people use a mixture of white spirit & Boiled Linseed Oil instead of just white spirit.

We don't, as we find the linseed oil makes the surface sticky afterwards just attracting more dust. It's also a problem if you want to reapply shellac or lacquer to more damaged areas as the finish won't sit well on the oil. Some swear that it feeds the wood, but we think on seasoned timber furniture, a wax polish coat protects it much better. 

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