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The Wood and the Wax, or Spring Cleaning in the Summer

I grew up as the only child with parents who both had full-time jobs. Despite that, one week each Spring was devoted to Spring Cleaning. It was enjoyable, a time that was actually fun because my parents seemed to like it and nothing ever was too serious. My mother would take a week of vacation time and my dad would take off a couple of days to help with heavier tasks and the window washing that usually involved some confrontations with wasps and spiders. The house would be torn up room by room. The draperies were taken down and aired; curtains were washed, starched and ironed. The walls were “washed down”. The mattresses were turned over and, in the process, the heavy quilts and blankets from the winter (all aired out, of course) were laid out flat between the box spring and mattress. Everything was pulled out of cupboards and cabinets, washed and re-organized on fresh shelf paper. Area rugs were taken outside for a “beating” or to the rug-cleaners if they were in bad shape. Some were then rolled up for storage during the summer and the floors went bare. The windows were all opened up. The radio blared the latest hits. No one cooked. We ate carry-out, or from the local “drive-in” or just made sandwiches.

What I remember the most was how the furniture was all polished with plain old paste wax. It all smelled great. Maybe our arms in those days stayed toned because of all that buffing. The drop leaf table above always received that yearly waxing and hard buffing. But it’s been 10 years since I did that. I’ve lost the tradition. It’s summer and I’m going to re-instate Spring Cleaning with the furniture waxing.

Those of us who have antique wood furniture often wonder how to best take care of it. Companies, of course, have made many kinds of products for routine care and, at different times, there seem to have been differing fads on the best approaches. I’ve turned to the Smithsonian’s experts for confirmation that my family was on the right track.

Don Williams, Senior Conservator of the Smithsonian, and Louisa Jagger have an excellent book, Saving Stuff (Simon and Schuster, 2005), that gives tips on how to care for our antiques and heirlooms. One chapter is on “Preserving Your Furniture”. Williams starts out with “10 Tips for Wise Furniture Use”. Tip #1 is “Plant your keister where it belongs: on the seat of the chair.” (You can tell it’s a fun book.) Tip #10 is ” Never, ever oil wood furniture.” Ok. We never did that, even when friends and relatives were talking about “feeding the wood”. We fed the cats and dogs. They were alive. The wood had been cut and cured years ago. Surely it was dead. It didn’t meow to be fed. We never dusted with anything either except rags torn up from worn out nightgowns or old cloth diapers.

Williams talks, next, about cleaning and waxing. He says “…virtually all commercially available furniture care products other than good-quality paste waxes can be harmful to your collection. So, after careful cleaning, good paste wax is all you should ever put on your furniture.” Bingo. We did it right.

So, when to “clean”? We just dusted every week. The only time we washed down a piece of furniture was when it was a new purchase and came out of someone’s barn. Then we just used a bit of soapy water, followed by a fast drying. Williams says that a thorough cleaning is only needed once a decade or so and, then, mainly to remove a grimy buildup. However, he says that care needs to be taken with furniture made earlier than 1800 or any other piece where wax was the original coating. Cleaning that piece could remove that original finish. He recommends consulting a furniture conservator when in doubt. TheAmerican Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works maintains a database of conservators by their specialties.

Cleaning a piece of wood furniture can often be accomplished with just a cloth dampened with distilled water. Williams recommends testing a spot first. If just the damp cloth doesn’t remove all the dirt after a few swipes, you may need to add a bit of mild dish detergent. Make sure, however, that you haven’t removed the original finish on the test spot. If all is well, continue on cautiously, changing the cloth to a clean area every time you dampen it.

Waxing comes next and only needs to be done about once a year. Williams recommends that the paste wax purchased contain no silicones or solvents like toluene or xylene which can remove varnish. He likes worn flannel or t-shirt fabric both for applying the wax and buffing. He also recommends wearing protective gloves. The process is simple. You rub it on, making sure not to snag any loose parts of the surface, let it dry (sometimes that’s overnight) and, then, buff it vigorously until it is shiny all over. The buffing will remove most of the wax so there really shouldn’t be a wax build-up. It will also make your arms sore the next day.

There are several good YouTube videos about waxing. Many are designed by companies who have manufactured or are selling products. However, one that is easy to understand is from Gilboy Restoration Workshop in England. It does show some waxes that are stained. Everyone needs to make their own determination of the kind of wax that is best for them.

Another resource for understanding the routine care of wood comes from the Antique Roadshow article entitled “Leave the Finish Alone” .

So, it’s time for me go to the store and get some paste wax…just like in the old days. The windows are already opened. I’ll play the old songs my parents had on the radio… Sinatra for the waxing, Elvis for the buffing. It may be summer, but it’s time to shine.

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