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How to Care for Wood Furniture

By Edited Jul 25, 2016 3 4

Wooden furniture has a wonderfully warm, solid feel and makes a beautiful addition to your home. If you have wooden furniture, however, whether modern, vintage or antique, you need to be aware that it does require a certain amount of T.L.C. to maintain its beauty.

American sideboard, late 18th century, Honolulu Museum of Art, 3407.1

Protect from Damage

Physical damage1

First of all take care when moving furniture. Use moving pads or blankets to protect from dents and scratches. Lift by holding on to a solid sturdy area. The sideboard in the picture above, for example, should be held from underneath the storage area rather than by the legs. Also, when moving it into place furniture should never be dragged across the floor because this may cause joints to loosen.

The surface of dining tables should be protected with tablecloths and place mats, and hot dishes should always be placed on pads to prevent heat damage. When entertaining use drink coasters. These will prevent damage from both the heat of hot drinks, which will leave a greyish heat haze mark in the finish, and condensation from cold ones, which will cause water damage.

Humidity2

Wood is a natural material which is affected by changes in humidity. It absorbs moisture from the air, which causes it to swell. Conversely, it dries and shrinks when dry air draws moisture out. These changes can cause wood to warp or crack and make joints loose.  The use of a humidistat to dry moist air in the summer and a humidifier in the winter to compensate for the drying effects of central heating will reduce this problem by preventing excessive changes in humidity,

Light and Heat1

Have you ever noticed how the color on the window side of your drapes tends to fade? This is because the ultra violet in natural sunlight has a bleaching effect. Ultra violet light causes the color of wood to fade.  The picture below shows a table sitting by a window in direct sunlight. You can easily see the contrast between the part of the table which was exposed to the sun and the part which was covered by the box.

Sun Damage

In addition, sunlight will damage finishes such as stain or paint. It can, for example, bleach dark colors, yellow white paint, or dull the shine on the finish. It can cause veneer to detach may even cause the finish to develop a maze of hairline cracks, and to develop an “alligatored” appearance.

Sunlight also contains heat, which causes drying of wood, furniture adhesives and finishes as well as shrinkage. This can lead to gaps appearing at furniture joints, and in extreme cases splitting along the grains, and structural warping.

While interior lighting is not as damaging as sunlight, it can still have an adverse effect over time. Fluorescent light emits very little heat, but does radiate a moderate amount of ultra violet, as do full spectrum light bulbs. High wattage conventional light bulbs are not a significant source of ultraviolet, but on the other hand they do radiate heat. 

Fluorescent Light Strip

There are, however, some commonsense precautions that can be taken to help to protect wooden furniture from light and heat damage.

The first thing is to consider the placement of wooden furniture carefully. It should not be placed directly in front of a window where it will be exposed to direct sunlight, or close to heat sources such as furnace vents and fireplaces.

In addition, every effort should be taken to prevent sunlight from falling onto the furniture. It is a sensible precaution to close the drapes on sunny days. The installation of u.v. film on the windows is also something to be considered. In addition, tablecloths, runners and mats can be used to protect the wooden surface wherever possible.

Routine Care2

Many people believe that a weekly oiling or waxing of exposed wooden surfaces will nourish the wood and compensate for the drying effects of light and heat. However, the Smithsonian Museum recommends against this. They advise simply dusting regularly with a damp, clean cloth or a cloth with just a trace of wax, and occasionally buffing the surface with a soft cloth.  They recommend only applying wax about once a year in order to avoid wax build up.

The Smithsonian recommends paste wax rather than spray polish, which may damage the finish of the wood. Drying oils such as linseed or walnut oil are finishing oils which should not be used as a polish because they darken and cause an unsightly build up which is difficult to remove. Non drying oils such as lemon oil do not harm the furniture, but are less preferable than paste wax because they attract dust.

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Damage Control

Sometimes you need to give your wood some extra attention. You may wish to clean away a build up of grime from fingerprints or other sources of body oil, and perhaps cover up some scratches.

An interesting amateur hack which I came across is to use stale beer to clean wood and restore shine and color3. Presumably a dark beer would work better for color restoration than a light colored lager with Guinness being the brew of choice for dark oak.

However, if the smell of stale beer does not appeal to you, a restorative furniture oil can be used to clean the surface of the wood, to restore color and to camouflage scratches.

Using Furniture Oil.

How to Clean and Restore Faded and Scratched Wood

If you cannot cover scratches with wax or oil, one trick is to cut a Brazil nut, butternut or black walnut in half and rub it on the scratch. A deep scratch can be colored with a brown crayon, shoe polish, iodine or an oil based stain.4

Water rings can be treated by putting two or three drops of ammonia on a damp cloth, or with camphorated oil. This should be rubbed on with a soft cloth and wiped off immediately. Heat marks (a white or greying haze in the finish) may be treated with a solution of two parts ammonia to one part water, or with a mixture of one part linseed oil, one part turpentine and one part vinegar. Always rub gently in the direction of the grain.4

If you have antique furniture, it is more valuable if it still has its original finish. If the surface is badly damaged you might wish to get it refinished. However, you need to be aware that this could actually reduce its value, and you might wish to consult an expert in antique conservation before doing anything.

Disease and Pest Damage

Dry Rot5

Wood that is exposed to excessive moisture can become infected with fungi, the most damaging of which is dry rot. This particular fungus consumes cellulose. This weakens the structural integrity of wood and makes it dry and brittle.

Dry rot is prevented by making sure that wood is not subjected to excess moisture. Infected wood is treated with a fungicide such as boric acid (borate).

Dry Rot

Insects1

Carpet beetles are extremely small, approximately 2 mm long, and may live in furniture joints where they eat the adhesive.

Powder post beetles bore holes into wood. frequently on the underside of legs or drawers.

Woodworm, also known as the common furniture beetle6, lays its eggs on unpolished wood. The eggs hatch into small grubs which bore in and live undetected, eating away at the inside of the wood for as long as three years.  The adult beetles create tell tale holes on the surface of the wood when they eat their way out.

Wood affected with Woodworm

To keep insect damage at bay, furniture should be inspected regularly, and a professional should be called in if any insect infestation is discovered.

In addition, careful furniture placement and protection can minimize the harmful effects of light and heat, and maintain the beauty of wooden furniture for many years to come.

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Comments

Mar 30, 2016 8:39pm
shar-On
Great article with lots of ideas on damage and ideas to improve it. Love the guinness idea
Mar 30, 2016 9:53pm
HLesley
Glad you enjoyed the article shar-On, and I hope you can use some of these ideas.
Apr 17, 2016 8:55pm
Dearumahproperti
thanks for this article, it's so usefull,
Apr 17, 2016 10:01pm
HLesley
Thank you!
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Bibliography

  1. Clara Deck, Senior Conservator "The Care and Preservation of Furniture and Wooden Objects." The Henry Ford Museum. 17/02/2016 <Web >
  2. "Furniture Care and Handling." Smithsonian Institute. 17/02/2016 <Web >
  3. Cris Carl "14 household uses for beer." networx. 09/08/2011. 21/02/2016 <Web >
  4. Linda R. Adler, M.A, Extension Specialist for Home Furnishings "Care of Furniture Surfaces." Cooperative Extension Services, University of Kentucky, College of Agriculture. 21/02/2016 <Web >
  5. Jack DeAngelis, PhD "Dry Rot Damage & Treatment in Wood." living with bugs. 21/02/2016 <Web >
  6. "Woodworm." British Pest Control Association. 21/02/2016 <Web >

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