University of Missouri Extension

GH2414, Reviewed June 2009

Cleaning May Restore Furniture

Alice Mae Alexander
Department of Environmental Design

Furniture eventually reaches a point where it needs more than dusting and polishing. Many old pieces simply need to be cleaned to restore them. Removing the original finish of a valuable piece, if it is in good condition, would destroy much of its value and character.

Wood furniture

Different kinds of furniture call for different cleaning methods. Wood furniture may be finished with oil, varnish, lacquer or shellac. For these finishes, use a good cream furniture polish or a furniture cleaner-conditioner. These may be commercial products or you may make a cleaner-conditioner by mixing together the following ingredients:

Pour the turpentine into a glass container that has a tight lid. Add the linseed oil and mix well before using. You can store the mixture indefinitely in a sealed container.

Use sparingly on shellac finish. To find out if finish is shellac, sponge a spot that will not show with denatured alcohol. The finish will soften and come off if it is shellac.

To use cleaner-conditioner:

Discard mixture when the water becomes cold. Do not reheat — the mixture is flammable and will become gummy.

Flat painted surfaces

Painted furniture is relatively easy to clean. Paint cleaners are sold commercially in liquid, powder and paste form. A good cleaner for flat paint is soap jelly. It can be made by dissolving three tablespoons of white soap flakes in one cup of boiling water. To increase its cleaning ability, add a teaspoon of ammonia or two teaspoons of borax. If the surface to be cleaned requires scouring, add 1/4 cup of whiting.

Glossy finishes

To clean glossy enamel and other painted surfaces that have a glossy finish, use a cloth wrung out in hot water, or hot water containing one teaspoon of washing soda for a gallon of water. Rub gently. Soap-free detergents also may be used. Trisodium phosphate and many of the commercial cleaners dull the finish of glossy paints and soap leaves a film.


Leather on furniture may be cleaned by washing with saddle or castile soap and water. Use as little water as possible. Wipe off soap traces with a clean, damp cloth and, when thoroughly dry, polish briskly with a soft dry cloth.

Avoid using furniture polishes, oils or varnishes on leather because they could make the leather sticky.

If leather appears dry, apply a small amount of leather dressing with fingertips. Rub until the dressing is completely absorbed.

Leather dressing can be purchased or you can make one using the following ingredients available at most drug stores:

To mix, warm the container of lanolin in hot water until the lanolin is melted. Slowly add neat's foot oil, stirring until blended.


GH2414 Cleaning May Restore Furniture | University of Missouri Extension

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