Although the information contained on this page applies to wood furniture, keep in mind that most wood furniture pieces contain components of other materials, such as brass, plastic, leather and fabric. The composition of a single piece of wood furniture may include a variety of materials, including several species of solid wood, veneers and laminates. Finishes vary widely and may include elements of stain, paint and resins.
Wood furniture often contains non-wood components that require different methods of care and respond to different cleaning agents. You'll want to consider all of the materials in your wood furniture for proper overall care.
Preventing Damage to Wood Furniture
In addition to accidental stains and scratches, wood furniture is susceptible to environmental factors, such as light, humidity and dust. Here are some tips you can use to provide a better environment for your furniture:
Changes in the relative humidity – especially sudden changes – are the biggest concern for wood furniture. Experts suggest that the ideal range of home temperature for wood furniture is 70 to 72 degrees with humidity levels kept within a range between 40 and 60 percent. If exposed to relative humidity in excess of 70%, furniture and finishes can crack when the humidity level drops suddenly and the piece contracts.
No amount of furniture oil will prevent wood furniture from drying out if the relative humidity remains below 30% for an extended period of time.
Air conditioner use in the summer and humidifier use in heated homes during the winter will help control the environment greatly. Dehumidifiers should be used in rooms that are typically damp or during times of high humidity when an air conditioner is not in use.
Keep table leaves near the table to which they belong when not in use so they are exposed to the same environment as the table and will expand and contract at the same rate.
Keep wood furniture away from heat vents, radiators and fireplaces to prevent it from drying out. Use a shield or diverter on heat vents if necessary.
If you need to store your wood furniture, it's better to store it in an unheated space since humidity will not vary as much at lower temperature.
Keep products containing alcohol and harsh chemicals away from your furniture's finish, including those found in colognes, perfumes and nail polish remover.
Dust is abrasive and accumulates in the "nooks and crannies" – carvings and grooves – and in any cracks in the surface of the furniture. As dust accumulates it gets more difficult to remove.
Use caution when moving your furniture. Enlist enough help so you can lift the furniture instead of pushing it laterally, which can over stress joinery, especially at the legs. Lift tables by their apron or legs rather than by their top, which could detach or loosen. Lift chairs by their seat rails and not by their arms or crest (top back) rail.
When transporting wood furniture in a vehicle, place the furniture on its back or top rather than its legs. Carefully detach marble tops and transport or store them on their edge, as you would a mirror.
Dusting Your Wood Furniture
Excessive accumulations of dust or not dusting properly can result in excess wear and may also dull the otherwise beautiful finish on your wood furniture. For new furniture, any care instructions provided by the manufacturer should override any other suggestions or ideas you might be tempted to try.
Paste wax can help beautify and protect wood furniture. Liquid wax also provides protection, but its coat is not as thick as a paste wax. You shouldn't need to apply more than a thin coat of paste wax once or twice a year and dry dust in between waxings. Always follow the manufacturer's directions and precautionary measures listed on the paste wax can.
Wood Furniture Dusting Tips
Feather dusters are not recommended for use on wood furniture because they can't be cleaned. Additionally, quill ends can become exposed and scratch the surface of your furniture.
Use a soft cloth for dusting. An old (but clean) cotton T-shirt or similar cloth or chamois is ideal. Don't use cloths that are frayed or unraveling as they can snag on your furniture and cause damage. An artist's brush or other natural bristle paint brush can be handy for dusting inside carvings and other hard to reach areas.
Clean dusting cloths right after use so you won't be tempted to use a dirty cloth on your furniture when it's time to dust again. Keep plenty of clean dust cloths nearby when dusting so you won't use a dust cloth any longer than you should.
If you must use water during dusting, do so sparingly. Excessive amounts of water can warp or swell wood. A few drops sprinkled on your dust cloth should suffice. Consider using distilled water on antiques.
Dust in the direction of the wood grain using an oval pattern and once your dusting cloth gets dirty, turn it over, fold it or replace it with a clean one.
Lift lamps instead of sliding them across the furniture to prevent scratching the finish.
Many furniture oils contain linseed oil or other drying agents. When used repeatedly, they can create a gummy coating on the surface of the finish that darkens and hides the wood's grain.
Most commercial furniture sprays and polishes contain silicone oil, although it may not be listed on the can. Silicone oil can make refinishing a piece more difficult and can seep into cracks. Commercial furniture polishes tend to smear. They also attract and entrap dust.
Once you find a furniture care product that gives you good results, stay with it. Using a wax on a piece previously oiled surface (or vice versa) can result in clouding and other problems with the finish.
Always use caution when cleaning brass hardware. Most brass furniture hardware is protected with lacquer and only needs dry dusting. If you decide to polish brass hardware it's best to remove it from the furniture first to avoid damaging other parts of the furniture. Avoid brass polish that contains ammonia as it can cause long-term corrosion problems for hardware.
Light and Wood Furniture
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The ultraviolet rays of the sun will damage a finish and bleach the wood underneath. Although some wood bleaching may be desirable for its ability to soften and enrich tones, especially to antique collectors, excessive light exposure is not generally good for wood furniture.
Prolonged exposure to sunlight can cause the finish on wood furniture to crack. Clear finishes may also yellow or become opaque in response to excessive light. In severe cases, excessive exposure to light can cause the cell structure of wood to break down.
Damage from light is cumulative and irreversible. Therefore, efforts to control your wood furniture's exposure to excessive light and UV rays, or at least to reduce the amount of sun light falling on any single piece or section of furniture will be worthwhile.
5 Ways to Protect Wood Furniture from Excessive Light
Here are some tips you can use to avoid exposing your wood furniture to excessive, harmful light levels:
Use shades, draperies or blinds during sunny times of the day, or consider strategically placing bushes or awnings outside your home.
UV-filtering window films or tints can also help on windows, sliding glass doors and skylights.
Move furniture around the room periodically so that the same piece does not absorb high levels of light all the time.
Occasionally move lamps, table scarves and other objects placed on top of wood furniture so the wood bleaches more uniformly.
Consider covering furniture with sheets or blankets if you leave your home for part of the year. Don't use plastics to cover your furniture as they can trap condensation and damage your furniture.