Wood: Making It Shine

When I sat down to write about wood, I figured it would be a quick short post. Six pages of notes later, I realized this wasn’t the case. Here’s what I have boiled it down to:

Key points:

  • Do as little as you need to keep wood vibrant.
  • Know what finish you have, choose your cleaning method and stick with it.

Dusting
On a routine basis, wood simply needs dusting. This should be done with a slightly damp, high quality microfiber cloth. (I get a pack of 36 at Costco.) Damp microfiber will even pick up fingerprints with a little extra elbow grease. Replace your cloth with a clean one when it starts leaving dust behind.

If your wood has crevices, use a soft bristled brush to dust in them, or use a soft brush attachment on a vacuum, held just closely enough to extract the dust.

Do not use polishes or sprays for routine care of your wood. In fact, this will harm your furniture, in addition to taking more of your time and resources.

Cleaning and Polishing
Beyond routine dusting, several times a year, give your wood an extra gleam. However, this is where it gets tricky. Knowing the finish on the wood is more important than the type of wood. If you have a fairly recent, commercially-made piece of furniture, it is finished with a hard surface sealer that is not wax. If your furniture’s origins are less certain, or it was custom built, I’ve included a few tests at the end to determine the finish. Also, if your surface finish is cracked (get on eye level to check), don’t use any liquid on the piece. The oil or water can seep under the finish and damage the wood.

Cleaning Surface Sealed Wood (not waxed):If your wood is grubby dirty – I’m think of my kitchen table or my boys’ bathroom cabinets – where the problem is more than just dust or dullness, use Sal Suds. (What did you expect me to say?) Use a Sal Suds spray:

  • 1 qt. water
  • 1 Tbsp. Sal Suds

Spray and wipe with a damp microfiber cloth. Dry thoroughly with a microfiber cloth.

Polishing Surface Sealed Wood (not waxed):
Once your wood is clean, polish when needed and not usually more than 3-4 times/year, unless the wood gets heavy use which wears down the polish more quickly. Conventional spray polishes (Yes, Pledge, I’m talking about you) contain silicone, which looks great in the short term, but dulls quickly and can damage the wood in the long term. Also, with any propellant, a good amount of the spray will end up in the air (i.e. your lungs) and the cost of the recipe below is considerably less. So, here is a great recipe from Karen Logan’s book Clean House, Clean Planet.

“It’s A Lotsa Polish”

from Clean House, Clean Planet by Karen Logan

Ingredients:

  • Olive oil
  • White distilled vinegar
  • Optional pure essential lemon oil (make sure you’re using the pure stuff, or leave it out)

Container: Squirt bottle (not a spray bottle) – 8 oz. is a good size
Fill the container ¾ of the way with olive oil. Fill the rest of the way with vinegar, leaving a little room at the top for the lemon oil. Add ¼ tsp. lemon oil. The vinegar cleans and the olive oil gleams. The lemon oil adds scent. Shake well before each use. If you substitute lemon juice for the lemon oil, this will not be shelf stable. You can keep it for about a week in the fridge. Always test a new solution on an obscure spot on your wood.

To use:
Squirt a small amount on a soft, microfiber cloth. Polish the wood with a vigorous, circular motion until the wood gleams and the streaks are gone. If you have a flat surface, such as a table top, you can squirt the polish directly on to the surface. A little goes a long way.

Naturally polished wood table

Wood polished with “It’s A Lotsa Polish” gleams just as much or more than conventionally polished wood.

Determining Your Finish
For the purpose of cleaning and polishing, there are three other finishes to identify: painted, waxed, or oiled. If your finish is none of these three, then you have a hard surface finish that can be polished with the recipe above.

Do all of these tests in an inconspicuous area. You’ll only have to figure this out once for each piece of furniture. Make a note of it somewhere if you’re prone to forget.

Test for an Oil Finish:
Rub a Few Drops of Boiled Linseed Oil Into the Wood. If it absorbs, the wood has an oil finish. If it beads up, the wood has a hard finish.

Cleaning an Oil Finish – Remember that least is best, so do whatever you can with the vacuum or a very slightly damp dust cloth. If the dirt is stubborn, make a mild Castile Soap Solution:

Mild Soap Solution for Cleaning Oiled Wood

  • ¼ cup Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap
  • 1 gallon of warm water

Wipe down your wood with this, and then dry it thoroughly.

Polishing an Oil Finish:
The only way to bring back the glow to oiled wood is to re-oil it with a hard drying oil such as tung, or boiled linseed oil, which should be done yearly. Do not use a wax on an oiled finish.

Wooden Cutting Boards:
Re-oil regularly with an edible oil (from your pantry), such as Olive Oil or Coconut Oil. I have found that these two work better than Canola Oil. Rub the oil into the wood and let it sit for 20 minutes or so. Wipe off any extra. Do this as often as your board appears dry. This will extend the life of your cutting board tremendously.

Last thoughts about wood oil:
Avoid mineral oil. It is a petroleum byproduct, neither hard drying nor edible. There are better options. Conventional “Lemon Oil” raises some other red flags. Although it sounds nice and friendly and well, “lemony”, it usually is either fragranced mineral oil, or mineral spirits. Not so friendly.

Test for a Waxed Finish: Scratch it. Yep, you read that right. In a very inconspicuous spot, scratch the finish lightly with your fingernail. Can you see it? If so, can you buff it out with a soft cloth? If you can, then your wood is waxed.

Cleaning and Polishing a Wax Finish – Dust, buff, or rewax. That’s it.

Do not use a soap or detergent on a waxed finish. It will soften it and make it gummy. Oil polish is also out – it’ll turn gummy, too. Once you wax, you must always wax, unless you strip the surface (which I’m not going into here). Wax isn’t harmful; it just takes a commitment.

An additional note about Wax – Wax can be used on top of hard sealed finishes like polyurethane or varnish or paint, so you may want to do this wax test regardless of what you think is on your furniture. If wax is present, oil polishes are out for you. They’ll make your surface gummy.

Test for a Painted Finish:
Here’s the easy one: look at it. If you have an opaque covering over the wood – no grain visible – it’s painted.

Cleaning Painted Wood:
If the painted surface gets dirty, beyond what a damp cloth can remove, use the Sal Suds Spray mentioned at the top.

Polishing Painted Wood:
An oil polish will have no benefit here. Wax can bring an extra sheen, but read the above section about wax before you start down that road.

35 thoughts on “Wood: Making It Shine

  1. I was just thinking the other day that I need a more natural way to polish my furniture. My kitchen table gets grimy in no time between a messy four year old and a totally manic 14 month old! I’d love to try Sal Suds…maybe I could review it on my blog!

  2. Another amazing video! Thanks for your time and efforts here, will be forwarding to everyone. I have a question- perhaps maybe an idea for a future post, how do I get the liquid soap to be okay to use in a dispenser? I have seen recipes that call for extra glycerin etc…. please advise! Thanks again

    • Hi Tom – There is no way to make the pure castile soap work in a regular pump dispenser. No amount of diluting, adding glyercin, etc. will make it not clog the pump. The soap will eventually squirt out at the unsuspecting hand washer. Rosemary is right about the foaming pump dispensers. Those work well for me, too.

      All the best,
      Lisa

  3. Just read your post Tom. I have found the only way to use the liquid soap in a dispenser is to dilute it and use in one of those foam dispensers. I think the dilution depends on your water but I use about 1/3 soap 2/3 water. The soap is lovely and creamy on your skin. I think Lisa has covered this somewhere in one of her blogs. It might be good for a special dispenser from Dr Bronner to go along with the liquid soap though!

  4. Hi Allison – I’m thinking you must have read my entire blog over the course of a few days! I don’t have wood floors, but as I said, it all depends on what the finish is. The “It’s a Lotsa Polish” might be a little intense for floors, because I find I have to give the table a good buffing. Using Sal Suds in water on the floors would be an excellent way to clean them. (You probably know not to let water stand on wood floors.) To give them a little extra shine, perhaps use a microfiber mop, or I’ve had a device that had a large, flat, rectangular attachment at the bottom, and I had terry cloth, fitted covers for it. Spray it with a dusting spray (Karen Logan has a recipe of 2 tsp. olive oil, 20 drops pure essential lemon oil, 1/4 c. vinegar in a spray bottle the rest of the way filled with water. Shake before each time spraying.)

    Hope that helps!

    Lisa

  5. Hi Lisa
    I recently bought used, an old sideboard/buffet, and it smells really badly of cigarette smoke. Would Sal suds take the smell out? Maybe after a few washes? It has been refinished nicely, not recently, but the whole thing reeks of smoke.
    Inside and out. Any ideas?

  6. Hi Hilary – That’s a tough one. The smoke is probably soaked into the wood. I realize I’m a couple months late here, and you’ve probably figured something out. Evenentually, the smell should dissapate (or you’ll get used to it, which is worse). I’d make sure the whole thing is open, and even lifted off the ground, and put it outside on a dry day, or in a garage for a few days. Perahps tucking some cups of baking soda discreetly inside it would help. I don’t think there’s a quick fix here. Hmm. I wish I had one for you. You can try washing it with Sal Suds, but the problem is probably more than surface deep.

    All the best,
    Lisa

  7. I have rustic furniture which has no wax or polish. How would you clean this type of wood and should it be oiled once-in-a-while or not and if so, how would you do it?

    By the way, I just came upon your site looking for healthier homemade cleaners. I just bought some Castile and Sal cleaners yesterday and I just sprayed my shower with the Castile solution using the tea tree oil in the mix. It’s time to go and clean it now after a few minutes of soaking. I’m so excited to have found you!

    Thanks for all the helpful information!

  8. Hi Latina – To clean this wood, use the least means necessary. If dusting with a dry cloth is getting it clean, go with that. If you need something more, use the hose on your vacuum with the brush attachement.

    Wood needs to be nourished in some fashion. If it doesn’t have a protective seal on it, then regular oiling is a good idea. There are a variety of options out there, and which one depends on type of wood, what it’s used for, and your personal preference. For outdoor wood, I use tung oil. For indoor unfinished wood, perhaps a lemon oil would be better. If this wood comes in contact with food (such as a cutting board or salad bowl), use something edible like olive oil.

    How did the shower cleaning go?

    All the best,
    Lisa

  9. Hi Lisa,

    Shower cleaning went well. Although I did have a problem with the floor of the shower. I sprinkled on baking soda, but it doesn’t clean as well as comet cleaner. The floor of the shower unfortunately has a sculptured design which tends to hold in the heavy minerals in our water and dirt seems to want to cling to all those lovely crevices.

    Should I squirt white vinegar first and than add baking soda?

    I like the idea of vacuuming the low level furniture. And thanks for the info on the oil for the furniture. Would I do this weekly, monthly, quarterly?

    Also, for dish soap, would sal suds be a better choice? I have a friend who tried Castile and she said it didn’t suds up very well.

    Thanks again for your helpful info. Time to read some more. :) I’m thinking that when my Tide detergent is used up, I’d like to give the Sal Suds a try. Is there an alternative softer to replace downy?

  10. Hi Laina – Glad to hear you’re giving all this a try! For your shower floor, it doesn’t really matter the order of the baking soda vinegar. If you’d like to try the vinegar first, go for it. You’ll probably need a nice stiff brush for getting in those crevices.

    Oiling furniture should only be done quarterly so that you don’t have build-up.

    Dish soap-wise, yes, the castile doesn’t produce many bubbles. I regularly use Sal Suds for handwashing dishes.

    For a natural fabric softener, I use white vinegar in the rinse cycle. I add 1/2 c. of vinegar to the fabric softener compartment.

    Let me know if you think of other questions!

    All the best,
    Lisa

  11. Hi,
    I have a lot of paintednwood adirondeck chairs and swings that I purchased from Home Depot for my porch and patio. Will a lightndusting of mineral oil that I purchased at my local pharmacy damage the paint? I ask because my hubby did this while I was searching for a how to website, and found yours?

    Worried?

  12. We bought a wooden table at the local salvation army store – large kitchen table sized for me to use as my work surface in my craft/scrapbooking room. Whatever they used on it has caused it to be sticky – paper will actually adhere to the table if I leave it for a day or two. Any idea what they used and how I should clean it?

  13. Hey,

    I have a wooden wardrobe on which we have put white deco polish and there is a small floral painting we want to get done on the doors on the wardrobe.
    Have been trying to figure out what kind of paint should be used and what will last long? Can you guide me on the same.

    Thanks

  14. Help!! My wooden hand rails going up the stairs are in bad shape. They had gunk, darkening, hand sweat etc… built up and I used Lysol wipes to disinfect. They are polyurethane and I am sure some of that came off as well. I did lightly follow with a bit of water and dried immediately but they are gummy and seems like soap scum came off as well. Can you advise me.

  15. Can you use the oil/vinegar on kitchen cupboards? I bought a foreclosed home and although the cupboards are beautiful oak they are a bit worn – clean first? And if so, with what?

  16. I am so sorry for my delay here.

    Darlene – You’ve probably already taken care of those chairs, but in case it’s still helpful to know, mineral oil is not what you need to use. If the chairs are painted, then what you’re cleaning is paint, not wood. Oil is useful only in nourishing wood, but in this case, the oil isn’t even getting to the wood. All it will do is sit on top of the paint, attract dirt, and create grime. Sal Suds or soap and water is all you need.

    Norma – I imagine that piano has absorbed a lot of smoke. I would imagine that a super thorough dusting would help followed perhaps by training a fan on it for a while to blow it out, although this could really dry the wood. Probably if it outgasses for a long time (a couple months?), you’ll find the smell dissipates. You’ll be needing to keep airing out the room, which means the piano will be exposed to temperature and humidity changes. After all this is taken care of, you’ll definitely need to get it tuned!

    Lisa – Quite possible the table has been treated with multiple products already that shouldn’t have been used together and have caused a grime. You can try a good scrubbing with Sal Suds first to see if that does anything, but the best option is probably to strip it down and reseal it.

    Shweta – I am not familiar with paint types, but there is a style of painting called tole painting that is on wood. If you Google “tole painting paint type”, you should come up with something.

    Mary – It sounds like there is a lot of build up on those rails, more than the oil and vinegar can handle. The first step is a good scrubbing with some hot water and Sal Suds. As you said, all that usage has probably worn through the polyurethane, so once you have them really clean, and thoroughly dry, you should reseal them.

    Gail – If the cabinets are clean, just worn, then the oil and vinegar solution should definitely help revive them. If you think, however, that they might be waxed, investigate that further.

    All the best,
    Lisa

  17. Hi lisa! Wondering if it is possible to use dr. Bronner soap on the rosewood fretboard of my guitar without damaging tthe wood?

  18. Hi Jack – While I am not specifically familiar with cleaning guitars, I can say that if the moisture itself is not a problem, then the castile soap would do a great job. I would recommend applying a diluted soap solution to a microfiber cloth and then rubbing the fretboard rather than applying the solution directly to the guitar.

    All the best,
    Lisa

  19. Hi. Can I use the oil and vinegar on my deck and wood railings outside. They are raw wood and looking dry after 7 years. Commercial wood treatment products are very expensive. Can I use old cooking oil?

  20. Hi Lynn – The wear and tear your exterior wood is getting from the weather is more than olive oil can protect against. Old cooking oil might not only attract pests, but also may turn rancid under such an application. I do not know if there is a lower-cost alternative to Tung oil or Thompson’s Waterseal. Does anyone else have a suggestion here?

    All the best,
    Lisa

  21. I have Travertine floors in a pilates studio with high traffic. I cannot get them clean no matter what I do. They are streaky & dull. Any suggestions?
    Thanks,
    Kathy

  22. Hi Kathy – Travertine is a very soft and porous surface that needs to be rebuffed or resealed (depending on which route was chosen at the start) every few years. I’ve never had them and so I don’t have any specific recommendations on how to accomplish either of these tasks, but my understanding is one of these must be done with some regularity. Sal Suds is a safe product to use in cleaning travertine. Travertine is very susceptible to etching by acidic liquids, but Sal Suds is alkaline, so there’s no risk with that. However, if it’s been a while, the buffing or sealing may be in order.

    All the best,
    Lisa

  23. My dinning room table is wood with polyureathane. I believe some of the poly has worn off and am wondering how to make it shine again without totally refinishing it.

  24. Is glycerin considered a soap? I used a cleaning solution with glycerin on waxed furniture. It seems to look pretty good. Lots of dirt came off and it is looking healthy.

  25. Hi Nan,

    Olive oil works perfectly. The light is a better choice (cost).

    I use my cutting board almost everyday for lots of veggies. So I’m having to treat my board at least every two months. So during that time I’m washing my board as well. The oil will not go bad it doesn’t sit on top, it’s all soaked into the board.

  26. Hi Jackie – I really don’t know because any sort of oil could then penetrate though the wood and make future finishing more difficult. Let’s see if another reader can weigh in here.

    Hi Nan – The frequent use and washing of your cutting board eventually also washes out the oil that you’re using to nourish it. You certainly would not want a non-edible oil on it, because it will be leaching into your food. Glycerin is a moisturizer, but doesn’t have any cleaning properties, other than being able to hold dust on to a cloth because it’s a bit liquidy. It could be nourishing, though.

    Thanks for weighing in, Laina!

    All the best,
    Lisa

  27. Hiya!
    I was wondering if you have any ideas for dealing with an oiled wood table (made by Hillsdale is it helps!) that may have been etched. Long story short… someone in my house accidentally spilled hot water / tea on a tablecloth over my wife’s lovely kitchen table. It was left there. No one noticed for weeks. My wife went to pull up the tablecloth and it stuck. When it finally came up, the table had imprints from the tablecloth in it. My wife is understandable upset. DO you have any ideas how to clean/polish/help the etching go away?
    Thanks!
    -Brian

  28. I have an older house with what are probably varnish or shellac surface-sealed floors. I also have 2 dogs and a toddler who is going through potty training. So I am looking for something that I can use on my floors as a spot spray cleaner and also use in my Swiffer-style refillable mop on a reasonably regular basis. With all of my research it seems that I can dilute vinegar with water, but I should also have some kind of oil (like olive oil?) in the mix. Can you advise me as to a good home-made concoction and what amounts to use of each?

    Thanks.

  29. My wood table keeps going green after I have sanded then varnished it do you know why

  30. Hi Sarah – Vinegar and water are good light cleaning options. If your floors are sealed, oil will not help. it will only sit on top of the floor’s surface, making it slippery and catching dirt. If you want to add a couple drops of Sal Suds (not castile ) to the vinegar and water, that could give a cleaning boost if you need it. I love your idea of refilling the Swiffer bottle.

    Hi Jean – I really don’t know. It might have something to do with the wood type, the varnish type, and the relative humidity, but I think a wood-care site or store might be your best resource.

    All the best,
    Lisa

  31. I’m wondering about using Sal Suds to clean my hardwood floor. I read through the post, but I’m not really sure what kind of finish it has on it. Its engineered hardwood, so its built up in layers, the top layer being wood with some sort of shiny finish on it (poly?). Would Sal Suds work without leaving any residue or stickiness on it? And would the pine/fir oils in it take off some of the finish? My husband is using some icky chemical cleaner on it (after trying several hardwood cleaners that didn’t work) but I’d like to get rid of the chemical cleaners in the house.

  32. I just found your products today in my weeks worth on researching to find a collection of products that will be safe for me to use daily as a housekeeper but also will be effective in my clients homes without damaging their belongings. Would the food grade coconut oil available on the website work in place of a product like pledge or liquid gold? I understand you detailed a mixture you like to use above, but since I will be using it frequently and on the go I’d like to find something pre-made. I have been planning to use citra solv.

  33. Hi Lisa, Thanks for all this information. I’m wondering if you could advise on the following problem. My mother’s house has been closed up for almost a year. We’ve been unable to clear it out until now ( illness in the family). Went in yesterday and got a big shock. Greenish and white mold has formed on the teak timber of her furniture – sideboard, and hand rests of 70’s style lounge suite, and on floorboards. It has been dark – drapes closed, airless and it’s a cold concrete house. How could I clean the timber harmlessly and effectively? Kind regards, Nicky

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