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:
- Do as little as you need to keep wood vibrant.
- Know what finish you have, choose your cleaning method and stick with it.
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 All-Purpose Household spray:
- 1 qt. (1 L) water
- 1 Tbsp. (15 mL) 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. (Her book, which is chock full of lots of natural cleaning recipes a great resource!).
“It’s A Lotsa Polish”
from Clean House, Clean Planet by Karen Logan
- 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. (240 mL) 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. (5 mL) 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.
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.
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 (60 mL) Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap
- 1 gallon (4 L) 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.