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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Winter 2001 > Caring for Your Antique Furniture

Caring for Your Antique Furniture

The best way to protect your antique wooden furniture is to wax it once a year. A good wax polish applied to an object with an intact and stable varnish layer will enhance its sheen, protect against abrasive scratches, and improve its ability to repel moisture. Museum conservators generally prefer a paste wax that combines man-made waxes with carnauba wax, a hard natural wax that adds toughness to the polish film. Wax is a very stable material that can be applied easily and is not difficult to remove if necessary. Waxes of good quality are usually packaged in tins and contain a small amount of solvent to keep them soft enough to be rubbed on.

When waxing, be sure to work in an area with good ventilation. Make an applicator by folding a soft cloth into a small square, dab it into the tin, and rub a thin layer of wax onto the surface of the object. Let it sit for a few minutes to allow the solvent to evaporate and the wax to harden somewhat. Then, buff by hand with a soft cloth (diapers are ideal) before the wax has completely hardened. Complex surfaces like carving may be buffed with a soft brush, such as a shoe shine brush.

There is a variety of polishes on the market, all of which will improve the appearance of an object in the short term, but most of them will have long-term negative effects. Avoid aerosol sprays containing silicone, drying oils like linseed oil, non-drying oils like mineral oil (sometimes sold as an aerosol spray), and creams, which are emulsified versions of non-drying oils. Despite what you may read, wood does not require feeding with oils. An annual coat of good quality, hand-rubbed wax will provide all the protection your furniture needs.

—Joe Godla

The following publications contain additional information on caring for your furniture:

McGiffin, Robert F., Furniture Care and Conservation. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1983.

The National Committee to Save America’s Cultural Collections, Caring For Your Collections. New York: Abrams, 1992

Williams, Marc A., Keeping It All Together: The Preservation and Care of Historic Furniture. Worthington: Ohio Antique Review, 1988.

For information on historic finishes see:

Mussey, Robert, “Transparent Furniture Finishes in New England, 1700-1825.” Old-Time New England: New England Furniture, vol. 72, pp. 287–311. SPNEA, 1987.

Caring for Your Antique Furniture