Proper care of wood finishes pays dividends in beauty and shine

Are you planning to install new wood paneling this year or put in a new floor? Or maybe buy some furniture? Then it's a good idea to know how to take care of the finish.

Most finishes today are very durable. The finish preserves the wood and increases its beauty by giving a wide color range. Knowing the various kinds of wood finishes and their characteristics will help you become more attentive to the wood surfaces in your home.

* Butrate lacquer: This finish, displayed mostly on white and light-colored furniture in flat or glossy tones, is outstanding in retaining color depth and is easy to repair, but it does not help to prevent the wood from shrinking when exposed to heat.

* Lacquer: All styles and prices of furniture use lacquer as a finish, which can be flat or glossy with an excellent color depth. Even though the finish is sensitive to heat, the surface is easy to repair and fairly resistant to stains.

* Oil: Usually, modern walnut designs are finished in oil. While the flat finish resembles the natural wood, the surface has little protection because of the soft-shell top coat. The coloration comes from the uneven natural wood grain, a characteristic that might make matching difficult.

* Oleoresinous varnish: This finish, rather brittle and sensitive to heat, usually appears on lower-priced furniture. The finish produces a flat or glossy surface with a fair color depth.

* Paint: More and more furniture pieces show a variety of colors in all styles. Enamels can conceal or highlight a wood grain. While paints offer a durable, easy-to-wash surface, scratches are hard to conceal.

* Polyester finish: This finish features a glossy, outstanding clarity of depth that protects the wood from chemicals, shrinking, and heat.

* Synthetic varnish: Mostly found on inexpensive furniture, a varnished surface can be flat or glossy, with limited clarity and color depth. It is fairly resistant to heat, alcohol, and chemical stains, but it is difficult to repair.

Preventing damage to wood finishes is the best care, the National Association of Furniture Manufacturers advises. In the case of furniture, try to keep these finishes away from excessive cold, heat, direct sunlight, and dampness. Glue felt pads under accessories that rest on tables and shelves. Wipe up spills immediately. Avoid using a plastic tablecloth on wood finishes, because these coverings can trap heat and moisture to mar the finish.

A daily dusting reduces any thick coat of dust from accumulating. Removal of a heavy dust buildup may damage and scratch the surface. Dust before polishing, though, to remove any abrasive particles that might scratch fine surfaces. Use cotton knit, flannel, old diapers, sweat shirts, all-purpose paper cloths, and underwear as dust cloths, because they're soft and lintless.

A polish-treated cloth is also excellent for a polished finish, but it may soften the wax on an already waxed surface. Definitely avoid cheesecloth or new, unwashed materials that usually contain coarse sizing that can damage finishes.

A very practical technique is to use facial tissues for polishing. Simply place the tissue under the dusting cloth to absorb the dust and soil and to preserve the cloth for many more dustings.

Get acquainted with polishes and waxes. You have a choice of oil, cream, and cleaning polishes, as well as cleaning, paste, and dusting waxes. Some kinds of waxes have properties to make them better for various finishes. Use cream waxes for dull finishes and paste waxes on oil, antique, and surfaces that are in poor condition.

Some cleaning and dusting waxes contain silicone. They are easy to apply and highly water-repellent, give good protection against scratching, and produce a glossier shine than most polishes. The silicone ingredient in waxes is controversial, however. If you are in doubt about using such a wax, follow the manufacturer's instructions for new and very expensive furniture finishes.

The furniture manufacturers' group further suggests tailoring the care for the type of wood finish. Use polishes and waxes recommended for furniture, paneling, and floors. A self-polishing floor wax would soften a furniture finish. And don't use kitchen or appliance wax for wood finishes. Remember that wax, in liquid or solid form, is the best protection for wood finishes. Oily polishes catch and hold dust, lint, and dirt, and petroleum oil-base polishes may discolor the wood.

* High gloss: Choose a liquid polish (also aerosol can) or paste wax. You need to rub paste wax vigorously to bring out the sheen, but the wood surface gets a good protection against gritty residue and fingerprints. Follow the directions on an aerosol can or bottle on whether to apply the wax on the cloth or the wood. Then use a favorite dusting technique.

* Satin gloss: Use a cleaning polish or cream wax without silicone. If a previous waxing has turned into a high sheen, remove the wax with a cloth dampened in mineral spirits. Then apply the new wax and buff.

* Low gloss: Use a liquid polish designed for low-luster wood or a cleaning wax to remove surface soil and to protect the finish without giving a shine. For a higher luster, use a paste wax and buff in small sections.

* Oil finish: In a mild soap solution add a few drops of mineral spirits or lemon juice and wash the finish. Then apply boiled linseed oil (already prepared at paint stores). Dust with a cloth dampened with clear water and glycerin or mineral thinner. Water-dampen any cloth saturated in oil, and discard to reduce fire hazard.

* Painted finish: Don't use any wax unless the manufacturer's label states otherwise. Wipe the finish with a lightly dampened cloth in a mild soap solution.

* Antique finish: A patina surface should receive the same care as high-gloss finishes. Avoid a heavy wax buildup.

Wax only when necessary - perhaps once or twice a month. Too-frequent use of a polish or wax causes a buildup that actually reduces the beauty of the finish. Seldom-touched surfaces require rewaxing only two or three times a year. Often-used surfaces, such as kitchen and dining room tabletops, may need frequent touch-ups. Then, too, you may need several types of waxes if you have varied finishes.


When using a liquid wax or furniture cleaner and polish, apply a wet, even coating. Rub parallel to the grain with a dry cloth until excess wax disappears and an even film remains. Polish with a dry cloth until you get the desired gloss. Also, wax the sides and edges of drawers and doors for smoother gliding and sliding.

Remove fingerprints or greasy dirt with a mild soap or detergent-and-water solution. Use one teaspoon of detergent or soap to one quart of lukewarm water. Clean one section at a time and work parallel to the wood grain. Wipe the surface immediately with a clean, damp rag to remove the soap, and then dry with another clean rag.


Wood floors require special care. Do not clean a wood floor with water or any cleaner that contains water. Read and follow the instructions on floor waxes and cleaners. Avoid using any wax with a water base. Rather, use a solvent-base wax, polish, or finish.Water only raises the grain and could destroy the beauty of the finish.

To protect and beautify noncarpeted wood floors, look for basic qualities in a wood floor-care product. A wax may consist of a plastic ''wax,'' a true wax, or a combination of both.

The degree of gloss is your choice. The floor-care product you select should be durable, and shouldn't tend to attract and hold dirt. Dirt particles in the air may carry slight electrostatic charges, and certain floor polishes may attract these particles, determining, therefore, how often you will need to do a cleaning job.

After a waxing operation, the protecting wax should be colorless, show no streaking, and allow the natural wood grain to show through.

Wax buildup causes yellowing. Some newer brands of wax clean the floor, remove the old finish, and coat the wood surface in one step. But before applying a brand of wax or polish for the first time, you may need to remove the old-brand wax first, according to the directions.

Use only good wood floor waxes and polishes that resist heel and scuff marks or at least permit and assist you to remove these blemishes easily.


Though most factory-finished wood paneling is prefinished and of high quality , the surfaces are not entirely carefree. Dust smooth-finished paneling with a soft cloth. Use a vacuum-cleaner-attachment brush on rough-textured paneled walls, because a cloth can snag.

A mild detergent solution or a special cleaner polish for wood paneling will remove soil marks. Always inspect the panel polish instructions to be sure the cleaner or polish is for wood finishes and not for synthetic or plastic surfaces. Abrasive cleaners, scouring powder, or coarse steel wool will dull, mar, or scratch prefinished surfaces.

Treat solid wood or plywood that has a veneered wood surface as you would any fine wood surface. This type of paneling has a finish of urethane varnish to protect the wood grain.

On neglected walls you may need to take measures more drastic than merely using detergent or regular panel cleaners. First, try rubbing the surface with a rag saturated in solvent, such as paint thinner. A good idea is to use the solvent in an inconspicuous area to test for wood-finish damage before going over the whole room.

Clean small areas one at a time with clean rags. Wipe off the solvent and dirt immediately. Solvent may remove the luster from paneling. The only time to use wax on prefinished wood paneling is after cleaning with a solvent. Use a good grade of paneling wax and rub on the polish in thin layers. Buff along the wood grain.

Hide minor scratches on wood paneling by painting the scrapes with an artist's brush dipped in wood stain. Small bottles of various touch-up stain colors allow matching light and dark areas of the paneling. Always test the touch-up stain on a piece of scrap paneling. Fill deeply marred scratches with a filler-stick made to cover nail holes.

If a section of paneling has been badly scratched or is cloudy from cleaning, you may want to strip the paneling to the original wood surface with a sander or with chemical paint and varnish remover. Then refinish the section. Or you may be able to remove the entire 4-by-8-foot section and match the damaged sheet. Take care not to damage the adjacent paneling.

When accidents do happen to wood finishes, you can take immediate action if the blemish is minor. Serious damages and burns may require professional attention.

Usually, wax will eliminate minor scratches. You can even try coloring crayons, shoe polish, scratch-cover polish, or a wax stick in wood tones made for furniture. Table salt dipped in oil will help to diminish white spots or rings. Try rubbing the spot gently with wax, moistened ash, or silver polish, or a few drops of ammonia on a damp cloth if the damage isn't too great. Minor heat marks respond to rubbing with very fine steel wool dipped in wax or lubricating oil, or to a light stroking cloth moistened with camphorated oil.

The last technique can be used on water marks, too.

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