Cleaning Up a Precious Wooden Surface

When to use wax, oil or other wooden surface protectants for precious wooden surfaces.

One of the most common errors people make when restoring wooden objects is to fail to determine precisely what they want to achieve with the restoration.

For each level of restoration, whether it is a full restoration, a thorough clean-up, or just a touch-up, a separate approach is required. Using the wrong approach can produce a disaster rather than the hoped for restoration. For the purposes of this article, we are looking specifically at a clean-up.

Choosing the Type of Wooden Surface Restoration

A clean-up will vastly improve the look and life of the object or piece of furniture you want to restore. Today, wood-surfacing technology has advanced to the point where it is possible to choose from an extremely broad range of coating options and the uninitiated can be easily confused, especially if purchasing product or being advised on technique by inexperienced shop staff.

For example, if your restoration project has previously been treated with a plastic coating such as a varnish, lacquer, or polyurethane, and it is suffering from obvious signs of sun damage (severe fading) and has nicks, marks and scratches, one of the worst things you can do is to polish it with an oil. This is because the oil will penetrate the surface where the damage is and get under the plastic finish where it will deepen the colouring in the damaged areas and produce a patchy and unsightly finish.

Wooden Surface Clean-Up Restoration using Beeswax

To do a proper job on damaged plastic-coated wooden furniture, the item should be stripped back to the bare timber and re-polished from the beginning, but if that’s not feasible, this type of damage can be radically improved with a restored shine, total clean and marvelous smell, by applying a beeswax.

Choose a beeswax with a carnuba additive. It will provide reasonable resistance to wear and tear and has good shining properties.

If the surface condition is poor, and layered with dirt, use vinegar to remove old grime, but be certain that the surface is dry before waxing or the wax will not dry properly. Once the wax has been applied, buff the surface until the desired shine is achieved.

Waxing will not affect the colour or faded look of an object, but it brightens surfaces beautifully. This is because beeswax is quick-drying and doesn’t penetrate the surface as an oil would. It is very similar in effect to applying another coat of lacquer.

If the item is a high-use piece of furniture such as a table top, Earthwood doesn’t recommend waxing. Constant wiping of the table will reduce the efficacy of the wax, and serious consideration should be given instead to completely stripping and re-polishing.

If the item is not faded and has kept its original colour but is dry-looking, then it should be fine to apply an oil-based polish or solution because the colour is less likely to be affected. In this case, clean the item with with the following solution before applying the beeswax. Beware: try a test patch on a non-visible part of the item first.

Wood Surface Restoration Cleaning Solution for Old Dry Surfaces

  • 1/3 turps
  • 1/3 boiled linseed oil
  • 1/3 vinegar

When applying the Wood Surface Restoration Cleaning Solution, use a rag and/or soft brush. Many are surprised by how much dirt and grime comes away. A word of caution though: antiques often build up a lovely patina with years and years of handling and beeswax polishing. If you feel you need a weaker mixture to save some of the patina, then reduce the amount of turps in the mix. Too much turpentine can dissolve wax if too much is applied or it is left on the surface too long.

Wood Surface Restoration Tip for Very Old Items

After you have cleaned the surface of a neglected wooden item which still feels slightly rough to the touch and very dry, burnish with 0000 steel wool. It has a mildly abrasive effect, so try it first in a small, less visible spot. Then, apply the beeswax.

Each wooden item is different, and depending on its age and the treatment it has had over the years, can be differently affected by restoration techniques, so Earthwood always recommends experimental starts in a not so obvious back corner.

At Earthwood we like to see people take on their own restoration projects, but we also say that if the item has high value, and you are not sure of the best treatment, always visit a restorer first.


Theresa Sjoquist