Loving Your Furniture
Cabinetmaker (n., "A craftsman specializing in making fine articles of wooden furniture") A quiet man, with sawdust on his jeans, who understands mortise-and-tenon joints, oxidizing agents and binders, and cabriole legs.
Cabinetmaker's wife: a not-necessarily quiet woman who understands binders as family ties and cabriole legs as dusty. She also understands the cabinetmaker. If you are an antiques buff, the care and feeding of your furniture can be as intimidating as physics is to an English major. The diminishing supply of true antiques in this country makes them rare - and therefore expensive - but the same rationale necessitates the affectionate care and feeding of the ones you have.
If you are not an antiques buff, but find that a comfortable distance between your dinner and your mouth is that distance provided by a wooden chair, you may still find the furniture you own is in need of occasional care. This series of articles is designed for those among you who would like to fix the little things that can go awry with furniture as a result of age, benign neglect, hot dishes and cold vases, children, animals, and guests who think all the world is made of polyurethane. It is also designed to sort out some definitions and interpret the mumblings of the cabinetmaker, who believes that everybody should know that the first definition of a "joiner" is "cabinetmaker," not a clubs freak. The ego of some people!
My very first advice is to sing to your furniture. Furniture, unlike plants, does not grow (except Empire in a Fifties house), but I am very nearly convinced that it needs to believe that you truly love it. Given the necessary affection, it will last for several hundred years and provide scars, scratches, and dents as subject-matter for tales for your grandchildren. It is probably wise not to sing to your furniture in front of others, as it will be neglected if you are institutionalized, but even a low hum while you dust is likely helpful. Dust and its role in that lovely patina on your 18th-century secretary is a good place to start.
There are, basically, two types of finishes: open, as in oil, and sealed, as in everything else. Sealed finishes very in their degree of absorption; contemporary finishes such as the ubiquitous polyurethane allow no absorption, whereas old finishes, such as shellac, allow some. The finish on your secretary is old, so some of the dust your family's maids have been removing for two hundred years has been absorbed, along with oils in the finishes, waxes, and hands, adding to the depth and darkness of the finish. Ergo: patina.
The first question which bewilders most furniture-owners is: what to polish with? Which advertisement do I believe? Or do I use Great-Aunt Sally's formula of bacon fat and spit? The answer to that question reverts to the two types of finishes. If you have a piece made in the last 100 years, it is likely that the finish is lacquer or a form of varnish, both of which are basically non-absorbent. In that case, when you polish you are polishing the finish; you can use anything that pleases you and provides some protection for the finish. You can probably tell if the finish is sealed or non-sealed: if the finish sits on top of the wood and provides a glossy surface, or if it chips around the edges, or if it is "alligatored" (like crazing in old china - tiny fine lines), it is either an old or new sealed finish.
An oil finish that will allow maximum absorption will, obviously, absorb much of a liquid polish. Wax polishes on sealed finishes - paste, either soft or bowling alley - provide the maximum protection, as well as the maximum amount of work. I ran that complaint by my husband once, but received little sympathy, as he puts anywhere from four to ten coats of a rubbed finish on each of his pieces. Wax finishes do build up, over a period of time; when that happens, it needs to be cleaned. Remember, you are cleaning the finish. Use turpentine and a soft cloth, or very fine (size 0000) steel wool, always rubbing with the grain; you have thus removed the old wax and can start all over. Commercial spray polishes do well enough on sealed finishes; they remove smudges and add a little wax to the finish. They, too, can build up, along with dust and dirt; the same cleaning process as above is effective. If you actually do have an 18th-century secretary, don't touch it without professional advice! It doesn't matter how scuzzy it looks; it's more valuable in its original condition.
Bacon fat and spit may have some merit, but only on unsealed (and potentially rancid) finishes. That, plus suggestions about what to do if your furniture starts humming back, will be taken up at a later date.