Magic in a Can

paste waxWhat should I use on my wood furniture? It’s a question I frequently get just after someone hears an ad promoting some spray polish that “works like magic.” Here’s the sad truth: if it is ridiculously easy to use, it’s probably not what you expect. Life’s just like that.

The Treadmill

The problem with most spray furniture polishes is not that they are harmful to furniture finishes (they’re not), or that they don’t work (they do), but rather that they put you on a treadmill. No, not the kind your spouse has been trying to get you on since your weight began to inexplicably inch upward. The metaphorical kind.

Here’s how it works. Many furniture polishes add sheen or luster by coating the finish with an ultra-thin layer of some oily compound. It looks nice and shiny for a while, but the oily film soon attracts, and holds, airborne dust. Before long, it looks dusty again and cries out for more polish.

No problem. All you need do is spray and wipe again. And again soon after that. You get the picture: you’re on the spray polish treadmill. It’s time to clean off the polish with some mineral spirits (paint thinner), and start anew.

The Right Answer

So what’s the right answer to the question “What should I use to clean my furniture?” Mild soap and water. Well, that’s pretty ambiguous; what does mild mean? It means soap or detergent you’d feel comfortable putting your hands in.

But what about polishing, or waxing? Isn’t that necessary?

Strictly speaking, no. You can leave the finish alone and simply clean it with soap and water when needed. However, that’s not to say it’s wrong to add a thin coat of wax. It can aid in shedding water, and might actually help the piece look and feel a bit better, though certainly not much. Still, it can’t hurt, and it’s a valid option.

The problem is that the sort of wax you want to use does not come in a spray on, wipe off, ten seconds and you’re done format. It comes in a squat round tin, and it’s called paste wax.

Now, I’m not trying to say paste wax is labor-intensive. On a satin finish, you simply apply it with the grain on 0000 steel wool and wipe it off immediately. Gloss is tougher; you apply it with a soft cloth, wait until it is just about dry, then buff it, preferably with the buffer you use on your car.

Come to think of it, wax is labor-intensive, but in spite of the extra work, or perhaps because of it, you’ll get better, longer lasting results. And isn’t that what you wanted in the first place?

Michael Dresdner

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  • Can also depend on how you use the piece of furniture concerned. Something ornamental can be just fine as it it, though suggest more regular cleaning to prevent a build up of too much dust is better. If however it is a kitchen or dinning table that is likely to get plenty of things spilled on it then using a good quality wax for a protective coating is beneficial to its longer term care.

  • Stauben Holtzwachs

    I have been experimenting with various furniture polish for years. I recently combined earth friendly natural beeswax with used motor oil that is not only beautiful and protective, but could reduce the earth’s pollution if implemented by a major finish product manufacturer.

    Almost any finish can be matched by using oil that has been changed at different mileage intervals. For example, 3000 mile oil/beeswax is a great match for birch and maple, whereas 20,000 mile oil mix works on ebony and darker woods. Subtle differences between Mobile, Shell and Quakerstate at the same mileages allow perfect blending to match almost any existing furniture finish.

    I have an arrangement with my local Chevy dealer to get used oil for free. The service manager knows the exact mileage and oil type based on the service records of his regular customers. He’s also a woodworker and took a keen interest in my project.

  • Jake Golden

    I use this all the time and it is great! There is no build up nor pasty feel to the wood when I’m done. I actually found it once at a local ACE store and the lesson there was to buy multiple cans at once and just put them away. The stuff lasts forever.