Awww, I’m sorry if you wound up at this post because you were looking for something involving Rosey Palm and her Five Sisters. While today’s topic does center around a job one does with one’s hands on wood and while the sexual innuendo was not an accident, this post is specifically about polishing wood furniture with oil.
You can skip the blathering and go straight to the instructions, if you’d like. You’ll find them under the red sentence below (scroll down…keep scrolling).
Why am I writing a post on polishing wood furniture with oil when I am about as far from being a homemaker as possible and am in no way an expert on this subject?
I’m glad you asked. It all started when my friends began to come up far enough up in the world to need house cleaners. When you are first able to hire help to clean your house, you start out small because that’s all you can afford. Often, you find an acquaintance, someone your co-worker knows or maybe one of the parents in your child’s preschool class, who cleans houses on the side and you strike a bargain with that person. Soon you get used to coming home to a clean house one Thursday out of the month and you look forward to the freshly-vacuumed carpets, the crumb-free countertops, the mirrors in which you can see your reflection, the glistening cabinets. The thing is, those super-shiny wood pieces? Unless there’s a lacquer varnish already in place, they are not supposed to look like that after they’ve been cleaned and polished. Yes, that wet look is amazing and you come to associate cleanliness with high-gloss kitchen cabinets but, really, you’re just creating buildup and asking for dust to stick to all the wood. I have railed against this for years and now I am going to stand up for wood, to shout loudly, to proclaim vehemently: YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG!
No, I am not a master woodworker, though I did take a shop class in middle school where I played with a bandsaw and sandpaper. Really, though, I am not certified in the art of furniture care. I don’t have a degree in oils and waxes. I did, however, apprentice in housewifery under my grandmother who was, as most women of her time, highly knowledgeable and experienced in taking care of household belongings because way back then, people planned to pass their crap down to the next generation since there was no IKEA. I may not have remembered much from those long-ago lessons but I can polish my wood furniture.
Please note: I’m talking about regular, run-of-the-mill (haha), daily-use furniture made of wood (not fake wood or veneer) and not antiquities, not museum-quality pieces, not heirlooms that came over on the Mayflower. If you own things like that, you probably already know how to care for them. If you don’t, you should visit a museum or wood shop or fine furniture store and ask for help.
Ok! Let’s begin!
So you want to polish your wood. But what to use? Endust? Pledge? Sure – though like Coke and Pepsi, all those products yell about how the rival products are sub-par so choosing can get confusing. What about wax? If you have nothing else to do in your life or if you have amazing, costly furniture that will still be in your family when the world comes to an end, then, yes, wax is great. But have you ever waxed your car? Take those basic principles and apply them – and the wax – to all the wood pieces in your house. Mr. Miyagi will be very proud of you.
I prefer oil, specifically lemon oil because that’s what my grandmother used and I like the way it smells. There are other oils out there: Old English, Tung oil (not tongue oil, we’re not cats), linseed oil, on and on and on. If you don’t want to explore all the different oils and just need to be told what to do: Go get some lemon oil.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR POLISHING COMMON WOOD FURNITURE
1) Gather your supplies
You have to clean the furniture before you can polish it. I like to use Murphy Oil Soap but there are a bunch of recipes out there for making your own cleanser, as well as polish. If you use Murphy’s, you may as well buy a bucket used just for cleaning with this soap because it leaves a tacky residue when you mix it in the kitchen sink. Also, you can keep your whole wood cleaning kit in the bucket and that will make you feel professional and awesome.
Have a toothbrush and a razor blade on hand. You probably won’t need them, but in case you do, they’ll be at your disposal.
Grab some rags. You’ll need one to wash, one to polish, and one to buff. I use cotton rags from old t-shirts or socks from old husbands (ok, he’s not actually that old) A lot of people like to use microfiber dust cloth type thingies and if you have ’em, use ’em but why buy them if you already have cut-up bits of cloth?
I know I just told you I like to use lemon oil and told you to go buy some. However, I have some dark pieces of wood that sometimes get a bit scratched up and the lemon oil doesn’t hide the scratches nearly as well as the Old English oil that is full of stain or whatever is in there.
Ok, ready for the next step?
2) De-grit the flat surfaces
Unless it’s dry and windy out, my furniture just gathers dust. However, toward the end of summer, there are times I have to gently brush the grit off the wood before I clean it. If you don’t do this, you risk putting icky little scratches into your furniture so brush the grit off with a soft brush, a non-scratchy cloth, canned air or, heck, blow really hard on it. Just git rid of that grit!
3) Wash that wood
Make the Murphy’s Oil Soap solution, there are instructions on the bottle. Dunk your cleaning rag into the soapy water then wring the rag out really well because we’re not mopping, here; we don’t need a lot of wetness. A damp cloth is a kind cloth…or something. Anyhow, get your Cinderella on and clean every bit of wood furniture in the house. If there are wax drippings or bits of crusty jam or that white powdery stuff – no, not cocaine – left behind by harsh minerals in your water, you might need to gently scrape it free. Don’t dig it out, just give it a loving nudge with your thumbnail. If that doesn’t work, scrub gently with the toothbrush or use the razor to maneuver the offending substance up and away from the surface of your furniture.
Wash the whole piece – sides, underside, legs, arms, whatever. If it’s wood, wash it. Then go wash the next piece of wood, then the next, and don’t stop until all the wood is clean.
4) Let the wood dry
The wood shouldn’t have been wet but you did just rub it down with a damp cloth so it needs to dry a bit before it can be oiled.
5) Annie, get your oil
There are a few schools of thought on the oil rag. I’ve recently joined the one that says you should get your rag as oily as possible and when you’re done using it, store it in a sealed plastic bag so you can use it again next time and not have to apply so much oil. I use a sock as my oil rag because I can stick my hand up inside and really get my whole arm into the action.
The first couple of times you polish your furniture, you’ll need to apply tons of oil to your oiling cloth. I don’t know how important it is to put the oil on the cloth instead of directly on the wood, but since that’s how my grandmother did it, that’s how we’re doing it, too. Press the cloth to the mouth of the oil bottle and upend the bottle onto the cloth. Do this two or three times, leaving oily circles in your cloth…or sock, in my case.
6) Polish the wood
I remember learning in my shop class to “go with the grain” and I think that was for staining and finishing but maybe it’s also for polishing? I don’t remember and I don’t actually use that advice anyhow. I rub the oil into the wood using little circles. It’s really easy to see what you’re doing since everything you’ve oiled will be all slick and shining. Oil everything you washed, get it all glossied-up and purty. Again, if you’re using a new cloth, you’ll have to re-oil it often as the cloth will suck up more oil than the furniture does.
7) Buff it out
And here’s the part that always gets left behind, the part that makes me want to yell at the house cleaners who let wood stay wet-looking, the part that spawned this whole post in the first place.
Look. When you put on sunscreen, you don’t just smear it on and let it stay white and sticky on your skin, right? (If you do, this analogy is not going to work for you) You rub it in so as to protect your skin. This is pretty much the same thing.
You’ve got a buffing cloth (also a sock, in my case) and it’s time to put it to use. Return to the first piece of furniture you oiled. The oil should have sat long enough to soak in by now and it’s time to rub it in the rest of the way and take the leftover oil off the surface. You can go with the grain or you can use big circles as you wipe the cloth across the furniture. Rub briskly, press firmly but not like you’re trying to dent the wood or anything, and keep going over the oil until it no longer looks oily. Continue buffing the furniture in the order in which it was oiled.
8) Stand back and admire your handiwork. Maybe also have a drink, you deserve it, though wash your hands first, otherwise your oily fingers will drop the glass.
Your furniture should now be beautiful, clean and shining but with a matte finish, not glossy. Your house should smell like oil soap and lemon oil. You should feel like a ’50’s housewife. You can put your pearls on, if you’d like. Better yet, make yourself a martini and kick back. Just don’t put your feet on the newly-cleaned wood.
Remember I said I live in a dry climate? It’s important that we let the oil sit on the wood for a few minutes before buffing it off. I don’t know that this is so important in humid climates. You might be able to get away with oiling the piece and then buffing it right away. I don’t know. Consult someone you trust who knows about taking care of furniture in humid areas. It still needs to be buffed, though.
I don’t wash my oiling or buffing cloths, I store them in a Ziploc bag and reuse them until they can’t be used any longer, which is usually after several years. Then I throw them away because I’m not sure they can be recycled in any fashion.
I should be doing this quarterly, possibly more often, but I don’t. I’m way too lazy. I dust maybe once a month and then oil the furniture twice a year, if it’s lucky. I do oil it every January after I take down the Christmas decorations, though. That happens without fail.
You’ll note I didn’t mention the Old English polish-with-stain. You can read the directions on the bottle if you plan on using something like that. Just remember to match the color of the polish to the color of the wood. For instance, the dark wood polish isn’t good for light pine. Well, I mean, it’s fine for light pine if you want to stain it darker with wood polish but…why would you do that?
If you want to wax your furniture instead, I can’t help you there. I hate waxing anything. However, this website might be able to help.
Remember: I am not a licensed furniture caretaker. It’s hard to ruin your furniture using lemon oil but if you have any niggling doubts about whether or not you should use the process above on your furniture, then don’t. Maybe just go with a damp cloth. Or hire a house cleaner.
Lastly: The table that acted as my model was my dad’s. It had belonged to his parents beforehand and they gave it to him when he moved out. It’s at least fifty years old, was refinished about twenty years ago, and it still looks nice so, obviously, this method works. Others work, too. Find the one that’s best for you but please do not leave your wood all slick and shiny. Thank you.
**The title of this post and all the not-that-hidden innuendo within are dedicated to Julio because he is a perv.