Guide to waxing antique furniture

Ever wondered how to preserve the beautiful patination of antique oak furniture? Professional furniture restorer Simon Gilboy of Devonshire antique dealers and restorers, Gilboys, reveals the tricks of the trade

Bees waxIf you are lucky enough to own a piece of period oak how do you preserve its longevity for generations to come as well as showing it to its full glory?
I get a huge satisfaction from seeing a dull or dried-out finish revived by the application of a high-quality wax polish. I know many see it as a chore but it really doesn’t need to be.We live in much cleaner homes than we did centuries ago and the daily, or weekly, dusting of our houses is something oak furniture was not used to back in the day. This, dare I say, ‘obsessive regime’ can do more damage than good.
Dust can act as a protective layer in some cases, blocking the harmful ultraviolet light from damaging the surface. But the problem with not dusting is that it can make the piece look dirty and even mask the glorious wood which lies beneath.

Day to day cleaning

Avoid using spray cleaners or polishes at all costs. I don’t care if it claims to be ‘hand milked from the rarest of Himalayan bees’, if it’s fired out of a nozzle the size of a pin prick it is very unlikely to contain much, if any, beeswax. Instead as part of a daily or weekly regime, use a soft, slightly damp cloth to remove dust, before wiping with a similar dry one. Relief carved and difficult to-access areas can be cleaned using the vacuum cleaner hose
with a soft brush on the end.

If you have ornaments displayed on top of furniture, it would be wise to change the position of them every once in a while to prevent any fade marks appearing. If the furniture is in a sun lit position, try closing the curtains partially during the sunniest of days to avoid the harmful UV light breaking down the finish, or if you like, a nice decorative throw to cover it for when you are not there during the day?

How to clean oak

An polished oak top tableThe best way to clean a particularly dirty piece of oak is to use a warm water solution with a small amount of household washing up liquid. Using a soft cloth, submerge it in the solution, wring out thoroughly, then clean small areas at a time being careful not to over-wet the surface again. Use a dry cloth to remove any excess.

I have heard of any amount of passed-down recipes and potions that are said to revive furniture.They often contain a petrochemical solvent, such as white spirit or methylated spirits, and can be the most damaging of all. Both can severely ‘burn’ into the surface of wax finish common on oak furniture. Some of these handed-down recipes also contain oils such as linseed. This can be severely damaging to the open grain on oak furniture, as it will be absorbed into the wood quickly, darkening the timber. It may also creep underneath the centuries-old surface and ‘lift’ the old finish. I have seen this happen many times with our customers’ furniture.

How to wax polish

The secret to wax polishing oak is to apply a very thin layer of the polish with a soft cloth in the direction of the grain. Apply evenly, so the entire surface is dulled by the application. Try to avoid over applying. If you do, just remove any excess wax with a clean area of the application cloth. Now leave it alone, the longer you leave it the
better the finished result. Ideally leave it overnight and then buff the next day. The biggest mistake made by most people is to apply a wax polish and immediately buff it off, removing the majority of all the wax and all that hard work. You will achieve amazing results by leaving the polish to harden on the surface. Then, a few hours later, buff to a quick shine. The aim is not to buff the wax off the surface but to buff the wax on the surface. There should be hardly any wax residue on your buffing cloth. The idea is that you have created a protective layer of polish, which allows the beauty of the wood to shine through, as well as adding protective layer to prevent

Which wax?

The National Trust, BADA and LAPADA all recommend using a good beeswax polish. The question is, which one? Over the past 30 years we have used all the leading brands of wax polish and, yes they all have their good points. But we have found, through years of use, that they can be limiting in effect and the majority contain petrochemicals. But if you choose to use the local beekeeper’s homemade beeswax, added to pure turpentine and nothing else, it may be pure and clean, but doesn’t quite do the job. Once the turpentine has
evaporated you are left with pure beeswax and, on its own, it will take a long time to harden and give the right depth of protection. It can also soften on the surface in direct sunlight or increased temperatures.

Covering all areas

An antique oak chair
Image courtesy Tim Bowen

Carved areas are not as tricky as you may think. The secret here is to apply the wax with a trimmed down 1½-2in paint brush. We use a lightly-tinted polish for this. The reason for doing so is that these areas are much drier and suffer greater exposure to the surrounding environment and the tiny amount of added colour helps nourish
these areas and disguise small, recent abrasions. The additional benefit of colour is that any residual wax left in
these carved areas will not be seen, unlike a clear wax which may show white if not removed.

Cleaning time?

how often should you clean: this is the million dollar question and the answer is, once every few years – possibly even every three to four years. Using a good-quality wax polish,which is easily applied, and buffed a few hours later – or the next day – will result in oak protected for a very long time. All that is necessary, apart from dusting it with a damp cloth every now again, is to buff it, with a bit of effort, every once in a while which will revive the wax polish layer.

Over application of wax polish will end up in a sticky mess which will need to be carefully removed by a professional French polisher or restorer. In conclusion if you are at all unsure of which polish to use the best option is not use any at all. Contact a professional restorer for advice. We will happily help advise anyone with any questions.

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