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How to Clean Wood Furniture Safely! Remove Dust, Grime, Cigarette Smoke, Mold, and Mildew (2023)

How to Clean Wood Furniture Safely! Remove Dust, Grime, Cigarette Smoke, Mold, and Mildew (2023)

Updated: 06/09/2023

Cleaning wood furniture properly is one of the most myth-filled, misunderstood cleaning topics around.


History, or technically cleaning science history.

The chemistry used to finish wood and formulate soaps has changed so drastically over the years that wood care instructions from previous generations are now totally obsolete.

To put in perspective how outdated wood care products and advice have gotten, Murphy’s Oil Soap and the Ford Model T were invented around the same time (1910 and 1908.)

Unfortunately, since no one teaches cleaning science in school, very few people realize how drastically things have changed and how those changes make all the old-fashioned wood cleaning products and practices passé.

In the absence of education, legend and lore prevail, leaving even experienced professionals scratching their heads as to which conflicting advice online to trust.

Everyone’s heard the old advice:

      • “You have to nourish your wood with oil, soap, and polish, or it will dry out”

      • Only oil soap is safe for wood”

      • “You can’t clean wood furniture with water

      • “You can only use specialty cleaning products designed specifically for wood”

      • Vinegar is the gentlest green way to clean wood furniture”

Yet we all see new cleaning products on the grocery store shelf that contradict these old edicts and promise just the opposite.

There are a sea of new floor cleaners and all-purpose cleaners that promise to be safe on finished wood, along with a long list of everything from glass to stainless steel.

So, who is right? The new manufacturers or the old wives' tales? How can you tell who’s lying and who to trust?

Lucky for you, you’ve found Melissa Homer, a cleaning expert with over 20 years of professional cleaning experience and a passion for researching science, cleaning, and history.

She's perfectly poised to debunk these myths and help you finally understand the proper way to care for modern wood furniture.  

We’re going to reveal the big changes in wood finish and cleaning products and explain how they’ve made taking care of wood furniture easier than ever before, all while dispelling the myths everyone is still clinging to along the way.

So, put down great grandma’s Murphy’s Oil Soap and learn how to care of your wood like a 21st-century expert.

If you don’t care which myths are true and where they came from, jump to the cleaning instructions here.

kitchen with wooden cupboards

Debunking Wood Cleaning Myths with History

Most people learn to clean from their parents, who learned to clean from their parents, and so on, such that most “modern” cleaning knowledge is actually 100 years old or more.

This is a big problem when it comes to caring for wood furniture because when your great-grandmother learned to clean, wood finishes and cleaning products were entirely different than they are today.

In your great grandma’s day, wood furniture was finished with:

  • Wax
  • Shellac
  • Oil
  • Resin
  • Lacquer

These naturally derived finishes were delicate, porous, sensitive to heat, absorbed moisture, and could be damaged by even mild chemicals and everyday use.

Finishes were so soft and permeable that the moisture literally evaporated out of the wood and had to be replenished regularly with oil polishes and waxes to keep the wood from drying and decaying.

Now that we understand why grandma's cleaning secrets simply won't work today, let's debunk some more myths about cleaning modern furniture:

1 - DEBUNKED: “You can’t clean wood furniture with water”

Let's take a hiatus and flash forward to the modern day and the invention of polyurethane - the durable finish that changed the furniture industry forever.

Polyurethane is resistant to water, heat, many household chemicals, and standard wear and tear, making it infinitely easier to care for.

Polyurethane is so effective it can protect wood from absorbing water long enough for even deep cleanings, though it is still best practice to restrict heavy water usage in case of gaps in the finish.

2 - DEBUNKED: “You have to nourish your wood with oil, soap, and polish, or it will dry out”

Modern finishes provide such a thorough seal that the issue of wood drying out has been virtually eliminated. Now, old fashioned oil soaps and polishes just sit on top of the polyurethane finish instead of providing oils to absorb into the wood.

Speaking of old-fashioned soaps, the cleaning products of yesteryear were a far cry from what we have access to today.

Old-fashioned soaps were extremely harsh and made of ammonia, boiled fat and lye, and other heavy alkalis or acids, all of which damage old wood finishes.

People tried to solve the problem by inventing specialty oil soaps and polishes, but they were all time-consuming, didn’t last long.

Additionally, they didn’t fully clean soils pressed into the soft finishes, such that over time, most wood pieces became darkened, scratched, dried out and had to be regularly refinished or replaced.

3 - DEBUNKED: “Vinegar is the gentlest green way to clean wood furniture”

Thanks to modern chemists, cleaning wood furniture is now a walk in the park.

Modern synthetic detergents are incredibly effective yet surprisingly gentle on surfaces. Instead of relying on alkalis and acids to dissolve dirt, synthetic detergents are powered by surfactants, which simply bond soils to water, so they can be easily rinsed away.

These surfactant-powered detergents are so effective that they can be made pH neutral, so they never soften finishes. Polyurethane is very durable, but acids, alkalis, and abrasives can still damage it.

Cleaners that use acids like vinegar claim to be gentle but actually soften and dissolve finishes like polyurethane and stone sealants, so it is best to stick to surfactant-based formulas whenever working with any coated surface.

4 - DEBUNKED: “You can only use specialty cleaning products designed specifically for wood!” and “Only oil soap is safe for wood”

Cleaning rags have also gotten a major upgrade since back in the day.

Before the advent of microfiber, old worn-out cotton clothes, bedsheets, and bath towels were all torn up to make cleaning cloths.

While thrifty, cotton only picks up 67% of dirt and germs and drops an abysmal 33% back on the furniture as you work.

Modern microfiber, by comparison, traps 99.5% of dirt and germs with 0% re-deposit using only water. This means we can now easily maintain wood furniture with just a damp microfiber towel.

For pieces with heavy soils, a touch of dish soap, an all-purpose cleaner, or a neutral pH floor cleaner is all you need, thanks to the power of microfiber and polyurethane’s durability.

This is the first time I have used microfiber towels for cleaning. (I have always used cotton rags.) I love the microfiber! I'm so glad I got the 12-pack. I'll be using them for everything. - Linda, San Hose, United States

How Should I Clean Modern Wood Furniture Now?

We've debunked the myths and explained the confusion behind how we got here, so now let’s tell you exactly how to clean your wood furniture correctly going forward.

1 - Maintain Wood Furniture with Microfiber

If your wood furniture has gotten gross, restoring it can be challenging (jump to #3 for restoration tips), but maintaining it afterward is super easy if you have the right microfiber.

The split fibers of microfiber instantly trap dust as you wipe down your furniture, even when dry. You won’t need any extra cleaning products, polishes, or even water for a dust-free home.

When dusting, make sure you are using an all-purpose type microfiber towel (terry weave) or a detailing polishing towel (coral fleece).

The longer “fluffier” fibers of these towels have extra space to hold dust and are extra soft to baby your fine wood pieces.

If you insist on polish, the teddy bear soft fibers of the detailing towel are perfect for buffing up your wood furniture to a rich, warm glow.

In case you were wondering why microfiber is so good at trapping dust, Microfiber’s ultra-fine fibers are so thin it takes 1000 microfibers to equal 1 cotton fiber, producing over 10 times more surface area in the towel than cotton, thus 1000% more spots for dirt to get lodged.

For a deeper dive into the science of Microfiber, read up here.

All my life (I'm in my 80s), I've used a rag from the rag-bag for my dusting. Most just move the dust around unless you drench them in oil or polish. THIS ONE, however, seems to ingest the dust in its fibers. Same with kitchen counters: Using them wet, you can swipe away the spills without added soap. I'm very impressed! - Diana Major, Verified Customer

2 - Dampen Microfiber for a Deeper Clean

Even with frequent dusting, wood furniture can sometimes get grimy due to being near kitchens and dining areas filled with aerosolized grease, food residue, and dirty hands.  

In these cases, you will want to dampen your microfiber towel with warm water before wiping grime from your wood furniture (wring the towel out well so you don’t leave the wood too wet as you work.)

Water is the universal solvent and will help loosen up and dissolve the grime, especially any sugars from food residue.

The microfiber will not only suck up the dirt and dissolved sugars, the nylon and polyester in microfiber are actually oleophilic (attracted to oil), so it will bond to and trap grease and body oils too.

If the surface is extra greasy, a couple of drops of dish soap are safe for finished wood and make a huge difference (use sparingly, so you don’t have to rinse the wood with excessive water).

The key to avoiding wood damage is to wipe the wood with the damp microfiber and then dry the surface with a separate dry towel, eliminating the risk of water spots.


a wooden desk and chair

3 - Restore Wood Furniture with Modern Cleaning Formulas

To thoroughly clean heavy build-up and grime from your wooden furniture or cabinets, you’ll want to use microfiber and modern soaps.

Most dirty wood furniture can be brought back to life with any basic neutral pH cleaner like Mr. Clean or Fabuloso, some warm water, and a stack of microfiber towels. Just mix according to directions, then use one microfiber towel to scrub and another to dry.

Wood-specific formulas like Bona and Method work too, but they charge a ton extra for marketing and pre-diluting the soap for you, otherwise, their results are the same.

If you’ve noticed an improvement with these pre-diluted, it is likely because your tap water is very hard. If hard water is your real problem, it is far cheaper and equally effective to buy a gallon of distilled water and mix it yourself.

Just grab an empty spray bottle, dilute Mr. Clean or Fabuloso with the purified water, and you’ll have recreated the Bona experience for less than $0.50 a bottle. You're welcome!

Restoring extremely Grimy Surfaces

If your wood furniture and cabinets are extremely filthy with mold, grease, or cigarette smoke residue, you’ll need to pull out the big guns.

Howard Company is the King of wood restoration, and their products Clean-A-Finish and Restore-A-Finish, are the one-two punch professionals rely on to reclaim even the most neglected wood pieces.

Just dampen a microfiber towel with Clean-A-Finish and wipe away years of grime, smoke residue, mold, and more!  

Once clean, breathe new life into the piece by buffing in Restore-A-Finish with a disposable microfiber towel, which will remove fine scratches, dullness, water spots, and more in just minutes.

Disposable microfiber towels are also great for the deep cleaning stage, especially when cleaning mold and mildew, as they eliminate the risk of spreading spores.

I ABSOLUTELY LOVE these towels. They work great at cleaning everything without leaving any lint or debris behind. They're great at not scratching up your furniture. I would recommend these to anyone! And the price is EXCELLENT! - Macho Men Maid Service, Verified Buyer

Restoring Neglected Wood

When restoring neglected wood, always test clean a hidden spot to find out what you're getting yourself into. Grimy pieces may sometimes be older than you think and actually coated with antique finishes.

Sometimes the piece has modern finishes, but the years of neglected soils have actually eaten through the finish and made it soft, gummy, and even worn bare in spots.

In many cases, you may be able to still save the piece with a thorough cleaning with Clean-A-Finish and a rub down in Restore-A-Finish to repair the finish that remains, but don’t be shy about bringing the piece to a professional if there is too little finish left to restore.

4 - Polish is Makeup, So Wear It Only if You Like It

For modern sealed wood furniture, polishes and waxes no longer nourish and protect dried-out wood, so you can safely skip them all together.

However, these products do still hold aesthetic value, especially if your modern finish is a little scratched up and dull or you just like an extra rich shiny glow.

Polishes and waxes have basically been demoted from protectants to makeup, but there’s nothing wrong with makeup if either you or the furniture look beautiful with it on.

If you enjoy the look of polish, here are the industry insider Pro tips you need to get the most out of it:

Avoid Aerosol Spray Polishes

First, always avoid aerosol spray polishes, as they are charging you for propellants and cans, not products.

Liquid oil polishes give you far more actual oils, so you can use way less and get the same if not better results (they can also do wonders for your stainless steel too). Remember, these are potent, so less is more if you don’t want your furniture to feel greasy.

Pre-Clean Before Polishing

Next, always pre-clean before you polish. You’d never keep applying fresh makeup over old makeup without washing the old stuff off, right?

Polishes do not clean, so if you smear them on really dirty wood furniture, you’re just treating the dirt and germs to an oil massage.

A quick wipe down with a damp microfiber towel and a drop of dish soap, or even a scrub down with Clean-A-Finish for the worst pieces, will ensure that you are enhancing the brightest, cleanest version of your wood finish possible. Just clean, dry, then buff in a little polish to shine.

Another insider tip, if you like oil polish, you may actually like wax even more. Liquid wax and Paste wax polishes create a far more durable layer of shine that lasts longer and can actually help protect your modern finish from developing as many surface scratches.

Just like with oil polish, you have to clean before you shine, but with waxes, it is even more critical because you’ll be trapping in the dirt even longer. Pre-clean and dry the wood furniture fully, then buff in the wax for a rich, long-lasting warm glow.

Use Detailing Polishing Towels

Finally, if you love polish, you’ll adore detailing polishing towels (coral fleece).

These incredibly luxurious towels feel like someone stole them from a teddy bear factory, absolutely babying your wood and eliminating any risk of scratches.

They buff a rich glow into the wood even when dry, but with polish, the results are epic. Best of all, the satin-trimmed edges ensure you remember which towel is for polishing.

The one big drawback of polish is that it is VERY difficult to wash out of microfiber, causing towels to lose absorbency over time.

By designating a polishing towel, you get the best of both worlds, as the polishing towel creates a beautiful shine and bonds to the oils, so they never infect the rest of your towels.

a chest of wooden drawers

5 - How to Clean Old or Antique Wood Furniture

If you are a proud owner of lovely antiques, modern advancements in microfiber and detergent formulas can help you too.

All-purpose microfiber towel (terry weave) or a detailing polishing towel (coral fleece) are incredibly effective for dry dusting and damp cleaning, helping to keep your antique dirt free without damage.

The damp towel with warm water and drying towel method described in #2 work great for antiques, too, though you need to be even more careful to restrict water usage and to dry quickly and thoroughly.

When you want a deeper clean on your antiques, modern dish soaps are very effective yet mild to surfaces, so a few drops can go a long way without damage, so long as you dry up quickly.

Make sure you do not use aggressive scrubbing motions when cleaning, instead, gently wipe in the direction of the grain of the wood.

For neglected antiques, cleaning with Clean-A-Finish and a rub down in Restore-A-Finish can truly save the day and is surprisingly safe for both modern and antique pieces!

Finally, once the piece is clean, antiques actually need to be polished for all the reasons explained in the beginning. Liquid wax polishes are definitely the way to go for antiques, as they not only provide oils to hydrate the drying old wood, the wax helps lock in moisture being lost from the softer antique finishes.

As explained in #4, detailing polishing towels (coral fleece) is the best-kept secret for polishing all wood furniture and cabinets, both modern and antique.

For antiques, they are even more critical, as their extra softness and satin edging protect the delicate finish from any risk of damage, and their soft fiber work the old wax finishes into a glorious warm glow.

16"x16" MW Pro Multi Surface Microfiber Towel (12pk)

  • Clean and polish on any surface with just water!

  • Softer and more absorbent than your average microfiber towel

  • Prevent Cross Contamination - 16 color options

  • 12 Per Pack

  • Machine Washable

16”x 16” Buff™ Detail Microfiber Polishing Cloth

  • Luxuriously soft coral fleece weave buffs in incredible shine

  • Satin-trimmed edging protects even soft finishes from scratching

  • Bonds to oil and waxes, so they won’t get onto other microfiber towels

  • 3 Per Pack

  • Machine Washable


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