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Best Way to Clean Wood Furniture, Cigarette Smoke, Mold, and Mildew

Best Way to Clean Wood Furniture, Cigarette Smoke, Mold, and Mildew

Figuring out the best way to clean wood furniture properly is one of the most myth-filled, misunderstood cleaning topics around.

For some, it's knowledge passed down through the family, while others rely on a bit of research coupled with some trial and error sessions.

All of this is necessary to some extent since the chemistry used to finish wood and formulate soaps has changed so drastically over the years. As a result, wood care instructions from previous generations are likely obsolete now

To put this in perspective, Murphy’s Oil Soap and the Ford Model T were invented around the same time (1910 and 1908, respectively). Yet, to date, the former is still a favorite wood furniture cleaner option for most people.

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 is the best way to clean wood furniture.

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 knows the best way to clean wood furniture? The new manufacturers or the old wives' tales? How can you tell who’s lying and who to trust?

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 for your wood like a 21st-century expert.

The following are the key takeaways we're going to delve into today:

  • We'll clear the smoke around cleaning myths passed down for several generations
  • The traditional "natural cleaning agent" that can permanently damage your wooden furniture with it's high acidity
  • A comprehensive guide on how to safely clean your modern furniture with just water or affordable cleaning products
  • Some tips on how to correctly clean antique furniture
  • The little known modern cleaning formulas that can help you restore your wooden furniture

How To Clean Modern Wood Furniture

We've debunked the myths and explained the confusion behind how we got here, but it's good to know what kind of wood furniture you're dealing with.

This will help you know the wood's weakness, helping you prevent situations that would make it susceptible to damage.

The table below shows the different kind of wood and the kind of problems they're prone to while cleaning.

Type of Wood Characteristics Susceptibility
Oak Light beige, brown or red. Has a strong grain pattern Prone to water damage if not sealed properly
Walnut Dark, rich color and fine grain Very sensitive to scratches and dents if rough materials are used
Maple Light color and fine grain Susceptible to water stains if not dried promptly
Mahogany Deep red-brown and fine grain Prone to warping if exposed to humidity fluctuations
Pine Light color and prominent grain Susceptible to dents and scratches if cleaned roughly
Teak Light to rich golden brown and fine grain May develop a silvery patina if not treated with oil after cleaning

Now we'll tell you exactly how to clean your wood furniture correctly going forward. Depending on the level of dirt, you can use the following methods, from dry dusting to employing modern cleaning formulas.

Step 1 - Wipe Down With a Dry Microfiber Towel

If your wood furniture has gotten gross, restoring it can be challenging, 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

Step 2 - Use a Damp Microfiber Towel 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

Step 3 - Use Modern Cleaning Formulas for Thorough Cleaning

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 wood furniture 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.

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

How To Extra: Clean Cigarette Smoke Residue Off Wood Furniture

Addressing cigarette smoke is a challenge as it requires removing often-stubborn cigarette stains and the strong odor associated with smoke. Standard cleaning methods won't do the trick as the odor and smoke particles will have already penetrated and settled within the wood itself.

The best way to clean wood furniture when faced with cigarette smoke?

  1. Dust the furniture with a microfiber cloth to remove loose smoke particles, even though you can't see them
  2. Wash off surface dirt using a damp microfiber cloth, mild soap and water
  3. Apply wood furniture cleaner and rub gently with a dry microfiber cloth, then wipe clean
  4. Optional: Place a bowl of activated charcoal nearby to absorb any remaining cigarette odor

How to Extra: Test Clean First, Always

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 can actually be 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.

kitchen with wooden cupboards

How to Extra: 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:

Tip 1: 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.

Tip 2: 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.

Tip 3: 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

How to Choose the Right Products to Clean Wood Furniture

As you embark on the journey to enhance the allure and durability of wooden furniture, your quest for the best way to clean wood furniture begins with selecting the right products.

Let's explore the two types that can help clean your wooden treasures.

Option 1: Water-Based Wood Furniture Cleaners

Pros

  • Mild, making them suitable for regular cleaning without forming a heavy coat on the wood.
  • Quick drying, which is good if there are kids or pets who can leave smudges before the cleaner dries.
  • Less pungent odor and therefore suitable for people sensitive to strong smells.

Cons

  • Not very effective at removing grease and lodged dirt since they don't deep clean.

Option 2: Oil-Based Wood Cleaners

Pros

  • Provide nourishment for the wood, enhancing the wood's natural beauty
  • They deep clean the wood, reducing the need for frequent cleaning

Cons

  • Slow drying, therefore care has to be taken to avoid smudging the furniture.
  • Since they're thicker, they attract dirt if not wiped properly.

The kind you settle for depends on your needs. If you're looking for an environment-friendly option and one that's easy to clean up, a water-based wood furniture cleaner is suitable, but if your furniture is covered with stubborn dirt, oil-based cleaners are the better option.

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 myths on the best way to clean wood furniture.

DEBUNKED: “You Can’t Clean Wood Furniture With Water”

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

There are several advantages this modern finish afford us as a modern civilization, including:

  • It's resistant to water
  • Can't be damaged by heat
  • Doesn't react to many household chemicals
  • Durable against standard wear and tear

Additionally, 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.

So, it's safe to clean wood furniture with water if it has a finish on it.

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.

DEBUNKED: “Vinegar Is the Gentlest Green Way to Clean Wood Furniture”

Thanks to modern chemists, knowing how to clean 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.

Wood furniture 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.

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.

Here are some more benefits you can get from using microfiber towels to clean your wooden furniture:

  • More surface area than cotton, leading to better dirt trapping
  • Effective for both dry dusting and damp cleaning
  • Safe for both modern and antique wood finishes
  • Can be used with just water for maintenance
  • Compatible with modern cleaning formulas for deeper cleaning

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

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

Deep Clean Hard Floors, Effortlessly.


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