Wood furniture is built to last. There are many examples of a desk, dresser, or armoire being passed down through the generations. Sometimes for centuries. When you buy wood furniture, you’re buying something that can last, but only if you take care of it. Wood furniture care is not hard. It is simply putting in the effort to make sure that the finish lasts.

In this excerpt from the book Household Magic by Joan and Lydia Wilen the authors share what they’ve learned from the experts about wood furniture care and protection so your investment will last.


We spoke with J. Michael Flanigan, owner of J.M. Flanigan American Antiques in Baltimore, Maryland. He is a fine-furniture expert who specializes in classic American furniture. After college, he spent eight years repairing, restoring and conserving antique furniture. Several of those years were spent at J.W. Berry & Son, a company that has done conservation work for almost every museum, historical society and historic home in and around Baltimore.

Flanigan is also the former administrator of the Kaufman Americana Foundation, where he oversaw the exhibition of the collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Since the close of the exhibit, Flanigan has been a private dealer and lecturer.

He previously appeared as a guest appraiser on the popular PBS television program Antiques Roadshow and is currently a private dealer in American antiques. He graciously agreed to share his expertise with us.

And Flanigan’s advice is thrilling. It turns out that all the time we were feeling guilty about not taking care of our 10-piece dining room set, we were in fact treating it right…by not treating it at all. We want you, too, to know what to do—or what not to do—so here is advice direct from the expert…

Flanigan’s Furniture Philosophy

What’s the best way to take care of furniture? Flanigan believes in an idea that was suggested by the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a revered US Senator from New York—“benign neglect.” Flanigan feels that if you leave something alone, it will be fine. In other words, you will cause no harm by doing nothing to your furniture.

The Best Way to Protect Furniture

Give fine wood furniture a good environment. That means keeping it out of direct sunlight. Also, keep the temperature relatively constant and without humidity fluctuating quickly or radically. That’s 99% of what needs to be done…

The Other 1%—the Finish

Furniture comes with a finish. The finish is put on to protect the wood. The worst thing you could do for finished furniture is to put oils on it too often. If you want a little more sheen, put a small amount of beeswax on a soft cloth and massage it on your furniture once or twice a year. Buff it with a clean cloth, going with the wood grain. And that’s it! Just beeswax once or twice a year.

If you have modern furniture, chances are it has a modern finish, such as a catalyzed varnish that you really don’t have to wax…ever. Just dust the furniture when it gets dusty.

Thank you, J. Michael Flanigan!

Do-It-Yourself Furniture Polish

For those of you who insist on polishing your wood furniture—regardless of what Mr. Flanigan advises—here are two formulas from which to choose…

◆ Mix 1 ⁄3 cup of distilled white vinegar with one cup of olive oil.

◆ Mix one cup of mineral or baby oil with three drops of lemon extract.

Rub the homemade polish on the furniture with a soft, lint-free cloth, and then wipe it off.

Remove Polish and Dirt

If you watch Antiques Roadshow, you may know that many pieces of furniture go down in value (and price) because they’ve been cleaned, polished and/or refinished. Therefore, consider that you have been warned, once again, to practice “benign neglect.”

To remove old polish and dirt, place two bags of black tea (such as Pekoe) in one quart of water and bring it to a boil. Once the tea cools to room temperature, dampen a cloth with the solution and wipe the furniture. Then buff it dry with a soft cloth. Hopefully, you will have gotten the furniture down to its original finish and will stop there.

Remove a Water Mark/ White Ring

A water mark or white ring is caused by moisture that’s trapped between the finish and the wood. To get rid of the mark, the finish needs to be opened up so that the moisture can be released.

There is no way for us to tell you what will work best on your furniture. Assess the level of damage, decide on a course of action and then proceed cautiously with one of the following…

◆ Mix cigarette ashes with an equal amount of mayonnaise, butter or vegetable oil. Carefully rub the mixture on the water mark. Let it set for about one hour, then wipe it off. If the mark or ring didn’t disappear, you may need to gently sand the mark with #000 (extrafine) steel wool, and reapply the ashes and oil

◆ Rub the ring with a dab of non-gel, plain white toothpaste on a damp cloth until the ring is gone. Then wipe and buff with a soft cotton cloth.

◆ For a major water mark, mix non-gel, plain white toothpaste with an equal amount of baking soda, then massage the mixture into the problem area. Then wipe and buff dry.

Removing Scratches

◆ On dark wood, fill in a scratch or nick with a paste made from a bit of cooled instant coffee mixed with one or two drops of water. Use a cotton swab to apply

To discover more tips to care for furniture and your home purchase your own copy of Household Magic from Bottomlineinc.com.

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