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The Problem With Furniture Polishes

by Donald C. Williams
Senior Furniture Conservator, ConservationAnalytical
Laboratory at the Smithsonian Institution


There are several factors to weigh when considering polishes and waxes for use on furniture and other wooden objects. One critical fact is that commercial polishes and cleaning products are proprietary, and the constituents are rarely fully disclosed. These ingredients may be harmless or harmful to the furniture finishes and to you, and you would have no way of knowing until after the damage was done. The ingredients could be, and frequently are, changed without warning or notification. Through these changes, a product which was previously harmless to furniture could become less so. In beginning any discussion of cleaning or polishing furniture, it is important to present a strict warning. Before making any attempt to clean, polish or wax a surface, make sure that the surface is sound. In other words, make sure that the varnish or other coating (if there is one) or veneer is stable and not flaking off. Polishing requires contact with the surface for both application and buffing, which could knock off portions of an unstable surface

Polishing products are available in three forms; aerosol (spray), liquid and semi solid. Here is a quick look at their benefits and drawbacks.


The main attribute of aerosols is their convenience. However, they may have the serious drawback of damaging the surface and finish of the object. In general, the best you can hope for with aerosol polishes and cleaners is that they do no harm to the furniture.

Areosols have been among the worst offenders in introducing silicone oils and other contaminants onto furniture. In addition, aerosols may contain a wide variety of solvents which attack varnishes and lacquers. While some of the "dusting" aerosols appear to be benign when applied to a cloth and not the surface of the object, the result is not really any better than using a damp, clean dustcloth.


Like aerosols, liquid polishes are easy to use. There are two primary forms of commercial liquid products for "furniture care"; emulsion cleaner/polishes and "oil type" polishes. Emulsion polishes are water-based products whereby waxes, oils, detergents, organic solvents, and who knows what are suspended in a water solution for ease of application. These products can be extremely powerful cleaners which leave a desirable sheen on the surface. However, the visual effect is usually short-lived, diminishing as the liquid dries. In addition, in the past some emulsions contained abrasives to "aid" the cleaning and polishing process. The concern over introducing contaminants onto the furniture with emulsions is similar to aerosols, with the difference that liquids place a lot more material on the surface. 0il polishes are more troublesome. Much like emulsion polishes, oil polishes can be a complex blend of ingredients including oils, waxes, perfumes, colorants, "cleaners", and organic solvents and other materials. They can render extremely pleasing surfaces and are used frequently as final finishes by themselves.

However, the potential difficulty from using oils as polishes or cleaners is enormous. There are two basic types of oils with which we are concerned; drying oils and non-drying oils. The predicament you face is that regardless of which oil you have, there are serious problems. Non-drying oils tend to be the more benign, but there is the issue of an oil remaining liquid on (or in) the surface of any object. Dust and other airborne contaminants readily stick to wet surfaces, especially oils. At least these oils (paraffin, mineral, "lemon oil", which is usually mineral oil with colorants and perfumes added, etc.) don't really undergo chemical reactions or directly damage the furniture.

Drying oils, such as linseed, tung, or walnut oil, are a different matter altogether. These materials solidify, or "dry" through a process of chemical reaction with the air called oxidation. The drying process polymerizes the oil, making it increasingly intractable with time and more difficult to remove with cleaners or solvents. This is fine if oil is employed as the finish, but not good if it is used as a polish. By itself, having a polish which is difficult to remove would be irritating but not insurmountable. Unforunately, this is not the whole story. As drying oils age, they tend to become yellow or brown. Also, drying oils are chromogenic (they become colored) in the presence of acids. In this instance the oil adopts the dark, muddy brown/black opaque appearance so prevalent in antique furniture. Traditionally, cleaning/polishing concoctions were comprised of linseed oil, turpentine, beeswax, and vinegar (acetic acid). This cleaning/polishing method, used widely even in the museum field until recently, was and is a disaster waiting to happen. The results of this approach are readily apparent to even the casual observer; a thick incrustation of chocolate colored goo which is neither hard enough to be durable nor soft enough to wipe off easily. Thus, due to the polymerization of the oil as it dries and the reaction of the oil with acetic acid, the furniture is left with an unsightly coating which is very difficult to remove without damaging the surface of the object.


By virtually any measure semi-solid polishes are the most beneficial to wooden objects. Frequently referred to as "paste waxes" these products are actually a very concentrated solution of waxes in an organic solvent or aqueous emulsion (Butcher's, Behlen Blue Diamond, Renaissance, Johnson's, and many more). Provided the ingredients do not include silicone or other undesirable contaminants, paste waxes are an excellent material to apply to most finished surfaces of wooden objects. Because waxes are known to be among the most stable of materials, and don't encounter the severe deterioration problems inherent in the previously mentioned polishes, they are the polishing material of choice for furniture conservators and other caretakers of furniture and wooden objects. That is not to imply that paste waxes are without their faults, too.

Now for the bad news (followed by more good news). Unfortunately, wax polishes require the most active contact with the surface of the furniture, and also need the most physical labor to apply properly. Buffing out a wax polish can be very hard work, and as you might expect, the better the wax, the harder the buffing. However, I believe the results and benefits to the furniture are worth the extra effort.

Fortunately, as the most durable and stable polishing material, paste wax need to be applied much less often than aerosols or liquids. Ideally, wax polishing should be conducted infrequently, ranging from perhaps twice a year for areas of extremely heavy wear (desk tops, chair arms, etc.) to once every three or four years for table and chair legs, cabinets, etc. The need for new application of wax can be determined easily. If an surface can no longer be buffed to the sheen appropriate for a waxed surface, it is safe to assume that the wax has worn off and is no longer present. In that case, apply another light coat of wax to the affected area in accordance with the product instructions. If wax is applied too frequently or improperly, there will be an unnecessary build-up of material, which can be unsightly in itself and also cause particulates to adhere to the surface of the object. If used correctly, the solvent content of the new wax will "clean off' any previous wax remaining on the surface, and will simply integrate the old into the new.


There is a simple method to determine whether your polish may adversely effect the object. It will not tell you what is in the cleaner or polish exactly, but it will indicate how the materials behave. While this is certainly not a purely scientific approach, you should be able to draw some conclusions nevertheless. The test is this: apply a generous portion of the polish, whether aerosol, liquid or semi-solid, to a plate or piece of glass. By "generous" I mean enough to form a pool or clump on the plate. Leave the plate out on a counter, windowsill, or other place which is representative of the environment containing the furniture. Watch what happens and observe what remains (this may take minutes or months, depending on the material).

For example, if you apply enough aerosol "dusting agent" to the plate so that there is a pool of liquid from the aerosol, one of two things is likely to occur. If the material simply evaporates leaving behind no residue, it is possible that the use of this product may not harm the furniture. But still, there are a couple of things to consider. If it all evaporates, what are you paying for? The areosol "dusting agent" provides no function in cleaning or dusting furniture that cannot be accomplished by judicious use of a damp cloth. What if the aerosol is comprised of volatile organic solvents which quickly evaporate (a very likely possibility)? Even in that case, where no residue is left behind, the solvents may damage the finish on the object, even if the solvents are relatively benign. A mild organic solvent like mineral spirits (Stoddard's solvent, paint thinner, petroleum benzene) can remove wax coatings, which were used in past decades and centuries.

But what about the second instance where the polishing product applied to the plate does not quickly or completely evaporate? Now the problem is more complicated. What remains could be oils or other contaminants which adhere dirt and grime to the surface or attack the varnish. Or, the oils could polymerize and form an intractable coating which may degrade over time or react with other polishing materials in a deleterious manner. Remember the problems with polishing oils which were listed above.

 While the amount of material put in the plate may exceed the normal application in polishing an object, the phenomenon observed in the plate is different only in degree, not in kind. As you watch polishes become gooey, yellow, rubbery, filthy, or whatever, consider the furniture. What is happening in the plate is merely an exaggeration of what is happening on the furniture. Over time, continued use of the product, even if used sparingly, can lead to the same effect becoming manifest on the furniture.

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