Cleaning unfinished furniture - Woodworking Talk - Woodworkers Forum
  • 1 Post By Tony B
Thread Tools Display Modes
post #1 of 9 Old 05-12-2020, 02:43 PM Thread Starter
Junior Member
Join Date: May 2020
Posts: 5
View schuckb's Photo Album My Photos
Cleaning unfinished furniture

Hi! This is my first time here, and it looks great!

I have this nice semi-round table that we disassembled and hand carried back from Peru several years ago. It has been in the basement since. We are getting around to cleaning it up. We like it a lot and want it to look nice when done, and not damage it along the way. There are a lot of carved embellishments (first picture). I have refinished furniture along the way, but nothing as ornate or unique as this. Usually, strip/sand/stain/polyurethane.

This table is a light/softish wood (not heavy like oak or maple). It has been stained a dark, almost black, color. It is a little dusty/moldy and needs cleaning (second picture, for example). Given that it is unfinished (except for the flat surfaces), can I use a water based cleaner on these areas? (water/vinegar? or water/liquid soap? something else? or not?)

The tops (there are two surfaces - upper and lower) have been varnished or something. The finish has come off in places. (third picture where I am pointing and the pebbled-looking surface all around it) So, second question: How to I get the varnish off or refinish it without damaging the color too much. I don't want to sand it because I want to color to match the rest of the piece. I am guessing I'll ultimately put a high quality wax on top to finish it afterwards (but I am open to suggestions :)

My last conundrum: There is some heavy, caked on dirt on the legs but not on all of them (picture 4 and 5). I can't tell if it is wax buildup or residue from a 'environmental' situation (in a kitchen or something) but it is hard, not easily rubbed off or scratched off with a fingernail.

I really like this piece and want to do a good job on it, and this forum seems to be a really wonderful resource. Any help would be much appreciated.

Thanks in advance.
Attached Thumbnails
Click image for larger version

Name:	Pic 1 Carved foot.jpg
Views:	12
Size:	278.0 KB
ID:	389253  

Click image for larger version

Name:	Pic 2 dust or mold in grain.jpg
Views:	13
Size:	621.6 KB
ID:	389255  

Click image for larger version

Name:	Pic 3 Damaged top.jpg
Views:	12
Size:	353.9 KB
ID:	389257  

Click image for larger version

Name:	Pic 4 Dirt on leg.jpg
Views:	10
Size:	355.5 KB
ID:	389259  

Click image for larger version

Name:	Pic 5 Dirt on leg.jpg
Views:	14
Size:	409.2 KB
ID:	389261  

schuckb is offline  
Sponsored Links
post #2 of 9 Old 05-13-2020, 12:47 PM
John Smith_inFL's Avatar
Join Date: Jul 2018
Location: Central Florida
Posts: 2,410
View John Smith_inFL's Photo Album My Photos
welcome to the forum.

since you have the table disassembled, is it possible to take
one of the smaller parts, such as a leg, to a furniture store,
or even a paint store like Sherwin Williams, Ben Moore, etc. ??
I would not trust the "associates" at Lowes or Home Depot
for any authoritative information on that project.

I saw a TV infomercial a couple of weeks ago about a product
that cleaned and removed 100 years of aged finish without
damaging the wood - it looked great. but, that is their business.
sell stuff - then split before they get hit with the "free returns" gig.

[have you noticed how many faces cycle through those Box Store paint desks ??].


there is no educational alternative to having a front row seat in the School of Hard Knocks.
John Smith_inFL is online now  
post #3 of 9 Old 05-13-2020, 04:28 PM Thread Starter
Junior Member
Join Date: May 2020
Posts: 5
View schuckb's Photo Album My Photos
Thanks, John, for the reply.

Yeah, Home Depot is great but I could see someone saying, "Oh, it's dirt? Use Dirt-off" without thinking about the wood or the finish. I have a paint store near me and have been there before (for paint :) I'll let them take a look; good idea.

Thanks again for your time and your suggestion.

schuckb is offline  
Sponsored Links
post #4 of 9 Old 05-14-2020, 01:47 PM
Senior Member
_Ogre's Avatar
Join Date: Feb 2013
Location: Motown
Posts: 653
View _Ogre's Photo Album My Photos
i'd look at chemical, not water based, stripper. a variety of plastic brushes and scrapers will get into all those nooks and crannies without to much trouble. maybe a small brass brush for the hard to get at stuff. anything water based might raise grain, delaminate the top or pop glue joints
test on the bottom that won't be seen. try denatured alcohol, that should remove most shellac or lacquer based finish. next try lacquer thinner, it will be a little more aggressive

as for the paint counter... it's all ojt training, my home depot paint guy has been there for 20 years that i know of. i trust him pretty well. the guy in the plumbing isle knows almost as much as i do as he worked in the industry (as did i), but he's good for finding stuff :)
_Ogre is offline  
post #5 of 9 Old 05-28-2020, 04:49 PM Thread Starter
Junior Member
Join Date: May 2020
Posts: 5
View schuckb's Photo Album My Photos
Thanks, _Ogre, for your reply.

I am more interested in cleaning than ultimately stripping and refinishing the entire piece so the nooks and crannies are not the biggest issue. My concerns are two:

1. Refinishing/restoring the flat surfaces that are somewhat scratched and damaged from wear
2. Cleaning the dirt and buildup on the legs

I would like to keep as much of the original color as possible and that is why I want to proceed carefully. I also don't really want to apply polyurethane for this piece.

If this helps, this is solid wood. There are no laminates here.

My questions to you, if you would please: You say that denatured alcohol would remove most shellac or lacquer based finishes. I have never used alcohol before to 'strip' a surface. Do you believe it would essentially strip the finish on the damaged surface of the table top? Then, I would reapply shellac or lacquer? Can you speak about the differences between shellac and lacquer, if I have to make a choice?

Do you believe that the alcohol would be relatively gentle to the stain?

Could I use the alcohol, if it is not aggressive to the stain, to clean the legs? Or is there a better choice if I only want to remove what looks like 'gunk'? (you can see in the picture)

Sorry for asking so many questions. I have proceeded with finishing projects before only to find that I made mistakes in my methods and I am hoping to restore this piece carefully. Measure twice, cut once - I'd rather ask before I start.

Thanks in advance for your help.
schuckb is offline  
post #6 of 9 Old 05-28-2020, 10:39 PM
Senior Member
Tony B's Avatar
Join Date: Jul 2008
Location: Dickinson, Tx.
Posts: 4,058
View Tony B's Photo Album My Photos
I used to buy a commercial product for furniture cleaning. It was just "Cleaner and De-Waxer"
It is pretty much the same grease and wax remover that is used in the auto painting industry and works fine on wood. It is used to clean a surface after blasting/sanding etc.

These products will not add a finish, fill a scratch or anything like that. It just cleans and de-waxes a surface and leaves it clean for re-coating. Cleaning is the first major step to restoring other than stripping.
As for water cleaning with soap, etc., I personally would not do that.

There also exists a product, I think it is called Furniture Restorer. DO NOT BUY !. Not even going to go into details.

OK, back to your project...............the existing finish is all but gone.
In the 3rd photo down, there is a light colored 'patch' showing through the black. This tells me that the original finish had a black toner added to it. That part of the finish is gone and shows that a stain was not used. The alligatoring on the 4th and 5th photo also indicates that that part of the finish is gone. The second photo also inducates that no stain was used, otherwise, the grain lines would not be white.

All in all, to do this project what I consider 'right' would require stripping, staining and some toner in the finish.

Not being there in person, I cant tell what the original finish is. One way to find out is to use any kind of alcohol whether methyl, denatured or rubbing alcohol on the surface. If the old finish comes off with alcohol, then it was shellac. If not, the odds are that it is lacquer.

Sorry about no encouragement here but I think stripping is the only way to go. That way, you are starting with a clean slate.

Tony B Retired woodworker, among other things.

"Strive for excellence and settle for completion" Tony B

Last edited by Tony B; 05-28-2020 at 10:46 PM.
Tony B is online now  
post #7 of 9 Old 05-29-2020, 09:09 AM
Senior Member
hawkeye10's Avatar
Join Date: Feb 2015
Location: Murfreesboro, Tn.
Posts: 1,188
View hawkeye10's Photo Album My Photos
There is a guy in our town that does furniture refinishing and I bet there is one or more where you live.

Don in Murfreesboro, TN.
hawkeye10 is offline  
post #8 of 9 Old 05-29-2020, 10:11 AM
Senior Member
Tony B's Avatar
Join Date: Jul 2008
Location: Dickinson, Tx.
Posts: 4,058
View Tony B's Photo Album My Photos
If you can find a refinisher, ask if he will do a 'strip only' for you. That way, you can finish it yourself. For an individual, stripping is the worse part of every job. For a refinishing shop with the proper equipment, it is the easiest and fastest part of any job.
When I had my shop, I did quite a few 'strip only' jobs for DIYers.
Tool Agnostic likes this.

Tony B Retired woodworker, among other things.

"Strive for excellence and settle for completion" Tony B
Tony B is online now  
post #9 of 9 Old 05-29-2020, 11:08 AM Thread Starter
Junior Member
Join Date: May 2020
Posts: 5
View schuckb's Photo Album My Photos
Thank you, Tony B, for your thoughts. I also feel that the finish is gone although the color is very nice. I think the white "grain lines" in the second picture are teh result of sitting in the basement for 4 or 4 years. It is not mold but some kind of residue. I think that would be removed in cleaning.

I like the character of the color and I was thinking that stripping the piece down the bare wood and recoloring would take away it's "personality" (for lack of a better word). But I hear what you are saying, maybe stripping is the thing to do.

hawkeye10 and Tony B, thanks for the suggestion. I will look for a local finisher. There are three sections that are heavily carved - very deep relief. It is another reason I don't want to strip it, so maybe having someone do it is a good idea. I'm afraid I will pay more to have it stripped than what I paid for it :) I was also hoping to learn a thing or two with this piece. I guess I still can...

Thanks again. I'll be in touch, and I welcome any other thoughts.

Be safe, be well
schuckb is offline  

Quick Reply

Register Now

In order to be able to post messages on the Woodworking Talk - Woodworkers Forum forums, you must first register.
Please enter your desired user name, your email address and other required details in the form below.

User Name:
Please enter a password for your user account. Note that passwords are case-sensitive.


Confirm Password:
Email Address
Please enter a valid email address for yourself.

Email Address:


Thread Tools
Show Printable Version Show Printable Version
Email this Page Email this Page
Display Modes
Linear Mode Linear Mode

Posting Rules  
You may post new threads
You may post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is On
HTML code is Off
Trackbacks are Off
Pingbacks are Off
Refbacks are Off

For the best viewing experience please update your browser to Google Chrome