How to Clean Water and Surface Stains on Antique Furniture

Bring the sheen back to your antique wood in a few easy steps.

Read on for how to clean surface stains from antique furniture. Christian | Adobe Stock

Say goodbye to ring marks and water stains on your vintage furniture, thanks to the expert advice from a Mount Vernon master restorer.

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Our dog knocked over a scented diffuser on my antique desk, and my husband cleaned up the spill with a damp cloth. The wood is dark and easily marked by water, so the sad result is a big, dull blotch about 10 inches in diameter. I tried applying mayonnaise (a suggestion I found online) and lemon oil, but the dull blotch remains. Is the finish ruined? Is there a way to fix it without stripping it? — Lynn H., High Falls

Aniello Imperati, owner of the straightforwardly named Furniture Restoration Center in Mount Vernon, has been in the refinishing business since the year dot (a.k.a 1969), and took a first-things-first approach. “Let’s get her husband off the hook by saying if he hadn’t wiped it up immediately the petroleum-based fragrance would have melted into the finish,” he states, evidently being a firm believer in guy solidarity as well as being an expert on what’s in scented diffusers.

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“The finish is most likely a varnish or lacquer, and what’s happened is that the petroleum-based fragrance has amalgamated with the surface of the finish and caused it to lose its sheen,” he continues. “This can be easily resolved by using a very fine polishing compound, like a white automotive polish such as Turtle Wax Ice, and then a cream polish to bring back the luster.”

Okay, then. Cream polishes recommended by Imperati to help clean and shine: “Weiman, Guardsman, or Oz, as in The Wizard of [by Behlen]. Anyone who has good furniture should have those in their repertoire to keep it cleaned and polished.” All three can be found in many supermarkets and hardware stores, he adds. Or, you can buy them online. The 8-ounce size of Oz or Weiman costs about $59; 16 ounces of Guardsman (which comes in “wood scent”) runs about $12.

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Keep your antique furniture clean with this technique. Adobe Stock / LoloStock

The technique to clean, as Imperati describes it, couldn’t be simpler. “Step one: Go over the entire desk top with the white polish compound, then to go over it again with the cream polish.” Use a soft cloth. If the dull spot is still there, it means the scented stuff “penetrated the finish, and therefore it would be best handed over to a pro to be resprayed with a new finish,” Imperati says. The surface would probably not have to be completely stripped, so the patina would be protected. He can also subtly add what he calls a “counterfeit” patina to furniture that might require stripping on just one portion, “so that it doesn’t look like a fly on a cheesecake.”

Imperati’s shop handles refinishing or repairing everything from a precious antique to “a folding chair from Ikea,” he says. If you want something stripped, but prefer to refinish it yourself, he’ll tell you how to do it properly. If you have a piece of furniture in distress, e-mail photos to his website and he’ll make an assessment for you. For free? “Sure,” he cheerfully replies. “I gave up on making money doing this years ago. I’ve become philanthropic.” He also recanes chairs, and can sandblast and repaint your metal patio furniture. Visit his website and listen to Scott Joplin’s “Weeping Willow Rag” as you browse.

Full disclosure: The naughty dog, blotchy desk, and damp-cloth-wielding husband are all mine. The happy ending: I bought the polishing compound and some Guardsman, followed step one, and my desk looks lovely again.

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Related: How to Remove Stains From Hardwood Floors

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