Canadian Woodworking

Caring for a Finish

Author: Marty Schlosser
Photos: Brian Hargreaves
Published: December January 2010
Caring for a Finish
Caring for a Finish

Accidents may happen – these simple techniques can keep your furniture looking like new for many years to come.

Of course you knew better, didn’t you? You were in too much of a hurry to apply finish equally to all sides of that dining room table you had spent the past six weekends tenderly bringing to life. And because of that, the solid table top has cupped badly and cracks are beginning to open up in a few places. All this trouble because you had been in such a hurry to get it done before the annual family Thanksgiving dinner.

It needs to be reinforced that the above scenario is responsible for more premature finish failures than other single cause. Simply stated, you need to give those hidden and not-so-obvious parts of every piece of furniture the same level of attention for finishing. And that means surfacing too, whether you scrape or sand prior to putting on the finish. The same idea applies, albeit to a lesser extent, to staining, tinting or toning operations. If your particular finish calls for the first coat to be cut (reduced, that is) with thinner, such as is the case with most oils or topcoats (varathane, shellac or lacquer), whatever you to do one side must be done to all. In fact, it’s a terrific idea to first try out the finish on the underside or less observable areas of a piece before tackling the top. Stain, oil or topcoat, wax, polishing … every step the same.

Initial buffing of wax
Buff with a clean cloth until the waxing swirls are all gone.

Removing heavy wax build up
Use a turpentine-dampened cloth to remove built-up wax.

Furniture Placement

Okay, so you paid attention to applying the finish correctly. You’re out of the woods, right? Not so fast. Whenever possible, don’t place that beautiful piece of furniture where it’ll be exposed, day in and day out, to extreme humidity and temperature swings. Forced air registers, fireplaces and windows that are frequently kept open are also traps waiting to be sprung on your finish. The same goes for direct sunlight exposure. At the very least, close window sheers and you’ll be surprised at the difference this simple precaution makes.

Dealing with Standing Water or Beverages

Plant pots are notorious for causing those white or black rings that spoil a finish, so ensure you place them on a saucer or other such arrangement to catch and hold excess water. The same goes for beverages. Provide your guests with coasters and whenever those inevitable spills occur, wipe them up with a clean, dry cloth as soon as possible.

Proactive Protection – Waxing

A monthly waxing will do wonders for keeping virtually any finish at its best. But don’t follow your Aunt Betsy’s theory that if applying a light coat of wax each time is good, then a whole lot of wax is even better. Less is indeed more when it comes to waxing. The waxing process is simple. Fold a clean cloth into a pad that is slightly larger than your hand and lightly load the pad with wax, right out of the tin. Start at one corner of the piece, then apply the wax sparingly, using a circular motion as you advance across the piece, from left to right. Continue applying wax in a logical, efficient manner, overlapping each row of circles until the entire section is covered. Go onto the next surface. Reload your cloth with wax only when it’s getting dry.

Don’t go onto a third surface until you have buffed the first one or the wax will have become too hard to buff out. Take a second clean cloth, fold it as before, then start at the original place, using back and forth motions and buff the surface until the circular pattern is no longer visible under a strong light. It’s highly unlikely that the second section will be ready for its first buffing right away, so rather than simply waiting, go ahead and apply wax to the third section. Go back to the first section and, again using a fresh cloth (our third one, right?) fold it into a pad then do the final buffing, this time ensuring you rub with the grain. The surface should be as smooth as glass. Move onto the second surface and carry out the initial buffing procedure. Leapfrogging in this manner, you should be able to finish off even the largest piece of furniture without running into any difficulties. That is, as long as you give the wax enough time to harden up, but not so much time that it becomes excessively hard and therefore difficult to rub out. Your buffing cloths will eventually become choked with wax build-up, so keep enough on hand to allow you to finish the entire piece in one waxing session.

Two final words of advice: first, areas that are subject to a lot of wear will almost always need to have wax applied each waxing session, while other, less lightly touched areas may simply need to be buffed or have only the slightest amount of wax applied. Running your fingers over the piece will reveal those areas that need wax and those which require only buffing or only some wax and a buffing. Second, as with oily rags, wax-soaked rags may self-combust, so lay them over the lip of your shop’s garbage can and allow them to “dry” at least overnight, and dispose of them on garbage day.

Removing Heavy Wax Build-up

By applying wax sparingly and ensuring you buff completely, you shouldn’t have to worry about wax build-up for a long time, perhaps forever. If your furniture’s getting clammy to the touch on humid summer days, chances are that there is a build-up and you’ll need to resort to stripping the wax from the piece. Again, this isn’t a difficult proposition, but it’ll take you a bit of time. Lay a plastic drop cloth on the floor and place your piece on it.

I like to start with the underside of most pieces, as that’s often where the greatest build-up will be concentrated. Dip a clean, folded cloth into turpentine, wring almost all of it out and then begin lightly rubbing the built-up wax until it all comes off. Heavily built-up areas may require a second going over, and perhaps you’ll need to resort to 0000 steel wool instead of the cloth. Either way, once the wax has been removed, use another, clean dry cloth and wipe the surface off before moving onto the next section. Once the wax has been completely removed, take a good look at the piece. If the finish has been worn away, re-waxing alone won’t be enough and the finish will have to be restored afresh. Hopefully, though, you’ve been giving the piece the proper care and attention it deserved and you’ll only have to use wax to bring it back to its former glory. As with most things in life, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” when it comes to caring for a finish.

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