Canadian Woodworking

Furniture First Aid

Author: Marty Schlosser
Photos: Vic Tesolin
Published: August September 2010
Furniture First Aid
Furniture First Aid

Of all the ways to extend the life of your furniture, caring for its finish is one of the most important. Learn some tricks of the trade to ensure your furniture doesn’t have to be taken out on the gurney well before its time.

Furniture first aid is a broad subject, so I’ll be focusing on the most likely “patients” you’ll encounter: wax build-up, scratches, scuff marks, dents and water damage. Let’s roll up our sleeves, don our aprons and get to work.

Scuffed chair leg
Common damage to the leg of a chair.

Clean the area
 First, use turpentine to clean the area around the scuff mark.

Apply some wax
Once the scuff has been dealt with apply wax with #0000 steel wool. This will smooth the area.

Buff to a nice sheen
With a clean rag, buff the area to an appropriate gloss.

Wax Build-up

Often old rocking chair arms will feel sticky; this indicates excessive wax build-up. The same goes for many antiques, where the linseed oil rises to the surface. The first aid for these patients is simple: dip a clean cloth in turpentine, wring it out until almost dry, and then rub the built-up waxy area until it comes clean. Repeat with a clean cloth as necessary, and if some build-up remains after two tries, lay a cloth – this time with more turpentine – directly on the problem area and leave it there for about 20 minutes to soften the build-up. If this doesn’t do the trick you’ll have to resort to using a pad of #0000 steel wool in lieu of the cloth. Once you’re satisfied the wax has been removed, wipe the area dry and give the entire piece a protective coat of wax.


If you look at the legs on any piece of furniture, odds are you’ll see scuff marks. Vacuum cleaners and kids toys are the usual culprits. First aid for this patient is quite easy. Once you’ve washed the damaged area using a clean turpentine-dampened rag, dip a pad of #0000 steel wool in paste wax that matches the general colour tone of the piece – either tinted dark or clear. Rub the scuffed area gently, ensuring you move the steel wool with the grain until the scuff marks disappear. Allow the wax to harden for about 10 minutes then buff off the excess. Once it’s hardened for another 15 minutes or so, buff again.

Shallow Scratches

Dealing with scratches is similar to scuff marks, but what you rub in will depend on the finish. For oil finishes, load the #0000 steel wool pad with fur­niture oil, again respecting the colour as we did for scuffs, and lightly rub the area, going with the grain. Deeper scratches will require you to resort to 600 wet-dry sandpaper. Stop as soon as the scratches are gone, then wipe off the oil and apply some more clean oil to the area. After five minutes, wipe off any excess still sitting on the surface and allow it to harden for at least eight hours. Shellac finishes require a differ­ent approach, however, which focuses on re-melting the shellac in the immedi­ate area of the scratch with denatured alcohol applied with a small artist brush. Continue running the tip of the brush along the full length of the scratch until the solvent has dissolved the finish and filled in the scratch. If you have a lac­quer finish, use lacquer thinner instead of the denatured alcohol and apply as outlined above. Scratches in a varnish or polyurethane finish will require a differ­ent approach. Lightly sand the area, with the grain, using turpentine-soaked 600 wet-dry sandpaper. The turpentine acts as a lubricant but still be careful not to sand completely through the finish. Dry the area, then check your progress and repeat this sanding/drying-off cycle until the scratch disappears. The sheen can be restored by buffing with #0000 steel wool and a light waxing.


Small dents can be raised, but at a cost: you may create more difficulties in the process. If you’re dealing with a genu­ine antique or a newer piece finished in shellac or lacquer, perhaps it’s best to learn to live with the dent, as the proce­dure involves wetting the area with water. As you may already know, water cre­ates white areas in such finishes, which may be difficult to remove. Weighing the pluses and the minuses, if you still wish to proceed, take a small needle and poke a few holes in the bottom of the dent. Fill the dent with clean water and see what happens over the next 24 hours or so. If the dent doesn’t disappear you’ll have to resort to more drastic measures. Cover the dent with a wet towel and touch the tip of a hot iron (highest heat setting) directly to the dented area and hold it lightly in place until the steam subsides. If no steam is produced, your towel wasn’t wet enough. If this steaming doesn’t cause the wood fibres to swell to their original level, repeat until it does. Allow the area to dry fully for at least two days before proceeding. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to retouch the finish using the pro­cedures outlined above for dealing with scratches. However, if this doesn’t do the trick you’ll have to refinish the piece.

Water Damage – an Overview

If water is left on a piece for a few days or more, chances are that some damage will be done to the piece, er, I mean, patient. The effects are com­pounded when tablecloths are used, as the water will be held there to continue doing its thing much longer. Even small amounts of water may leave mineral deposits that attach to the finish as they evaporate. Greater amounts of water will be absorbed by shellac or lacquer finishes, creating white rings where the offending glass or bowl sat. Taken to the next level, if the water delves even deeper through the finish to the wood itself, the damage requires efforts well beyond the “first aid” level and as such won’t be discussed here. Let’s therefore go back and take a look at the first two problems I mentioned: mineral deposits and white rings.

Mineral Deposits

To deal with mineral deposits, first cover the damaged area with a soft cloth dampened with min­eral oil. The oil should cause the mineral deposits to loosen, so check every few hours to see how things are progressing. Re-dampen the cloth with mineral oil as necessary and when the mineral deposits appear loose, wipe them away with the cloth. Wipe the area down with a fresh, soft cloth, then wax the entire piece to provide protection and restore the sheen.

White Rings

Here’s the part that I like: if you do nothing, odds are the ring will disappear over time on its own as the water vapour slowly leaves the finish. By way of example, when I pulled out my camera the other night to photograph one white water ring that had been star­ing at me from our dining table since it first appeared after last Christmas’ din­ner, lo and behold, it was gone! So much for a prop, eh? So let’s say you’ve waited a few months and it’s still there, calling for your “first aid” skills. Hopefully you knew not to attempt to polish the damaged area using wax, which would only have com­plicated the natural evaporation process by adding another barrier for the offend­ing water vapour to travel through. The fix is to abrade the finish in that immedi­ate area using rottenstone, which you can lightly rub with a mineral oil-dampened cloth. Always move the cloth in the direc­tion of the grain and stop every minute or so to check your progress. Add more oil and rottenstone as needed and be very careful not to rub completely through the finish. Once the ring has disappeared, impart a consistent sheen to the piece by giving the entire surface a light rubbing out with the same materials you’ve been using. Wipe down the piece with a fresh rag and then apply a protective coat of wax. Voila! You’re done.

By practicing the furniture first aid outlined in this article, you should be able to extend the life of your furni­ture and lessen the effort required to carry out repairs when they become necessary. Bring on the patients!

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