With all the sprays, polishes, oils, cleaners, and waxes available today, its no wonder that this is one of the most asked question by far. My response is always the same; "Do you just want a shine or do you want protection also"? Spray-on polish and oils, "time savers", give a quick temporary shine in just minutes, but that's all you get. The reason they "shine" is because they are WET. This "wet look" may produce a nice shine but offers little or no protection. These products became popular in the late 1940s and have increased in popularity ever since. TV commercials showing a house wife using product X on a dull table top, followed by her smiling beautiful face in the reflection gave proof of the effortless shine their product would produce. Well, that was nothing but a good marketing ploy to boost product sales. What house wife, even today, would not want to save a lot of time and good old fashion elbow grease? What they did not tell you, was that the silicone oils and petroleum distillates in their product would actually cause harm to your finish over time. In the late 60s and early 70s refinishing shops made a lot of money refinishing hundreds of table tops when their finish softened and turned into a sticky, gooey mess. These products are much improved today and can be good for the occasional quickie just before guest arrive, but prolonged use can still leave a gooey mess and still no real protection. It is easy to tell if a customer has been using these kind of polishes. You can make swirl marks in the wet oil with your fingers, or lift a cloth place mat from the table top to reveal a dull spot the same shape of the mat (the oil was absorbed by the mat). Because the surface is wet, it will actually attract and hold more dust and pollutants from the air.
Lets take a moment and consider just what a finish is designed to do. First and foremost it is to seal the wood. Sealing the wood protects the wood from moisture changes, spills, stains, and surface abrasions. Second it is used to enhance the beauty of the wood grain. Have you ever heard someone tell how their product "feeds" the wood. Unless your furniture is unfinished, or the finish has deteriorated, there is absolutely no way any polish, oil or wax is going to get through the finish to the wood. Another common misconception is that wood furniture is "alive" and need to "breathe," so don't seal the pores with wax. Wood furniture is not "alive", it can not "breathe" nor does it need to be "nourished" or "fed" with oily polishes. Just the very opposite is the truth! Continual changes in humidity, not the lack of "feeding", cause un-sealed wood to crack, warp, swell, shrink and glue joints to loosen.
Paste Wax has been used for centuries as a finishing material itself and a finish protector. If used properly, paste wax will provide a thin, hard, lasting finish. Waxes dry hard so they do not smear and attract dust and dirt. Paste waxing typically lasts 3-5 years, depending on how much the furniture is used and how many coats are applied. Table tops and chair arms are an exception, generally needing to be waxed once a year, due to the extra wear they receive. Many people, especially antique lovers, prefer the soft sheen provided by paste wax. Also, waxes do not interfere with future refinishing like silicone polishes most often do. Paste wax is hard work. It will take 4-6 hours to paste wax a dining room set and if done properly will not need waxing again for years. It requires effort, but you won't obtain a more durable, beautiful protection than paste wax. Remember, the wax protects the finish, the finish protects the wood. To dust or clean, just wipe with a soft damp, lint free cloth.
One more thing. Make sure you use a wax designed for wood furniture. Some shoe and car waxes can cause problems on some finishes.
A typical can of past wax cost less then $15.00 and if the lid is put back on properly after each use will last the average home owner 20 years or so. Now consider the advertisements that tell you to dust every week with their $3.00 per can spray polish. All right, now do the math. One $3.00 can a month for next 20 years ($720.00) verses one can for 20 years at $15.00. Next consider the time factor. Lets say it takes 5 minutes once a week to use a spray polish on your dinning room set. 5 minutes times 52 weeks times 4 years: that's a little over 17 hours spent giving your set a non-protective shine. With paste wax it took 5 hours to wax the first time then you spent 1 more hour per year doing the table top and chair arms the next 3 years, that's 8 hours spent giving your set a protective coating that has extended the life of the finish.
What About Wax Buildup?
Here is what some furniture manufacturers and other experts say, from article in Wood Magazine JUNE 1989
Roy Frizell, Supervisor of Quality Control, Ethan Allen, Inc., Danbury, Connecticut, recommends wax only in small doses. "We tell customers to dust with a damp cloth, then maybe every six months use wax. 0therwise," he comments, "They'll put wax on every time they dust."
Ed Finnety, customer service manager at Harden Furniture, McConnellsville, New York, acknowledges that most people over-polish. "they're zealous," he says.
Ron Ashby, owner of Wood Finish Supply in Mendocino, California, finds amusement in some companies' product claims denying wax buildup. "if you avoid wax buildup, you don't have any protection for your furniture," he muses. "it does build up, but it builds up clear." Old wax can be removed with special products developed just for the purpose, according to Ashby. "but, if the furniture is heavily soiled, too, you should use a wood cleaning and wax-removing product."
According to Colonial Williamsburg's Gusler, wax should never create a buildup problem when used in moderation. That's because all the wax you put on doesn't remain there. "It gets buffed, worn off, and even oxidizes," he says.
Choosing A Furniture Polish Or Wax
Choosing a furniture care-protecting product is very easy. Simply because there are only four basic types of them, based on the main ingredient used to make the product.
Petroleum Distillate are solvent which are the primary ingredient in most polishes and are often referred to as "oil." Actually, they are forms of mineral spirits with a slow evaporation rate. This type of liquid adds shine and some scratch resistance only until it evaporates, which usually happened within a short time. It will remove grease and wax and helps pick up dust, but it has no cleaning effect on water soluble dirt such as dried soft drink spills or other non grease or oily food residue. Choose a petroleum distillate based polish if you want an inexpensive, easy to apply and quick shine with a pleasant smell (most have a fragrances added).
Water is added to many polishes because it is a great cleaner for most types of dirt. When water is combined with petroleum-distillate solvent to make an "emulsion polish", the polish appears milky-white when first applied. Emulsion polish has advantage over a petroleum distillate based polish when you need to clean both grease and water soluble dirt. Choose an emulsion polish if you want a polish that aids in dusting and cleans well. These are often marketed as products that "Clean and Polish" in one application.
Silicone is very slick synthetic oil that produces the appearance of high gloss and depth on most wood finishes and remains on the surface for a very long time. Most of the silicone polishes produced today are usually inert and will not causes permanent damage to the finish or the wood. However it can cause major refinishing problems that requires extra effort (and cost to the consumer) to remove. As a result, most refinishers and restorers discourage the use of silicone based polishes. You can identify when a silicone polishes has been used by the telltale marking they leave when you drag your finger over the finished surface. Choose a silicone polish if you want a glossy shine with some scratch resistance along with a dusting aid. Good for disposable furniture. Not recommended for heirlooms or antiques.
Paste Wax is solid at room temperature and does not evaporate from the furniture's surface, so there is no reason to apply it often other than on high ware surfaces. Sometimes waxes is added to liquid polishes (cream or liquid wax), which make it easier to apply. Paste wax is the most permanent furniture care protection product. Its also the most difficult to apply because of the extra effort required to remove the excess. On deteriorated finished surfaces, wax has the advantage of not highlighting cracking and crazing as do liquid polishes or contaminating the wood like oil and silicone products do. Choose paste wax if you want a fairly permanent shine with offers the best scratch and moisture resistances for older, deteriorated finishes, or new finishes and avoids silicone polish problems on both.
Steve Nearman operates The Master's Touch furniture restoration service in Fredericksburg, Virginia and is the founder of Professional Restorers International. His local clients include several historical sites like, Kenmore, Mary Ball Washington's House, Rising Sun Tavern, Gary Melcher's Belmont and many private collectors of early American furniture. View his PRI shop Bio page or his web site at FurnitureRepair.net.