Once upon a time, when my wife Stephanie was still my girlfriend, we moved (on very short notice) from Washington, DC to Boston into an apartment we had never seen in person before. The next few months were absolutely wild — full of packing and unpacking, new job situations, and last minute wedding planning/crafting. After things calmed down, Steph and I finally had a chance to assess our apartment, which was bigger than anywhere we had lived before. Big enough, in fact, that we had a whole extra room and no furniture to fill it.
So, like the good queers we are, we found ourselves in a rented U-Haul truck on New Year’s Eve 2014, heading to meet a man about a cheap Craigslist dining room set. The furniture was more than a little gently worn from years of use, but it was a solid set that just needed a little extra love. The technique I used then (and re-created more recently to freshen it up) is not a full restoration — I did not sand everything down and start from scratch. What we’re doing here is more like restoration-lite, but it should be enough to salvage a Craigslist (or yard sale or attic) find nine times out of ten.
What you’ll need:
- Murphy’s Oil Soap – This is really the best, 10/10 would recommend keeping a bottle for random projects around the house.
- Lemon or Orange Oil – I have heard that it’s not too hard to do a homemade version of this. If anyone out there has tried it, please advise in the comments.
- Steel Wool – Grade #0000
- Rags – I always cut up old t-shirts as needed, because I have way too many.
- Denatured Alcohol – Optional
- Paste Wax – Also optional, but recommended
- Hardware (cabinet knobs or pulls) – Optional, dependent on project
What to do:
1. Remove hardware (optional). If you’re replacing knobs or pulls, take them off now so you can clean the furniture really well without them.
2. Scrub it down! Use about ¼ cup of the Murphy’s for every gallon of water, mix it all up in a bucket, and give the furniture a deep cleaning. When I was a kid, I always thought my mom was crazy because she used extremely hot water when she did the dishes. I have apparently become my mother (BUT ONLY IN THIS VERY SPECIFIC WAY) because I nearly burnt my damn hands washing the furniture. But you know what? I really do feel like hot water gets things cleaner, so I’m going to go ahead and recommend you use the hottest water you can stand here. (My wife very intelligently suggested wearing gloves for this. Great advice that I did not follow!) Also, have a dry rag handy at all times, because you don’t want to let a lot of excess water sit on the wood. Use the classic wax on, wax off technique, is what I’m saying.
3. Use denatured alcohol to remove water stains (optional). The most important thing about this step, if you’re doing it, is to use as little alcohol and force as possible so you don’t totally strip the finish. Dip a tiny corner of a clean rag into the alcohol and let it seep into the material before you start to very gently rub at the water stains.
4. Buff it with steel wool to remove any other stains/paint/dirt/etc. This step also requires a light touch; you basically want to affect the wood as little as possible while still getting the desired result. Go with the grain of the wood and do what feels right. At this stage, your furniture is probably going to look even shittier than when you began. That’s okay! Everything is going to be fine.
5. Replace hardware (optional). When I lived in DC, one of my very favorite places was Community Forklift, which is a nonprofit reuse center for home improvement supplies. They have a huge warehouse, and it’s full of all sorts of treasures! When we moved to Boston, I was bummed to say goodbye, but I found out recently about Habitat for Humanity ReStore and bought my hardware there! It’s really similar to Community Forklift and also there are locations all over the US! Go forth! You’ll be supporting a good cause while getting home improvement supplies for cheap.
6. Clean it again. Get back at it with the Murphy’s to remove any steel wool dust/dirt/etc. (Same as step 1.)
7. Polish with citrus oil of your choice. Depending on the brand or type of oil the directions might differ slightly, so just do whatever the bottle tells you. This stuff smells nice and makes the wood look real shiny and new!
8. Finish with paste wax (optional). I had never used this before, but I decided to give it a try this time and I really liked the finish. The end result is less high gloss and more of a luster, which I really like. You might want to test this on a small less-visible part of the wood to see if you’re into it before committing to buffing it onto your whole piece.
So there you have it! Please bear in mind that this tutorial isn’t going to save every piece of old wooden furniture in the world. If you find something that is deeply scratched or stained — and you want it to look brand new — you’re probably going to need to do a lot of power sanding instead. I happen to think perfect can be very boring, though, so I love using this easy technique to extend the life of old furniture and I hope you do too.