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Care and Feeding of Wood Furniture

Rule number one for the care and feeding of furniture is, wood does not need to be fed.

One of the biggest con jobs in marketing is the concept that furniture is 'thirsty' and needs to be given moisture. This just isn't true at all. Wood pretty much absorbs what moisture it needs from the air all on its own, and gives it back when there is too much.

Normal moisture content for wood furniture in our area (the western side of the Rockies in Colorado) is around 12% to 14%. This means that for every hundred pounds of weight, 12 to 14 pounds is water. A gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds, so normal moisture content here is about a gallon and a half or so per hundred pounds of wood weight.

Even furniture that sits in water during a flood does not absorb more than about 25% of its weight in water (assuming it is not sitting on the bottom of a lake for a couple of decades).

Furniture polishes, oils, and what not do not help furniture absorb moisture. Many of the products have silicones in them, which can work their way through the finish and into the wood, causing a refinisher problems when they try to strip and refinish. You can save a lot of money by not buying the products at all. At best, they help collect a little bit of dust, but a cloth slightly dampened with water will do the same thing.

Sometimes paste wax can be applied to even out the surface a little and assist with cleaning. If you want to use this product make sure it is carnauba wax. It is a little hard to apply though, because it takes a lot of rubbing. Usually the finish is fine as it is, if it is a film finish such as lacquer.


Loose Furniture

Loose furniture is not good, even beyond the unsteadiness and squeakiness. The problem is that many times there are nails or screws in the joints, which act to split the wood if it moves around too much. That's how you split a log - jam a piece of metal in it and move it till the wood comes apart.

A standard approach in home repairs is to reach for the screws But this will only make the looseness much worse, because the nail or screw doesn't really hold the joint still (and usually a pilot hole of the proper size is not drilled first). All a screw or nail does is hold the pieces together (maybe). There will always be some movement, and if there's movement, sooner or later there will be breakage.

If a nail or screw isn't present (or inserted by a do-it-yourselfer), there is still the risk of a break because all the joints don't get loose at the same time. Some joints are still firmly glued while some get loose. The joints that are still firm are holding onto the wood real well, but the joints that are loose aren't holding at all. This is why one end will frequently break (usually the end that's being held more firmly). See what we mean? In other words, one part of the wood is being held while the other end is moving around, which results in uneven stress and eventual cracking and splitting.

So do yourself a favor. If you really want to fix a loose piece of furniture, bring it to the Chair Doctor of Grand Junction for a full treatment.



Most furniture needs to be cleaned on a regular basis, especially those areas where we rest our hands all the time. The top rail of a chair (called the cresting rail) or chair arms, the front edges of a chair, or the place where we rest our arms on the table are all trouble areas. Over time, the oils and salts from our skin are transferred to these spots, and dirt sticks to the oil, causing a build up if not removed.

Removal is easy, if it's early. Just use a little glass cleaner on the trouble spots. Some people don't like this idea because ammonia can be used as a stripper, but the amount of ammonia in glass cleaner is very low and it doesn't sit on the surface for very long. If you want you can use mineral spirits or oil soap instead. If the soil sneaks up on you, and it usually sneaks up on all of us, you wind up with buildup and then you will have to get a little more aggressive. A cloth and some oil soap or mineral spirits will do well if it is still fairly light. If it gets pretty heavy, then you might have to use steel wool with the soap or mineral spirits to get it completely clean (use 4-ought, or 0000, which is very fine - never us any steel wool coarser than 0000 on furniture). Mineral spirits are a pretty good cleaning solution for furniture.

But here's the problem. The oils and salts eat away at the finish, so that when you clean off the soil you also clean off the finish, and usually the color too. This is why people think they messed up when they clean off the sticky dirt. But it's not the fault of the cleaning method (as long as you're not using something caustic like bleach) it's the fault of the soil and time. So you may have to bring the item to us for touch up (if it can be touched up) if the soil has been on there too long.

Better yet, bring it to us for refinishing. The original finish is probably very thin which contributed to premature wear anyway, so if you get it refinished the beauty is restored and it'll be more resistant to wear.


Determining the Finish

You need to determine what kind of finish you have in order to do anything to it like the Scratch Removal process below.

If the finish appears flat or dull, and it doesn't look like there is a film on it, then it is probably oil. There are some professionally rubbed oil finishes out there that look shiny but are still oil. Try rubbing a clean white cloth with a little mineral spirits on it on an out of view spot. If color comes off, you have oil. If not, go to the next step, because some flat finishes are shellac or lacquer.

Next, put some alcohol on a clean white cloth and rub again on an out of the way spot. If color comes off on the cloth, or if the finish gets tacky, you probably have a shellac finish. If nothing comes off on the cloth, then try some lacquer thinner. If color comes off on the cloth with that, or if the finish gets tacky, then the finish is lacquer. If nothing happens during these tests, then you probably have a finish like polyurethane.

If you see drips or drip marks under the edges of things like seats, then it is probably a brushed on finish. If by your testing you think the finish is polyurethane, looking for drip marks can help confirm what you think. Except shellac can be either brushed or sprayed, so the drip marks are no guarantee of what the finish is.


Scratch Removal

This can be simple or very involved, depending on your ability and what finish is on the wood. The Chair Doctor does not accept any liability for using the suggested processes, so use them at your own risk. These suggestions are simplified forms of more extensive professional scratch removal, but should suffice for most minor damage.

Before you try scratch removal, ideally you should first go through the testing procedures outlined above in the Determining Finish section to find out what finish you have.

But even if you don't know what kind of finish is on the wood, if the damage is small and shallow you can use dye marking pens to blend. The problem with these is color matching. Generally you have to have a set of them in order to get close to the color you are working. We have a set of about 30, and there are many more shades available. If you try them on a gouge, the repair will be darker because the dye absorbs more thoroughly into bare wood than finished wood. Keep a little alcohol with you when you color in with a marker so you can rub off or lighten the dye in case it's the wrong color. The marker will probably wipe off also with a dry cloth, or some 4/0 steel wool and oil soap (remember to let the area dry before trying it again). Click the link below for one supplier's offering of marking pens.

Scratches in shellac are pretty easy to remove. Simply wipe with denatured alcohol (available at most hardware stores) lightly using a clean white cloth (white cloths don't have any dye which might come off on the wood or finish when you least expect it). Do this in a well-ventilated area because the alcohol is very strong. Some other types of damage may come out also with a little rubbing, but remember that shellac is very thin and you might rub through the finish and into the wood without trying. So don't rub too long or hard in one area.

Lacquer scratches are a little more difficult but not impossible. There are some fairly involved polishing processes that can be used but are a little difficult and are too risky for the average do-it-yourselfer to try. If scratches are in chair legs or backs rather than large reflective surfaces like table tops, then purchase a can of clear lacquer and lightly spray some on in a well ventilated area. Use flat lacquer for flat finishes, satin for semi-gloss or satin finishes, and gloss for very shiny finishes. This should take care of at least visually blending even deep gouges to the background color of the wood. But if the gouge is deep, use the markers first to get some color on it. For a table top you can try lightly spraying some clear lacquer (after you try the markers), but if you get it on too heavy it will be obvious to see.

If you over-apply you can use some 4/0 steel wool and a little oil soap to try and smooth out the overspray if the sheen is satin (which most furniture is). Remember that these are simplified procedures and do not cover all types of damage, especially severe damage like gouges. Also, lightly spraying on clear lacquer will work to remove light scratches on just about any finish, but if sprayed too heavily on polyurethane it will probably not stick. The drawback to polyurethane is that it cannot be repaired very well at all. If repairing scratches gets too involved for you, it is probably best to bring it to a professional, like you-know-who.

If a scratch has removed color also, this cannot usually be corrected very easily, even with dye markers (although you can try those first). Sometimes when manufacturers finished the wood the color is sprayed directly (on the bare wood) and sometimes the color is in the sprayed on finish itself. This is why sometimes even light scratches look like all the color was removed. Denatured alcohol or clear lacquer will not add color, although the alcohol can sometimes move a little color around and cover some scratches.

There are dye-colored lacquers (called toners) that can be purchased that might help, but the trouble with this is getting a color match. There are also pigmented lacquers (usually called shaders but sometimes even the 'toner' and 'shader' names are reversed) that are more like paint. Your finish will usually be colored by a dye, but there are also a lot of pigmented colors out there. The colors on computer screens and manufacturer's descriptions are not consistent and may not match the finish you have. We have a whole shelf full of different colors with different names, so we can try several that are close to get the best match. But buying a whole shelf full when you only have a few scratches doesn't make very good economic sense. The link below is a start for finding some colored aerosols.

Other products can be obtained on the web called scratch remover aerosols, and they are pretty decent to use most of the time. They come in light or dark types, so purchase the one that most closely matches the finish. These products are better for the do-it-yourselfer than getting hip deep in trying to buy colored lacquers. One supplier for aerosol Scratch removers is Behlen (or Mohawk) and is very good.