Cleaning an Antique

Someone recently told me a formula for cleaning antiques (the finish in good shape, but needed good cleaning) is equal parts mineral spirits, linsed oil, turpentine and water. Applied with steel wool and gently rubbed onto the piece. I was not informed that this is good for all appications, though it seemed to be implied that it was.
I've never heard of this formula and I sense this formula's chemistry is questionable. It wouldn't be expensive or difficult to test it, but I'm not confident this mixture will properly clean a dirty or moderately dirty antique.
I already have good cleaning techniques, but I'm always willing to learn a new one. This one may be better for certain applications, than the one(s) I use.
Opinions, comments?
Sonny
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Sonny - in my business I have done a lot of finishing and refinishing. That on occasion has included a bit if cleaning and "leaving it alone" instead of a refinish.
Not to be too blunt, but just about everything is wrong with the method and cleaner.
NEVER clean with steel wool. You will destroy the polished patina of the surface at worst, and leave buffed scratches in the finish that can be seen a mile a way at best.
Steel wool also leaves behind the oil it is treated with to keep from rusting, potentially fouling your new finish or restoring mix. Worse, if you use a gunk mixture like you described, it will encapsulate the fibers into the finish when the linseed oil finally cures.
Clean with a soft rag and warm water first. Jersey cotton first to see if you can clean satisfactorily with it. If not, step up to a painter's rag, the ones that look like small hand towels made from terry cloth.
As for that mix of solvent... ouch! If you use non-natural turpentine, it is a petroleum product, not unlike the mineral spirits/ thinner. Why bother having two. Best of all, don't use either of them.
They can melt the waxes, treatments, accumulated dirt etc., that are on the piece and adhere them to bare spots on your piece. You will wind up darkening the bare spots by depositing the dissolved particulates in them. And now of course, you have to clean them. Additionally, you can actually dissolves some of the older finishes with either of those two. It won't be like a stripper, but if the finish is really old and deteriorated, the resins will break down with almost any petroleum based solvent.
Toss the linseed oil. No matter what anyone tells you, this is not a restorative finish. The metallic driers in BLO can melt the existing finish as well. And the oil will certainly darken any bare spots, pin holes, scuff marks, etc. It will also have the effect of gathering dust and grime to gather in corners and crannies. It provides almost no protection (skip the crap about nourishing wood - it's already dead), and does more harm than good in the long run.
It IS however, a trick that they "antique" furniture guys use to push their lesser pieces as it can appear to even out the finish in the short run.
Water?? Why would you mix oil, water, and petroleum? To raise the grain of the piece?
Water used as a cleaner can cause your finish to blush if it is a deteriorated lacquer or shellac. With the older finishes, a blush spray (usually L2 lacquer thinner) will not fix a blush. And if you have micro cracks in the finish and you use your "cleaner/restorer" liberally, you may cause the entire surface to blush.
You are at the point of refinishing if that happens.
So, do this:
Get some TSP from the super market or big box hardware. Mix a small batch of a warm, weak solution. Dip the rag into the solution and squeeze out all the excess cleaner.
Gently clean the piece with that. Work in small sections, using only the amount of pressure needed to remove the dirt. In the nooks and crannies, use a brass bristle brush for the tough stuff, and a "firm" tooth brush for the rest. Use no more solution or pressure on your rag or brush than you need.
To finish, wipe down the piece with a clean rag, soaked in warm water and wrung dry as above. Wipe the piece carefully and change the face of your cloth frequently. Use a few rags. You are finished when the rags start coming back from the surface pretty clean.
Don't put any wax on the piece. Commercial carnauba wax is dissolved with petroleum distillates, and will go into the bare spots, cracks, tiny holes, etc., and foul the finish later if you need to refinish. And anything with silicones in it is poison to wood, so no polish either.
If the piece you started with is in good shape and the finish is just dirty and not seriously damaged, it is likely the wood will be just fine with no additional finish on it. Assess the piece as it is after you clean it, and decide to leave it or refinish it.
If you wind up refinishing after cleaning or later down the road, that witch's brew you posted will cause you nothing but grief if you use it on your piece.
There are a lot of good books out there on this subject, and some not so good. But I would look at a lot of them before I jumped in if this was a valuable piece.
As always, just my 0.02.
Robert
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Thanks very much, Robert. I've printed your reply.
I have an old chair to upholster and the customer seems to insist I clean the woodwork using that formula/technique, which she got from her aunt, an antique "dealer". I noted your comment regarding "dealers". On hearing her request, I was not comfortable, at all, using that formula/technique.
Thanks again. Sonny
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On 1/26/2010 6:18 PM, Sonny wrote:

I won't claim to have Robert's finishing expertise, but I ain't no novice either, and as usual, I found myself nodding my head "yes" to everything Robert said. So FWIW, if you need a "second opinion" you've got one in me.
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Thanks Steve. I don't mind bluntness or a good second opinion/implied advice. I knew I could get both, here.
Now, all I need is boudin and king cake.... and a Saints win!
Sonny
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wrote:
Lots of interesting points there.
I take it you don't like Murphy's oil soap?
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Not one bit. It is still soap of unknown makeup. So what does it leave behind after rinsing?
I never use anything that
- nourishes (baloney!) - protects (leaves behind some kind of residue - deep cleans (probably has some unknown solvents in it) - restores (how in the hell is that supposed to work? How do you restore a finish if you don't put more on? If you can find a way to "restore" brittle, crumbling resins left behind on an antique, you will be a millionaire overnight!)
Most finish "restoring" recipes are not much more than a heavy solvent based cleaner with a bit of toner and resin in it. What they do is melt the remaining finish in with new resins and leave behind a blended mess.
This stuff is OK for the furniture in the kid's room, old stuff you don't care about, or the utility stuff going off to college.
It is in no way a restorer of any sort.
Robert
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wrote:

Oil and an alkali.

A Murphy's oil soap smell, last I recall.

You're not an ad writer, obviously. ;-)

You forgot the fragrance, to make that mess smell like fresh lemons.

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Sonny - in my business I have done a lot of finishing and refinishing. That on occasion has included a bit if cleaning and "leaving it alone" instead of a refinish.
Not to be too blunt, but just about everything is wrong with the method and cleaner.
NEVER clean with steel wool. You will destroy the polished patina of the surface at worst, and leave buffed scratches in the finish that can be seen a mile a way at best.
Steel wool also leaves behind the oil it is treated with to keep from rusting, potentially fouling your new finish or restoring mix. Worse, if you use a gunk mixture like you described, it will encapsulate the fibers into the finish when the linseed oil finally cures.
Clean with a soft rag and warm water first. Jersey cotton first to see if you can clean satisfactorily with it. If not, step up to a painter's rag, the ones that look like small hand towels made from terry cloth.
As for that mix of solvent... ouch! If you use non-natural turpentine, it is a petroleum product, not unlike the mineral spirits/ thinner. Why bother having two. Best of all, don't use either of them.
They can melt the waxes, treatments, accumulated dirt etc., that are on the piece and adhere them to bare spots on your piece. You will wind up darkening the bare spots by depositing the dissolved particulates in them. And now of course, you have to clean them. Additionally, you can actually dissolves some of the older finishes with either of those two. It won't be like a stripper, but if the finish is really old and deteriorated, the resins will break down with almost any petroleum based solvent.
Toss the linseed oil. No matter what anyone tells you, this is not a restorative finish. The metallic driers in BLO can melt the existing finish as well. And the oil will certainly darken any bare spots, pin holes, scuff marks, etc. It will also have the effect of gathering dust and grime to gather in corners and crannies. It provides almost no protection (skip the crap about nourishing wood - it's already dead), and does more harm than good in the long run.
It IS however, a trick that they "antique" furniture guys use to push their lesser pieces as it can appear to even out the finish in the short run.
Water?? Why would you mix oil, water, and petroleum? To raise the grain of the piece?
Water used as a cleaner can cause your finish to blush if it is a deteriorated lacquer or shellac. With the older finishes, a blush spray (usually L2 lacquer thinner) will not fix a blush. And if you have micro cracks in the finish and you use your "cleaner/restorer" liberally, you may cause the entire surface to blush.
You are at the point of refinishing if that happens.
So, do this:
Get some TSP from the super market or big box hardware. Mix a small batch of a warm, weak solution. Dip the rag into the solution and squeeze out all the excess cleaner.
Gently clean the piece with that. Work in small sections, using only the amount of pressure needed to remove the dirt. In the nooks and crannies, use a brass bristle brush for the tough stuff, and a "firm" tooth brush for the rest. Use no more solution or pressure on your rag or brush than you need.
To finish, wipe down the piece with a clean rag, soaked in warm water and wrung dry as above. Wipe the piece carefully and change the face of your cloth frequently. Use a few rags. You are finished when the rags start coming back from the surface pretty clean.
Don't put any wax on the piece. Commercial carnauba wax is dissolved with petroleum distillates, and will go into the bare spots, cracks, tiny holes, etc., and foul the finish later if you need to refinish. And anything with silicones in it is poison to wood, so no polish either.
If the piece you started with is in good shape and the finish is just dirty and not seriously damaged, it is likely the wood will be just fine with no additional finish on it. Assess the piece as it is after you clean it, and decide to leave it or refinish it.
If you wind up refinishing after cleaning or later down the road, that witch's brew you posted will cause you nothing but grief if you use it on your piece.
There are a lot of good books out there on this subject, and some not so good. But I would look at a lot of them before I jumped in if this was a valuable piece.
As always, just my 0.02.
Robert
Robert, I have a newer table finished using older methods, but I am not sure exactly what. Supposed to be French Polish, but I can't say for sure. Here is the problem. The heating pad we used on the table wasn't quite good enough and the heat from the dish left a slight grey on the finish you can see if you look at the table from certain angles. A turpentine and linseed oil mixture was suggested but now I don't think I want to try it. Any ideas on how to get out? It is not that bad and probably can live with it the way it is and I would hate to make it worse
Mike
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Mike - unless it is an honest to Pete custom piece, it won't be a real French Polish finish. FP is a long, painstaking process that takes a lot of time to do, and quite a while to master. You won't find it on a mass produced piece (or anything I make or finish either!!).
Probably what you have is a FP "style" of finish if it is a manufactured piece. That means it is one of the many members of the quick dry lacquer family spray finishes.
The finish can be air cured (doubtful), UV cured (most likely), or heat cured (depends on the age).
The finishes are applied, then probably buffed out after curing. Most commonly a rouge concoction is used on a large lamb's wheel buffer to "polish" (French? dunno.... maybe the guy drinks a latte when working) the finish out enabling them to claim a hand or "French style" of polish/finish.
Regardless, any of the cured finishes are almost impossible to repair satisfactorily. They are very hard, solvent and water resistant, and are applied with no consideration for future repairs. When these finishes are applied properly, what you wind up with is a cured resin product that little more than a high performance plastic film. Adhesion is always a problem when trying to repair them as they are purpose made to resist things sticking to them.
The discoloration from the heat is the downside to these finishes - most are very susceptible to heat. The discoloration indicates you have damaged the finish, so not a likely candidate for repair. And even if it could be repaired, you would be tasked with trying to match the color as well. Most colors are proprietary to the manufacturer, and are mixed in the finish. Unless you are experienced in toning finishes (!!) I would let this project go.
As far as putting anything on it, I wouldn't. If you have damaged the surface and the graying is actually million tiny cracks caused by the heat, anything you put on this area will seep in those cracks and color/discolor your wood. You can easily wind up a worse problem by trying to fix it.
If it is still smooth to the touch in the damaged area, and you can clean it with the rest of table with no problems, my thoughts would be to leave this one alone until you are ready for a refinishing project.
Robert
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Robert, Thank you very much. I will follow you recommendation. The damage is on one of the leaves and is not that noticeable so I am going to leave well enough alone and get better heat pads! Mike
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Bravo again...
You are gonna win the Finishing Academy Award again this year...
snipped-for-privacy@aol.com wrote:

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Generally antiques are not messed with much at all. Dusting and light damp cloth touching up.
We had a person on the group that polished the ugly green bronze statue in the estate he bought... destroyed the value.
Professionals buying would rather clean anything than yourself.
Martin
Sonny wrote:

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If I thought I had a valuable antique I wouldn't lay a finger on it beyond gentle dusting. If I thought it needed some sort of restoration or stabilizing I'd refer it to a professional after researching what that would do to the value. I would think that watching just a couple of episodes of Antiques Roadshow would get that message across.
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On Tue, 26 Jan 2010 12:54:07 -0800 (PST), the infamous Sonny

Steel wool doesn't clean finish, it removes it, no matter how gently it's used.

I can see where it might clean both waterborne contaminants and dissolvable contaminants, but it's going to take finish off as well, horribly. Maybe that's what the linseed oil is for, to replace it as you scour the old finish off. It's probably a perfectly good finish remover for Granny who can't afford to take the piece to a paid refinisher and who doesn't care about value except for her use, right now. It will likely remove and smooth a crusty, crackled old finish, leaving a semi-hardening oil finish in its place. But it won't be a finish you'd want to show to your own granny.
What does he want you to use to refinish it after his cleaning?

Have the customer sign a waiver saying that he wants you to try this procedure and let him sign off on your disclaimer. Then do what he wants, if you dare, with him there. Be sure to add time for gnarled old finish removal and complete refinishing to the piece, destroying its antique value, if any, in the process. It's his "antique".
Or see if he'll go with Naily's advice. It's good.
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Apart from the wisdom of applying it, I'm wondering how that mix is even miscible ? It sounds like a re-hash of the well-known and infamous "mayonnaise" mix, which toned down the solvents and added vinegar. It was used for years by some notable organisations, until they realised it was building up an opaque brown gunk that was hard to shift properly.
Also apart from the idea of using steel wool at all, using steel wool wet is an obvious problem. Even dry steel wool on new work is a problem if it's oak, chestnut or soemthign with tannins, owing to blue- black stain developing in the future.
As others have said, it's not a good idea and anything that claims to be "one solution for all finishes" is unlikely to be. Understand what you have, fix that as it needs, don't put your faith in magic potions.
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Most notably the Winterthur Museum, from which it gets its name.

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Thanks, Pat. I got a chuckle out of that! :^)
It is always nice to share knowledge that I have worked so hard to gain with folks that appreciate it. Kinda keeps the craft going, if you know what I mean.
Robert
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wrote:

Do you watch the Antique Road Show? I saw a piece of furniture valued at $18,000, but if the owner had not destroyed the original patina by cleaning the value would be doubled. Water-based products are best avoided on any wood. If you want to be safe, take it to a professional. Not knowing about the finish is another concern and by trying different products and methods you will certainly do some damage.
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