Caring for wood in older homes

The newel post on the left has been cleaned using the suggested method. Photo courtesy CRS.

One of the many character-defining features of old homes is the richness and warmth of finished wood. After 100 years, the luster of the natural wood can become dulled or discolored due to layers of dirt, old wax buildup, and failure of the original varnish or glaze. 

Many owners may find the prospect of a careful cleaning and restoration of historic wood to be a daunting or impossible task, while others may mistakenly believe the only method of cleaning it is to strip it entirely and start over. The following tips from the Cleveland Restoration Society make it entirely possible to clean and restore the look of historic, finished wood.

The gentlest means of cleaning should always be undertaken first. In this case, whipping one tablespoon of gentle soap, such as Ivory liquid dish soap, in a gallon of warm water will provide ample suds. Dip an old washcloth or undershirt into the suds—not the water—and scrub the area vigorously. Towel dry to remove any excess water, and examine the area. If the finish on the wood remains cloudy, discolored, or dull, the likely culprit is built-up waxy substances or old layers of finish, and additional cleaning is necessary.

Brush mineral spirits on a small test patch in an inconspicuous area. They result in fumes that are highly flammable, so always have adequate ventilation and dispose of soiled cleaning materials properly. Allow the liquid to soak in for a couple of minutes, then take a pad of very fine steel wool (#0000) and gently rub in the direction of the grain. If the finish is high gloss, use a terry washcloth instead, as steel wool will dull the shine. Toothbrushes are useful for the tight spaces and carvings of turned spindles or decorative elements,.  Once the area is dry, apply a bit of lemon oil, which should make the dull finish sparkle again. A good product to use for this step is Milsek, which is a blend of different oils.

An alternative to cleaning with mineral spirits is a self-made cleaner/restorer, which also produces flammable fumes and requires proper ventilation and cleanup. Mix one cup each of boiled linseed oil, white vinegar, and turpentine in a glass jar. Shake the mixture until it looks like oily milk. Brush this on a test patch with a clean paint brush, and allow it to soak in for several minutes. Again, use a very fine steel wool (#0000) or a terry washcloth to gently scrub the dirt off, making sure to always rub with the grain. Let this test patch dry for 24 hours, and repeat the process if the desired appearance has not been reached.

The patina of old wood is one of the character unique features of an old home. While these methods can help to restore luster to older wood surfaces, they will not (and should not) leave them looking sparkling and brand new.

The Cleveland Restoration Society (CRS) is the region’s largest nonprofit preservation organization and is a Local Partner affiliate of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Founded in 1972, CRS is dedicated to the preservation of Greater Cleveland’s historic resources. CRS’s team of historic rehabilitation specialists have provided free technical assistance to more than 450 Cleveland Heights residents and facilitated more than 100 home repair loans. For more information call 216-426-3106.

Mary Ogle

Mary Ogle joined the CRS staff in June 2011, after completing her master's degree in historic preservation at Ursuline College.

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Volume 5, Issue 4, Posted 12:09 PM, 04.04.2012