How to Clean and Care for Antique Furniture

Hidden in the tranquil corners of Britain, antique furniture serves as a silent reminder of past eras. These pieces, rich in history, require more than a simple dusting. They need a caretaker with patience and a deep understanding, especially in a country where the humid air seeps into every wood and fabric. Antiques have stories that come from different times, like the fancy Victorian era or the elegant Edwardian age. Taking care of them means understanding how their materials, like wood, metal, and fabric, age through the years. This task needs both knowledge and respect for their history. We hope after reading this guide, you’ll be confident you can protect your valuable antiques in Britain’s weather.

Basic cleaning techniques

Like we already established, cleaning old furniture is an art that requires a gentle touch during handling. Generally, you can’t go wrong with regular dusting. You should do that with a soft, dry cloth. You can use a slightly damp cloth if you want to treat a specific spot but keep in mind that any moisture left behind can damage the furniture. Especially if you live in a humid place, then you need to pay extra attention to how much water and cleaners you use.

These are the general instructions, let’s go into more detail about cleaning different surfaces.

Antique wood

Caring for antique wood requires an understanding of the different finishes, too. Antique woods are often finished with shellac, wax, or oil, which can be sensitive to modern cleaning agents and methods. It’s essential to maintain the integrity of these finishes while also ensuring that the wood beneath isn’t exposed to damaging elements.

How to clean antique wood:

  1. Begin by dusting with a soft microfiber cloth or a natural bristle brush designed specifically for fine antiques. This will prevent scratching and ensure that you’re not embedding particles into the grain of the wood during cleaning.
  2. For periodic deep cleans or when dealing with sticky residues, opt for a mild cleaner formulated explicitly for antique woods. A common example would be mixing a small amount of gentle dish soap in water; then dip your soft cloth into this solution, and wring it out thoroughly so it’s only slightly damp before wiping down surfaces gently.
  3. Afterwards, immediately use another clean, dry cloth to remove any excess moisture left on the surface.
  4. Once every few months (or as needed), apply quality beeswax polish using a soft, lint-free cloth in circular motions; buff after application for added shine and protection.

Antique metals

Cleaning antique metals such as brass, copper, silver, or pewter demands special care as they’re prone to tarnishing over time if exposed to humidity. Air alone does this if lots of time has passed since the last time the metal piece was cleaned. Each metal has its particularities. For example, silver is prone to tarnishing quickly if not properly maintained, while brass develops a desirable patina that some collectors prefer not to be disturbed.

How to clean antique metals:

  1. First, try to identify whether your metal item has been lacquered since this affects how you should proceed. Unlacquered items can generally be polished more vigorously.
  2. For general cleaning of non-lacquered pieces without existing patina value, do this: create a paste using baking soda mixed with lemon juice for brass and copper; use specialised silver cream/polish for silver items, following product instructions carefully.
  3. Use soft cloths or sponges, avoiding abrasive materials that could scratch surfaces (cotton swabs work well in intricate areas). Always rinse off any residue from cleaners thoroughly before drying completely with another soft towel.
  4. If you wish to maintain the patina, then simply wipe down gently using minimal moisture (a lightly dampened cloth should be enough) with no aggressive rubbing involved.

Antique upholstery

Textiles found on antique furniture, such as upholstery fabric or tapestries, require great care since they become increasingly more fragile over time. Moths and carpet beetles can attack them, leaving holes that are beyond repair. Other antique upholstery enemies include direct sunlight, which causes fading and dust accumulation, potentially leading to insect damage, among other concerns like mould growth from excessive moisture exposure. Nevertheless, there are a few ways you can maintain your upholstered vintage piece of furniture.

How to clean antique upholstery:

  1. Vacuum regularly, but do so with caution. Attach screen material over the nozzle end to prevent fibres from being pulled loose during the suction process.
  2. Set the vacuum to the lowest setting possible so you avoid stressing the textile area. Too much pressure applied directly onto old fabrics causes tearing, weakening the structure itself. That’s especially important when dealing with embroidered decorated sections where threads may be raised above the main level weave structure, thus vulnerable to breakage.
  3. To prevent accidents, use a smaller and safer handheld vacuum instead of a powerful one. When cleaning small spots, be gentle and test a small area first to see if the cleaning product will work. It’s better to blot the stain rather than scrub it, as this can make it worse and harder to remove.
  4. If you need help with historic textiles, hire a professional conservator who specialises in this area. They have the knowledge and tools to handle even the toughest problems safely and effectively.

Addressing common issues

In Britain’s ever-changing climate, antique furniture faces its own set of trials – expanded wood due to humidity, the threat of mildew, and the onset of rust. Tackling these requires a blend of vigilance and gentle remediation. For wood, a soft cloth can often ease away minor marks, while appropriate rust removers should be used judiciously on metal parts.

Expanded wood

In fluctuating humidity levels, antique wooden furniture may experience expansion and contraction as its response to moisture in the air. This dimensional change can cause joints to loosen, veneers to peel, or even lead to cracks within the wood itself. To address this issue effectively without causing further damage requires an understanding of the wood’s properties and history.

For example, a Victorian mahogany table might start showing signs of separation at its seams due to high humidity levels during summer months. A gentle approach would involve using clamps and specialised adhesives designed for antique restoration – strong yet reversible materials should future repairs be needed. It’s also wise to maintain a stable environment with controlled temperature and humidity levels using dehumidifiers or humidifiers accordingly.

Dealing with mildew

Antique furniture collectors in Britain face a significant issue with mildew. Not only does it harm the appearance, but it can also cause deterioration of fabrics and wooden surfaces if left unaddressed. Mildew flourishes in moist environments, making adequate ventilation crucial in halting its growth.

To tackle mildew on a delicate 18th-century upholstered chair, one could start by gently vacuuming the fabric with an attachment designed for soft materials, careful not to pull or stretch aged textiles. Then proceed by wiping down non-fabric parts with a mixture of water and mild detergent before drying thoroughly. In some cases where mildew has set deeply into porous surfaces like wood, professional conservators may be required who’ll use fungicides specifically formulated for treating antiques.


The presence of rust on metal components such as hinges, screws, and mounts compromises both function and appearance but must be treated delicately so as not to harm surrounding materials like wood or upholstery. The onset of rust occurs when metal objects are exposed continuously to moisture combined with oxygen – common given Britain’s damp atmosphere.

An illustrative case could involve restoring iron drawer pulls from an Edwardian dresser that has become rusty over time. Using commercial rust removers should always be done sparingly; apply them carefully according to instructions, ensuring they don’t come into contact with other parts of the furniture piece. After removing rust spots meticulously using fine steel wool or sandpaper (for more stubborn areas), applying a protective layer such as wax can prevent future corrosion while maintaining authenticity.

Caring for wood furniture

We can say that caring for wooden antiques is a balancing act. Regular waxing with quality beeswax helps shield the wood from the omnipresent dampness, but caution against over-waxing is key, as it can attract grime. Position these pieces away from direct heat and sunlight, as the fluctuating environment can be a silent adversary, causing warping or fading.

Maintaining metal and upholstered furniture

Metal embellishments require a light but regular dusting and occasional polishing. Upholstered pieces, on the other hand, need a soft touch – regular vacuuming with a brush attachment to stave off dust. For tougher stains or delicate fabrics, the discerning choice often leads to professional cleaners.

DIY solutions vs. Professional restoration

In Britain, where expertise in antique restoration abounds, discerning when to tackle a project yourself and when to seek a professional cleaning team’s help is crucial. For complex restorations or particularly valuable pieces, the skilled hands of a professional can be the safeguard your antique needs.

Displaying and storing

The way you display and store antique furniture can mean the difference between preservation and deterioration. Avoid exposing them to direct sunlight and heat, and store them in a stable environment to prevent damage from extreme temperature and humidity changes, which can be difficult in a humid climate.


Caring for antique furniture is akin to being a custodian of history. Each careful cleaning and mindful placement is a step towards preserving the legacy of the past. Share your journey, exchange tips and stories with fellow caretakers, and together, let’s ensure these historical pieces continue to grace our homes with their stories and beauty.