Your Ten Minute Doctorate of Phinish-ology

This web-pamphlet is offered to my friends to give some basic information on the care of furniture finishes. It represents the essence of thirty-five years of mistakes and successes in dealing with wood finishes, as well as studying the work of the likes of Flexner and Jewitt. I hope it will be useful.

People talk about caring for the wood in their furniture, rather than the finish that’s on it, (which most would be very surprised to learn is plastic), and are most often concerned with moisturizing or oiling it (feeding it some say, abetted by the marketing of some furniture care products.) These ideas are just plain wrong, of course, because wood doesn’t need moisture or oil; it needs protection from such things, or any liquids. This is why furniture is finished and what furniture finish is designed to do. The reality is that wood furniture care, including cabinets, means caring for the finish. And that is the reason for this pamphlet.

Most damage to furniture finishes is caused either by abuse or exposure to ultraviolet light. Abuse can take many forms, including abrasion from coarse or hard materials and excessive contact with heat or water. Bright UV light (sunlight) causes colors to fade and finishes to crack and craze. Protecting from abuse is mostly a matter of taking simple precautions. Use hot pads, coasters, place mats, tablecloths, and train/instruct children and pets. To protect from UV light, either place furniture away from windows, or cover the windows or the furniture, particularly critical surfaces such as table tops when not is use or on display or when the sun is in a given window. This is all logical and obvious if one thinks about it at all. But due to the marketing and advertising (is this a great country or what) of care products, most people want to apply some sort of product. Since most of these products do no actual harm to the furniture, and the temptation to use them is nearly irresistible, we should consider the most common of them and some bases for choosing.

There are four categories of furniture care products: clear polishes, emulsion polishes, silicone polishes, and wax. Within each category (marketing notwithstanding) the only significant differences are scent and color, if they are desired
Clear polishes
are usually composed of petroleum distillates, such as mineral spirits (paint thinner) but they may contain similar solvents like citrus or turpentine (look at the poison warning to see which). Just as you would expect from understanding paint thinner, clear polishes remove grease and wax, but not water-soluble dirt like soft drink spills or sticky finger prints.
Most clear polishes are packaged in see-through plastic containers, which makes identification easy – the liquid can be seen to be clear. Because clear polishes evaporate off the treated surface in a few hours at most, they aren’t effective at adding long lasting shine and scratch resistance.
Emulsion polishes
are combinations of petroleum distillates and water, and can be identified by being milky-white in color. The combination makes these polishes effective against both grease and water-soluble dirt. But, because the ingredients also evaporate rapidly, these polishes do not add long lasting shine or scratch protection either. Many emulsion polishes come in aerosol cans and spray on milky-white.
Silicone polishes
can be either clear or emulsions to which some silicone has been added. Silicone is a synthetic oil resembling mineral oil but notably slicker. In addition to making the surface slicker – thus more resistant to scratches – silicone remains on the surface for several weeks or longer because it doesn’t evaporate. Silicone also creates the appearance of exceptional depth to the wood. Because silicone polishes can be either clear or milky, they are not easy to identify – except by the temporary mark left when you touch a surface – even days after application. Unfortunately manufacturers don’t list silicone as an ingredient on the containers, so here are some polishes known to contain silicone:
Pledge Orange Oil
Orange Glo
Klean & Shine
Old English (aerosol)

is a solid at room temperature, and therefore provides long-lasting shine and scratch protection on furniture and cabinets. Wax is available both as a paste and as an ingredient in a liquid. As a paste, it is easier to control the amount of wax applied. There is, to me anyway, a certain pleasure and satisfaction in applying the wax with the fingers so the heat of my hands helps the wax to flow over the surface. When in a liquid the wax settles and appears white at the bottom. Wax is seldom a significant ingredient in aerosols because it clogs the nozzle.

NOTE: All Furniture pieces from the Wood Works are finished with natural oils and varnishes, for deep hard protection, and top-coated with the very best paste waxes available.

Choosing which to use is simple, really. It just depends on what you are doing to the furniture. For simple dusting with an inexpensive, nice smelling liquid that causes the dust to stick to the cloth and lubricates the surface so dust doesn’t scratch it during polishing, choose a clear polish. For longer lasting shine and scratch resistance without the effort of waxing, choose a clear silicone polish. For better, broader cleaning in addition to dusting choose an emulsified silicone. For scratch resistance and a nearly permanent shine, choose wax – remembering that wax – in addition to being tougher to apply because of the effort to remove excess – should be wiped with a chamois or cloth dampened with water so as not to remove the wax.

For old or cracked/crazed finishes wax is far and away the best choice because it gives fairly permanent scratch resistance to the damaged finish and doesn’t highlight the damage as liquid polishes do. Of course it isn’t mandatory that any of these products be used. Dusting and cleaning can be done just fine by using a water dampened cloth or chamois, as is done everywhere else in the world.

The Long-Term Concerns with Silicone
Silicone causes problems refinishing furniture because of its oily slickness. It gets down into the wood through the minutest cracks in old finishes. When refinishing a piece, it causes the newly applied finish to pull away and create crater-like patterns called “fish eyes”. To counter these problems, refinishers add silicone, sold as fish eye eliminator, to their finishes so they will flow over the contamination.

Even though silicone contamination can be dealt with successfully, doing so requires extra effort and often a lot of frustration. As a result, refinishers and conservators hate silicone and have been discouraging its use for over half a century. Since “extra-effort” and “frustration” aren't so convincing with consumers, this discouragement has included the most overblown accusations about silicone causing damage to finishes and wood. The truth is that silicone, with all its real problems, is just as inert as mineral oil – it doesn’t damage anything. Consumers, on the other hand, love silicone because of the easily applied, long-lasting coverage. At least 3 out of 4 furniture care products sold today contain silicone.

So unless you are a refinisher, or conservator minded, you will likely use a silicone polish at some time. Now you know both the problems and the benefits so, if you don’t wax it, have at it, Doctor.