Protect wood furniture: how to use wax and polish

Paste wax and liquid furniture polish both help protect wood furniture finishes by reducing friction so that things will tend to slide across the finish instead of digging in. And they both add shine to dull surfaces. So what's the difference, and when do you use which? Here's what you need to know.

Protect wood furniture: how to use wax and polish

Know the difference

  • The significant difference is that liquid polish evaporates — some varieties after a few days, others only an hour. Until polish evaporates, you'll be able to smear it with your finger.
  • Paste wax contains a solvent that evaporates, but the wax remains to provide long-term protection and shine without smearing.
  • That said, polish does a better job of removing dirt and dust, plus most have a nice scent.
  • If you want maximum long-term protection — especially for a surface that will have things moved around on it — reach for the paste wax. If easy cleaning is your top priority, choose polish.

Wax doesn’t build up

  • Don't believe the advertising guff about "waxy buildup." Paste waxes contain a solvent — otherwise the wax would be as hard as a candle instead of as soft as paste.
  • When you apply more paste wax, the solvent dissolves the wax that is already there, making a new mixture.
  • When you buff the new finish after the solvent evaporates, you'll remove the larger portion of the wax and dirt, leaving behind a shiny, thin coat of wax — no thicker than the old coat.

Dust regularly and wax

  • Dust and dirt can scratch the finish on fine furniture, so dust regularly with a dry, soft cloth. Use an artist's brush to clean intricately carved areas.
  • For stubborn dirt, use a slightly dampened, soft cloth.
  • A good paste wax job can last for a few years, depending on how much you use the surface. To make the wax job last as long as possible, clean it with nothing more than a damp cloth.

Protect and clean

  • Some furniture polishes contain a little wax, which will be left behind to protect the surface after the polish evaporates. But you won't get as much protection as from a good hand-rubbed coat of paste wax.
  • A better compromise between protection and cleaning is to polish a paste-wax surface. Like paste wax, polish contains solvents.
  • So if you use furniture polish on a waxed surface, the polish will dissolve the wax and you'll take some of the wax off the surface as you wipe.
  • This won't harm the furniture — just be aware that you'll have to wax more often or just switch to polish.

Apply two coats of wax

  • The best way to apply paste wax is to put some in the middle of a piece of cotton cloth.
  • The warmth of your hand will melt the wax, and just enough will seep through the cloth as you wipe it over the surface.
  • Wait for the waxy surface to become dull, indicating that most of the solvent has evaporated. Then buff with a fresh, soft cloth, turning it frequently.
  • A second coat is a good idea — you won't be building up the wax surface, just filling in any tiny spots you missed with the first coat.

Furniture doesn’t crave oil

  • Advertising says that all furniture wood contains natural oils that need to be replaced by furniture polish.
  • Save the oil for your car. The pores of properly finished wood are sealed with finish.
  • Many furniture polishes seem oily because they contain oily petroleum distillates, but these distillates don't soak into the wood.
  • They protect only the finished surface — until they evaporate, that is.
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