Monday, 14 June 2010

It's only a coffee-table, Ingrid.

A coffee table needed cleaning and polishing. I read that vegetable oil was as good a cleaner as anything else. That didn't sound right, so I checked online and blundered in to a huge professional argument where people bandy words such as "disaster" and the word 'Philistine' hisses beneath the genteel rhetoric of furniture restoration.

The major controversy is the Conservators -v- Modernists. The Conservators' motto is "nothing you can't reverse" which sounds sensible. They do not like anything in fine wood finishing which has happened since 1930, with the exception of the vacuum cleaner with a soft brush. They are such purists, they do not like what happened in the entire Victorian period. Do not say "linseed oil" to these people, except in relation to cricket bats.

The Modernist thinking is that technology has moved on, and while material ought to be matched to period in restoration, there's nothing spiritually wrong in using new wax and solvent blends, especially as they are extremely consistent products which produce stable, tough surfaces even when applied by amateurs. Not every house has to be a museum.

What they were broadly agreed about was that the third, and perhaps the largest group of consumers of wood cleaners and polishes - that's us, householders - are chumps who have been had over for years by polish manufacturers, and deserve to live in a world of chipboard and plastic laminates for our crimes against furniture.

First distinguish cleaning, which is the matter of removing dust or other things you don't want on your furniture, from polishing, which is either smoothing the existing surface or adding a removable coating which acts as an ablative shield.

The vacuum cleaner with a soft brush is a boon. The aim is to remove the dust. If the surface of the piece is water-soluble then it gets wiped with a dry lint-free cloth, but a waxed surface can be wiped with a slightly damp cloth, if it is dried immediately. A very dirty item - perhaps reclaimed from a garage - may have to be washed. The Conservator's choice is Vulpex liquid soap. If it's more difficult than that, especially if you suspect you have a piece which has been French polished, then don't muck about with it. If it turns out to be a water-sensitive surface and you'll end up causing even more damage. Leave it to a specialist and remind yourself that furniture should reflect life.

Anyway, what's wrong with a few scratches, rings or mottling? So long as things are not sticky with spilt drinks, it is a marketing hype that surfaces have to be mirror-perfect and it will drive you bonkers trying to achieve it. Also bollocks are terms like 'feed your wood' and 'prevent waxy build-up"; these are emotional hooks which are designed to get fools like me to part with pounds for a product which costs pennies and may ultimately be more of a problem by the time it has reacted with the existing finish, got in to the wood and discoloured it, or turned gloopy and stuck to the dust in the air. The simplest way to look after your furniture is to vacuum more frequently and wipe over with a nice dry, lint-free duster. That's it. Job jobbed for the most part. Go on, go out and enjoy the money you just saved.

However, you might want to keep a household polish as a protective coating, so which one?

Number one hatred was any polish with silicones in it. They make dusters glide but they get in to any wood finish and make it cloudy. When the Conservators take over the world, these products will be treated like Class A drugs, available only on prescription to automotive workshops. Even the Modernists don't like these in the domestic environment; they regard them as escaping convicts, just waiting to get in to good pieces and ruin them. They were also agreed that they didn't trust the cream polishes which might involve water. For one thing you don't know exactly what is in them, for another any 'wet' finish, whether oil or water, is likely to be softer for longer and will make dust stick to it. In certain situations a cloth with a smear of oil can be used to clean a surface in the same manner as cleaning make-up off the skin, but the oil will have to be polished away immediately. They didn't care for aerosols; you don't know how they are going to behave over time but it's a fair bet that this will be 'badly'.

The major agreement was that furniture - except French polished and lacquer pieces which are already finished - is best protected by a thin layer of a hard wax paste which lays on the surface can can be removed. That's the point; you revive the sheen by rubbing away a thin layer of wax until the coat is all gone, then you re-coat. Polishing in the sense of applying a coat should only be necessary twice a year. That's why you don't get waxy build-up; you are always removing it.

The formulations thereafter illustrate the religious differences. The Cons will expect a varnish (based on oils) as colour topped off with a hardened beeswax coat. The Mods will point out the advantages of polyurethane stains and sealants, protected by a coat of microcrystalline wax. In general, the modern formulations tend to be harder and are easy to use.

It isn't possible to make a modern microcrystalline wax polish at home economically or even safely. It means mucking about with dissolving petroleum-derived wax powder and other waxes in toluene. It's much quicker and cheaper to just buy a tin of Renaissance wax and that way you'll get a stable, standardized, repeatable product which won't scramble your brain. Yes, you'll have to rub it on, wait for it to dry, then buff it with a clean cloth, but it won't be difficult, it only takes a few minutes. Fans of the Renaissance range argue that it is even less reactive than traditional polishes, so fulfilling the requirement of not changing anything.

If you are a stickler for tradition be careful of the marketing on some polishes. Yes, there is bound to be beeswax in a product, but there is dispute about what else is allowable in there. The general objection is that things which make the polish easy to spread also make it a soft goo which never dries properly, is likely to penetrate the wood and change the colour, and will darken over time. This is disputed by the linseed and soap fans, who say that if it was good enough for Queen Victoria to have in her polishes, it's good enough for us.

If you like household alchemy, this is the simplest recipe for beeswax paste polish.
Melt 3 parts beeswax with 1 part carnauba wax.
Remove from heat, stir in 3 parts of turpentine.

The carnauba wax is crucial; it is what makes the coating hard. You could also add a few drops of lavendar oil for fragrance. When heating wax, don't do it directly; use a basin in a pan of water. If you have one, a slow cooker makes the perfect bath which keeps the water even and below boiling point. This recipe contains no linseed oil in deference to the conservation controversy, however best-selling Sheraton Beeswax Balsam, for example, contains linseed oil and has many fans.

Having compared the technologies, I'll treat myself to a Care Kit, if I can find a UK stockist.


Anonymous said...

I was once told that the National Trust favours the use of Hellman's Original Mayonnaise (no garlic, lemon or low-fat varieties)to maintain its non-sealed furniture. Obviously not on French polished stuff, it would just sit there, smeary and disgusting. I tried it the once, beautifully easy to use, sinks into dried wood and buffed up a treat, but it did have a distinct, non-lavender aroma, especially on warm days. Black Bison and Briwax are terrific products. Alas, no toluene any more. That's trhe heady stuff that has you reeling when used in enclosed spaces, and has now, I believe, been forbidden.

Woman on a Raft said...

Many thanks, I will try that. I was surprised that the datasheets of polish manufacturers are so coy about their formulations, but I suppose they don't want their recipes copied too easily. Briwax is the favourite at the antiques centre - the stall holders all use it and it has been in production since 1860 so some antiques were finished with it when they were new. If it has been doing its job for 150 years, that's a fair test in itself.

I'm not sure of the precise legal status of toluene at the moment. It isn't safe if used in an enclosed space or with repeated exposure, that's for sure, and the lawyers are sharpening their pens for compensation claims, but Briwax advertizes itself as having two formulations; one using toluene and the other using Xylene and Naphtha.

The suppliers say it is purely down to personal choice but, reading between the lines, they prefer the toluene version and regard it as the more comprehensive solvent.

There is a good Briwax blog

mongoose said...

Churchill ate at a plain scrubbed oak table. It is England, Mrs WOAR, I build everything from oak and leave it be. Waxes and polishes are for sissies and Satanists. This is true even for floors and such. You only have to have the patience of the centuries to wait for the natural beauty of the wood to make itself clear.

And colouring wood is a perversion I cannot comprehend. If you must have a colour get the right timber to start with.

Be careful with toluene. All of that benzene stuff is highly toxic and not to be messed with. Carcinogenic too. And there is some thought that it is a cumulative risk.

Woman on a Raft said...

Wise counsel, Mr Mongoose. Saves time, money, and sanity. I'm assuming it's ok to wash the floor and table with a suitable soap. Unfortunately, with germs evolving the way they are going these days, higher standards of surface hygiene apply than they might once have done.

My next dining table - when the legs finally fall off this old one - will have an oak frame and a glass inlay, and be designed to be very easy to vacuum round and clean.