How To Clean Your Furniture Without Damaging It

Tables, and cabinet furniture, such as wooden chests of drawers, wardrobes and cupboards.

Furniture polishes are made from combinations of various waxes, both natural and synthetic. Silicones are usually added to aerosol and liquid polishes to make them easier to apply and to give a more protective finish to the furniture.

Modern furniture

Always check the manufacturer’s recommendations. In the absence of instructions on a swing ticket or in a brochure, it is worth writing to the manufacturer to get cleaning advice: you will want to keep your furniture for a long time. In general, dusting with a soft clean cloth along the direction of the grain is all that is necessary for modern furniture. To remove greasy marks, use a few drops of detergent solution on a damp cloth on most modern furniture finishes, including polyurethane, melamine and foil finishes. Alternatively, you can use a general purpose aerosol cleaner/polisher, but apply sparingly. Modern furniture does not need polishing to ‘feed the wood’, but a good brand of aerosol or liquid wax furniture polish may well revive a tired-looking finish. However, much modern furniture is intended to have a matt finish, and should not be polished to a high shine. Teak in general only needs dusting and should not be polished. However, two or three times a year, you can apply teak oil, very sparingly, on a clean cloth.

Old furniture

If very dirty, wipe over with a solution of one part vinegar to eight parts water, using a clean cloth or a chamois leather. Or use a special furniture cleaner/reviver. Follow with a good paste wax polish. But on well-polished pieces do not use a liquid or aerosol polish containing silicones which can clean away layers of old polish, destroying the patina and creating a patchy effect. Apply polish sparingly and buff up with a clean soft cloth, working along the direction of the grain. Get professional treatment for marks and stains on valuable old furniture.

Otherwise, on furniture old and new, the following methods can be used with caution: test on an unseen part first.

Scratches and stains

First try rubbing with the finger dipped in wax paste polish; or try rubbing with the cut kernel of a brazil or walnut; or try a little linseed oil on a clean cloth. Sometimes you can disguise a scratch with a little shoe polish or with a wax crayon. Or you can buy scratch removers from hardware stores.

Ring marks

There are special cleaners to remove ring marks caused by heat or alcohol. Alternatively, try rubbing them with metal polish, or with a paste made from salad oil and cigarette ash. Always rub in the direction of the grain.

Cane and bamboo furniture

Use a soft brush, a vacuum cleaner attachment, or a hairdryer on the coolest setting to remove dirt and dust. If the furniture is unvarnished, sponge with warm water containing sufficient dissolved soap flakes to give a good lather, plus I teaspoon of laundry borax. Do not overwet. Then wipe over with warm clean water and leave to dry naturally.

If the furniture has been varnished, a wipe with a damp cloth should be sufficient , or use an all-purpose aerosol cleaner—polisher.

Sometimes you can tighten up a sagging cane seat by sponging on both sides with a handful of washing soda crystals dissolved in warm water. Push the seat upwards, and leave to dry in hot sunlight, or dry off with a hairdryer on the hottest setting.

Plastic furniture

Avoid dusting with a dry cloth, as trapped grit can scratch the soft surface. Wipe with a soft cloth well wrung out in warm water to which has been added a few drops of washing-up liquid. Leave to dry naturally, as rubbing dry increases ‘static’ which attracts more dust. Or use an aerosol cleaner/polisher -one type is now ‘anti-static’. Avoid abrasives of any kind, even cream cleaners. But if furniture is scratched, try rubbing gently with a little metal polish.


In general, dust or rub over with a damp cloth well wrung out in warm water to which has been added a few drops of washing-up liquid. A little bicarbonate of soda can be rubbed onto stubborn marks. If chrome has become badly pitted, treat with a special cleaner/restorer available from car accessory shops.


Upholstered furniture is expensive but you can prolong its life with care and correct cleaning. By its very nature, upholstery is more vulnerable to wear and staining than wooden furniture. Always vacuum or brush regularly to prevent dirt becoming ingrained into the fabric covering. But do not use a stiffbrush which may damage the fabric. To remove pet hairs, use a barely damp sponge. Special aerosol ‘fabric protectors’ are available from most department stores for spraying onto new or clean upholstery.

Reversible cushions should be turned regularly. Plump up cushions with loose fillings such as feathers: do not vacuum. Do not have your upholstery close to fires or radiators, and try to keep it out of the sun. Draw blinds or curtains on very sunny days, if possible. Consider having slip covers to protect backs and arms.

Always treat spills immediately; this is very important to prevent the padding underneath the fabric from becoming saturated. Scrape off excess spillage with the blunt edge of a knife or with a spoon. Then blot up liquids with a clean white cloth, or paper tissues. For advice on specific stains, see Stain removal chart. Never rub, and always test any cleaning method first on an out-of-sight spot. If in any doubt, call a professional upholstery cleaner.

Two or three times a year, as needed, you can clean many types of fabric all over with an upholstery shampoo, using a special sponge applicator, so that you do not overwet. Follow directions carefully, and always shampoo before the upholstery looks very dirty. Shampooing is usually safe for cotton, wool, linen and synthetics such as Dralon velvet and polypropylenes. But if possible check with the manufacturers of the upholstery before shampooing. Professional cleaners should be called for suede, silk, satin, and velvets. Always vacuum before and after shampooing. Do not overwet in particular Dralon velvets, as the cotton backing could shrink.

Leather-covered furniture

Much leather sold as upholstery is ‘treated’ with a lacquer, but some is not. Rub a hidden part of the furniture with a damp cloth. If a little colour comes off onto the cloth, then your furniture is untreated.

Treated leather. This can be washed with a solution of water and soap flakes; or you can use a good toilet soap containing glycerine. Do not use washing-up liquid or laundry soap. Do not overwet. Use a soft nail brush for very dirty patches, then sponge over with clean warm water; but again, do not overwet. Feed the leather occasionally with a branded leather food obtainable from specialist suppliers or from department stores.

Untreated leather, however, should never be treated with leather food. Simply sponge greasy marks with a little white spirit on a damp cloth. Then use soap and water as above but only barely wet the surface. You can treat oily stains with rubber solution from a cycle repair kit. Squeeze over the mark and allow to dry for 24 hours. When you roll the solution off, you will find it has absorbed most of the oil.

Vinyl-covered upholstery

In general, simply dust, or wipe over with a soft cloth or sponge well wrung out in a solution of warm water and soap flakes. Wipe over with clear water, and dry off with a soft cloth. If it is very soiled, you can buy a special upholstery cleaner from car upholstery shops. Try a little white spirit on obstinate marks; biro marks may respond to rubbing with a little scouring powder on a cloth dampened in detergent solution, or methylated spirits, but always go gently or you may damage the surface. Special paints for vinyl upholstery are available from car accessory shops.

Loose covers

Heavy covers, and those that are not colourfast, should be dry-cleaned. Other covers may be washed, but first mend any small tears. Then brush well outside to remove loose dirt. Or run your vacuum cleaner attachment over the covers before removing them, then shake them. Wash by machine, provided you have care instructions on or with the covers which recommend machine-washing, and a specific programme. Otherwise, wash by hand: the bath makes a suitable large container. Squeeze covers through a solution of warm water plus mild detergent. If covers seem very dirty, give them a second wash. Then rinse three times, and spin for one minute, or wring. Hang to dry, if possible between two lines so that air can get into folds of the fabric. Iron while slightly damp: wrong side for a matt finish, right side for a shiny finish. Iron any pleats and frills before putting the covers back on the furniture; but the sides and backs can be touched up when covers are in place. A light starching improves the appearance of many cotton and linen covers, and makes them last longer. Do not starch crease-resistant or glazed fabrics.

Stretch covers can usually be washed and need no ironing.

How To Clean Your Furniture Without Damaging It