As readers of the Preservation Press, it’s likely that you own older homes and are collectors of vintage furniture. These items often require a little more TLC than the standard off the shelf merchandise. It’s often hard to know the best way to care for these older pieces, though we all have our secrets I’m sure. NPF was lucky enough to catch up with Marc Comstock of Retro Vegas and get some pro advice for cleaning this spring.
Soap and Water Cures the Aging Blues
When it comes to furnitures, the first and most important thing Marc recommends is washing the piece with mild soap and water. Using a terry cloth or fine steel wool, give all of your hard surfaces a good scrub. According to Marc, “you will be surprised how much better a piece will look after a good scrub with just soap and water.” Dirt doesn’t just rest on the surface, but seeps into the piece over time and is the main culprit behind the aging of a piece. We all know how hard it is to clean a lasagna pan after it has been sitting in the fridge for over a week. Well, some of our pieces are over fifty years old, and have never really had a good washing. Start with soap and water, and don’t be afraid to put some elbow grease behind it!
When cleaning your wood pieces, make sure not to leave any water sitting on the surface for too long. While it is a good solution for cleaning, prolonged water exposure can cause significant damage to wood. Once the piece is completely dry, follow the soap and water with teak or danish oil. Again, using a terry cloth or fine steel wool (something that won’t leave scratches), rub the piece down with oil. Don’t be afraid to use some force against the piece. You want this oil to seep down into the wood and fill the areas that were just flushed of dirt in the soap and water scrub. The oil itself acts as a protective finish and will help cover minor disfigurations like scratches and surface water damage. A good oil coat can last for a year or more, even in the dry climate of Vegas. This method is good for wood veneers and solid wood pieces alike.
For cleaning steel and brass furniture and accents, Marc recommends Brasso for everything. “A lot of people think that aged brass can’t be cleaned, but that’s not true. You have to put some work into it, but if you scrub enough with Brasso, almost everything will come clean.” Again, using a terry cloth, apply the Brasso to any metal (brass, steel, aluminum) and start scrubbing. It may take awhile (days or weeks even) but most decolorization will come out with enough effort. Marc personally showed me a brass table frame he is working on, and you would be amazed at the before and after. I can’t wait until the table hits the shop floor so I can see the finished piece!
In many cases, metal furniture can also be repainted. According to Marc, “There is a reason most of this old furniture wasn’t powder coated. It’s meant to be repainted, eventually.” If you have metal patio furniture and the paint has begun to wear, simply sand off the old paint with a steel brush or sandpaper and pick up your favorite spray paint at the local hardware store. Make sure to buy a recommended brand, as Marc warns “you get what you pay for.” Cheap spray paint won’t survive even one summer in the hot Las Vegas sun, but a good brand will last awhile.
Fiberglass and Lucite
Fiber glass and lucite are a little more delicate than wood and metal furniture. This should only be cleaned with a fine cotton cloth, as larger nubs or steel wool may scratch the surface. Marc recommends cleaning these items with a product called Gel-Gloss. Rub the Gel-Gloss into the surface of the piece, allowing it to dry to a haze. Wipe off the dried residue and your piece will have regained some of its original luster. A good cleaning and Gel-Gloss coat can help to reduce the appearance of minor scratches and keeps dirt from making its way into the pores of the material.
Like metal furniture, fiberglass can be repainted if the surface cannot be rid of aging marks through the above methods. Make sure to use a fiberglass spray paint and apply the paint evenly to the surface. You may want to round up a couple items to practice on, as applying an even coat of spray paint isn’t quite as easy as it sounds.
Behind the Scenes
Marc grew up in a family of woodworkers and gained a lot of his knowledge of vintage pieces by simple trial and error. Knowing the mechanics behind furniture design, Marc has never been afraid to take a piece apart and glue it back together. In fact, he recommends Elmer’s Glue for this! Most of us probably aren’t comfortable with this level of rehab, but Marc’s successes stem from his willingness to experiment and get dirty in the process. While we need to handle our vintage pieces with a certain amount of care, these pieces were built to last and can withstand a good, thorough cleaning.
When asked what his most important piece of advice was, Marc replied “Soap and water. I just can’t stress enough how much washing the piece with soap and water will help. That, and never use ammonia based cleaning products. They always do more harm than good.”
Do you have a cleaning secret we all should know about? Leave a comment below!