How To Clean Old Varnished Woodwork


Since woodwork such as furniture, windowsills, doors, banisters and moldings are a durable feature of many homes, they require special care and regular maintenance. Cleaning old woodwork can be challenging but with the right supplies and know-how you will be able to preserve its integrity and prevent future damage from dirt collection. In this blog we will outline the steps to take when cleaning and reviving distressed, varnished woodwork. From what products to use for cleaning, to tips on reducing sun damage, this guide will provide everything needed for long-lasting polished surfaces.

Types of Varnish

Types of Varnish:

Oil-Based Varnish – Commonly used for finishing wood furniture or flooring by providing a protective seal. It is made up of oil, resins and solvents that form a glossy layer when cured. Oil-based varnishes are generally easy to clean in most cases, simply requiring a mild detergent and water.

Lacquer Varnish – A thicker than normal varnish that creates a glossy, smooth finish on wood surfaces. It consists of lacquer resin dissolved in a solvent transport mixture. Cleaning this type of varnish can be slightly more challenging as it may require using solvent-based cleaners like mineral spirits or turpentine to remove dirt and oils that tend to accumulate over time without damaging the lacquer.

Polyurethane Based Varnish – This fast curing varnish provides an extremely tough coat of protection similar to an epoxy resin coating. Polyurethane based varnishes have excellent weather resistance due to their chemical makeup and can often be used outdoors on decks. Cleaning these types of varnishes requires gentle cleaning with warm water or a mild soap/detergent solution; vigorous scrubbing should be avoided as it may strip away some of the polyurethane layers over time.

Epoxy Resin Based Varnish – Epoxy resin based sealers offer superior chemical and abrasion resistance making them ideal for outdoor use on metal surfaces and furniture due to their quick curing and protective nature against environmental pollutants. Cleaning this type of varnish will require using a solvent-based cleaner either directly applied or done with a cloth saturated in the mixture, however you should take precautionary measures such as wearing rubber gloves while doing so as these cleaners can be damaging if not used properly.

Preparing to Clean

Essential Supplies: Furniture oil soap, white vinegar, wood cleaner, steel wool pad.
Tools: Soft-bristled scrub brush, cloths or rags, a soft microfiber cloth.

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Step 1: Begin by using steel wool to gently remove any dirt and residue from the woodwork. Make sure to not use too much pressure as this could damage the finish or create scratches in the wood.
Step 2: Start cleaning with a solution of furniture oil soap mixed with white vinegar and water in equal parts. Use a soft-bristled scrub brush to apply the solution and scrub gently making circular motions to remove built-up grime.
Step 3: After scrubbing off dirt and residue have been removed, use a damp cloth or rag along with more of the same furniture oil soap solution applied earlier to give the wood additional cleaning. After that has been completed, rinse the area with clean water using another damp cloth or rag to clean off soap suds.
Step 4: To help bring out natural luster of your varnished woodwork, use a wood cleaner formulated for dark woods to apply on the surface with a soft-microfiber cloth . Allow it to stay for around 5 minutes before wiping it off completely with a dry cloth or rag

Cleaning Methods

Step 1: Put on the appropriate safety gear and make sure the area is well-ventilated.

Step 2: Use a dry cloth to remove any large particles of dirt and dust from the varnished woodwork.

Step 3: Using a mild cleaner such as dish soap or lemon oil, moisten a clean rag with lukewarm water and wipe down the woodwork. Rinse with a damp cloth and dry with a soft, lint-free cloth. Repeat this process if necessary until all of the dirt has been removed.

Step 4: Use a stiff brush to scrub away any stubborn residue left behind by the cleaning solution. Make sure to go with the grain of the wood when brushing to avoid damaging it.

Step 5: Apply a new coat of varnish or clear finish to restore moisture and longevity to the woodwork once it’s completely dry. Follow manufacturer’s instructions for proper application of these products.

Maintaining Varnished Woodwork

In order to maintain old varnished woodwork, periodic reapplication of the original varnish is important. It’s best to start with a thorough cleaning. Depending on the type of wood, different types of cleaners can be used. For instance, mild detergent and water can work great for furniture with painted finishes or strong cleaner and solvents are suitable for hardwood floors. Additionally, sanding may also be necessary in certain cases; never use steel wool, though, as it will scratch the wood and make it difficult to refinish later.

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Once all the dirt and grime has been removed, apply a new coat of the same type of varnish used before. A few thin coats are preferable because thick coats will cause cracking over time. Also make sure to properly dry each coat so that drying does not take too long and cause an uneven finish.

Wood-conditioning oils should then be applied every few months to keep the wood from drying out excessively which could result in cracking or peeling. Linseed oil is a great option when it comes to conditioning older woods since it penetrates deep into the grain to protect from damage such as scratches or discoloration due to sunlight exposure.

Finally, correctly storing furniture pieces or floors is important in preserving the integrity of these items and avoiding mold growth due to high humidity conditions. Always keep furniture away from areas prone to moisture such as bathrooms or basements and try to avoid extreme temperatures in both directions (too hot or cold). Floors should never be exposed directly under windows where possible UV rays could cause fading over time.


When it comes to cleaning old varnished woodwork, the most important steps are to use a quality wood cleaner, set realistic expectations of the results depending on the age and condition of your woodwork, and take caution when scraping away paint or other contaminants. With these points taken into consideration, you can effectively clean and restore your old varnished woodwork without damaging its natural beauty. To prevent future damage, be sure to regularly dust off your old furniture using a vacuum cleaner or microfiber cloth. Regularly applying retouches of protective waxes or hard-type finishes is also recommended as this will help maintain their luster and color. With a little time and effort, you too can have beautiful varnished woodwork that looks good for years to come! Now that you know the best ways to approach cleaning your old varnished woodwork, get to work on giving your project some much-needed attention today!

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