May 1, 2019
So you want to clean your antiques huh? That would seem to be a noble and well-intentioned endeavor. If you are familiar with the famous phrase that the road to hell is littered with good intentions as luck would have it, the path to well cared for antiques is also littered with pieces that have been ruined with the intention of making them clean and shiny as well.
As the title would infer, "How to clean antiques and live to tell about it" would certainly seem extreme. I will let you know ahead of time that no, the antique mafia isn't going to come chasing after you and burn you at the stake for taking a hand to your antique furniture, however, you can certainly kill their value in the well-intentioned process.
Below are some quick ideas on how to clean antiques. I will only blog you down in your pursuit of greatness with one story about my first memory of improperly cleaning antique items. When I was many years younger than now, I received a small bronze Southeast Asian Buddha as a gift from a relative. The Buddha itself was not all that valuable per se, but indeed lovely, probably too nice to impart as a gift onto a teenager who knew nothing about art, antiques or much about anything else. Perhaps the gift was an early inspiration that in some ways may have led to work for Artzze and come into contact with all the beautiful findings we offer now.
As the newfound owner of this lovely little standing Buddha about a week or two into this "relationship," I noticed how dirty and dusty my nice bronze Buddha was so I decided to "clean it." Gently mind you with a bowl of water and a sponge. Needless to say, after many years, the patina still has not returned after it was very well ruined and the patina probably won't return within my lifetime. I use this story as a good example to remind myself to touch something as little as possible, and I also use this example as a reminder of the emotional experience of having "dirty antiques" and feeling the impulse to clean them and what to do about it. Some materials and textures are more forgiving than others. So, let's get into it.
1. Metals are not all created equal and some metals like bronze, in my opinion, shouldn't be touched with anything except a clean, soft nylon paintbrush to brush off the dust that has accumulated on it gently. Bronze is valued for its patina among other attributes, as are most copper alloys and related materials. Besides a light dusting with a soft brush, (not a steel mesh pad, leave it alone. If you spill orange juice or soda all over your 19th-century French bronze bust, I will try to pat it lightly with a cotton cloth and dry it off as quickly as you possibly can. Don't wipe it hard; patting is always a safer motion than rubbing. Keep in mind that even paper towels can be very abrasive. I like microfiber cloth for some objects and surfaces but not all of them.
2. Silver and silver plate, on the other hand, can certainly withstand some LIGHT silver polish with a soft sponge and a little water if the patina is keeping you awake at night, calling on you down the hall to "wash me." I think some folks use silver polish as if it was given to them for free because years after its once and only use I can still see the silver polish residue in the crevasses of objects and it's tough to remove. Buyers aren't crazy about buying your antique flatware caked in a silver polish paste either. Use polish sparingly and lightly. Gentle, soft, and sparingly are the words to use here, and generally, this method should be ok within moderation.
3. Regarding furniture and wood, most furniture can withstand some polish and benefits from the occasional light bathing from a color related polish. Air is not friendly to wood or most other materials, and most furniture will benefit from some light protection. Focus on the light part of that sentence.
I tend to avoid using waxes on wood and furniture; furniture waxes don't blend well into the wood unless you're a true professional and overuse or improper use of furniture or wood wax can leave a sticky residue if not used correctly. Like using too much silver polish, hardened wax never really comes off without intense involvement of a brush or sponge, and even then, it stays for years.
If you do use polish or oil, make sure it's close to the color of the wood you are cleaning as not to discolor the wood. Try also to find a piece of fabric that doesn't attract any burrs or one that could snag hardware edges that might pull off veneer or inlay or draw other possible damage. Microfiber and other burr laden textiles don't work well on some objects and materials like furniture and wood and can easily damage pieces if not carefully used.
Another thing to mention is that the oils tend to sit on the surface of furniture if you use too much of it and don't blend it well into the surface. You want to make sure you take your time and do a thorough job; otherwise, the oil or polish sits on the surface, attracting dust and other particles. Not to mention this oil can stain your shirt sleeves when you go to sit at your favorite antique desk and notice the polish you applied last week never soaked into the wood and has now soaked into your delicate cashmere sweater sleeve cuffs. Sparingly is the word here as it always is. Yes, the above sweater example has happened to me more than a few times before. I come to you shrouded in experience, dry cleaning bills, and ruined sweaters. Cleaning delicate antiques is always about being spare and gentle. Less is more and make sure you have done a complete job.
4. Regarding glass, the biggest issue here is water staining that occurs as a result of letting your glass air dry. Some glass has hand painted decoration if it does, I would advise not immersing it in water, perhaps a gentle dusting or spot cleaning with some glass cleaner depending on the glass would be fine around the decoration. For me, the biggest issue here is to make sure you toughly dry the glass, as glass can develop stains from the water over time and it is tough to remove altogether. There are many types of glass not all of them the same, in general use caution if you are unsure. If it's clear glass with no enamel or hand painted decoration or other nuances, you can use soap and water, but I don't recommend putting it in your dishwasher. Some people do, I don't. Again, pat dry, don't air dry. The other thing to mention is don't use scalding hot water nor cold water. Lukewarm temperature is good and easy does it. I am sure some people have home remedies like using lemon, vinegar, and apple cider vinegar. I don't use those materials. I stick to what we have on hand specifically for the intended use. When I start inventing things, mistakes occur, especially within the realm of cleaning antiques.
5. Regarding paintings, artwork, and prints. My general advice on cleaning paintings yourself is don't touch them. If you must, use a fine brush, like a good quality paint brush, without paint and other crust on the ends, and brush the dust off the edges. If the painting has chips, has lifting or loss, I wouldn't take the chance in those areas go around them. If there is a giant spiders web hanging across the corner of your antique folk art portrait, use a paintbrush and gently wipe it off, similar to the game of operation easy does it. I just went through an extensive collection of painting today that had been stored away in a basement for 30 years, and I used my fingertip with gloves on to see a signature wiping away cobwebs or other debris. I was wearing gloves however and be aware your fingers have oil and other irritants on them, and fine artwork doesn't care for them. Other than that, generally if you want to clean artwork try not to do it yourself. Don't use spit and q-tips, or a wet cloth. You will damage your artwork. People go to Europe and study this field for years, and there is a reason for that. Find a reputable person or company that offers this service and talk to them about what you would like done. I have tried cleaning paintings myself, seriously, don't do it yourself. I am speaking from experience here. I am sure that the road to hell is also littered with pieces that I have ruined too.
6. Porcelain can be very similar to glass in how it is cleaned. I always look for spots or water staining on porcelain as well, and a similar method applies to the cleaning of antique porcelain as it does to antique glass. As with glass, I don't use burning hot or freezing cold-water mild on porcelain; lukewarm water temperatures should be safe. Most of the time with porcelain, I use a wet rag and carefully dry it, being very careful over areas of painted decoration.
7. Rugs and carpets are like paintings in how delicate they can be especially antique carpets and rugs, and I don't recommend cleaning them yourself. Antique and naturally dyed carpets can lose their suppleness if you wash them with a hose or with the use of a carpet cleaning machine. The colors can bleed; it can be a disaster. Let a professional service do the work for you and make sure they know how to clean antique carpets and rugs.
If you are in doubt about cleaning something or not, I always defer to not cleaning it, until you are sure about a proper method and have a sound approach to attempt the action. If you are caring for something precious, I always recommend consulting a professional first. Don't let your decision to clean your antiques be guided by impulse. If you know you need to clean your antiques, and don't feel comfortable consult a professional first, it can only hurt you by not asking.