Dust Never Sleeps : In caring for furniture, there’s good news and bad. Wood doesn’t need much polishing. But upholstery probably needs more attention than it’s getting.


Once the glow of new-furniture ownership wears off--about the time a good layer of dust settles in--consumers are faced with a worrisome thought: how to care for that credenza?

Most of us automatically reach for the furniture polish, planning to wipe up the dust and shine the wood at the same time.

Wrong, says Mission Viejo interior designer Kay Leruth.

Leruth hasn’t polished her furniture in years. And it’s not because she’s lazy. When it comes to the care and feeding of today’s furniture, she simply believes that the less you do, the better.


Industry experts agree. Although they differ on the details of exactly how to care for furniture, they say people generally over-polish and over-wax wood. Curiously, the opposite is true of upholstered pieces--people ignore the fabric, which benefits more from routine maintenance than wood does.

“People just do not know what to do,” said Nancy High, director of communications for the American Furniture Manufacturers Assn. in High Point, N.C. Technology, she said, has allowed manufacturers to create finishes that take care of themselves. All the consumer needs to do is remove surface dirt.

New furniture comes with care instructions that pretty much say that, but High said the advice is so simple that everyone ignores it.

It shouldn’t be ignored, however. Wood furniture is rapidly gaining in popularity, both with a resurgence of the Shaker and Mission styles and with the introduction of so-called character finishes and furniture: sofas and tables made of peeled pine logs and wood pieces with manufactured dings and dents to give them a distressed look.

“The 18th-Century style is still the backbone of the industry, but younger people have more casual attitudes,” said Michael Hodges, vice president of marketing and finish design for Guardsman Products Inc., which makes finish coatings for residential furniture.

“They’re wearing jeans to work on Fridays, driving their Jimmies and other 4-wheel-drive vehicles, and they want furniture they can put their feet up on,” he said.


To take care of it, and to care for most other new wood furniture, High and Leruth both recommend weekly dusting with a soft cloth.

So does Hodges, but he and High part company with Leruth at that point. If you have new furniture, Leruth says, you should put away furniture polish, oils and waxes for good--especially if the products contain alcohol or lemon oil. Certain commercial products can actually damage finishes, she said.

For most modern furniture, Leruth recommends wiping with a damp cloth to remove fingerprints and dust and following that with a chamois on high-gloss finishes.

“The only pieces that need oil or wax are things that have it already, like high-end custom pieces and antiques. Everything else has a finish on it that you aren’t going to get through. So all the wax does is gather dust,” Leruth said.

High and Hodges believe you should hang on to the furniture polish, but they recommend using it sparingly on modern furniture finishes and making sure the product is one that cleans without trapping dirt and dust. Every six weeks is often enough to use polish, they agree. Furniture polish contains water, while waxes contain naphtha, and both can raise a wood veneer over time, Hodges said.

“You want a nice, hand-rubbed look in furniture, but furniture can be marred when you rub it, even with some kinds of rags,” he said. Most top coats manufactured today are made from nitrocellulose, which stands up to a lot of rubbing and repairs easily but doesn’t scratch easily, Hodges said.


His company makes a home-care kit, sold at furniture stores, that includes a cleaning polish, a light dust cloth and a soft cloth with a little resin in it.

But the perfect dust rag might be closer at hand than you think. High recommends an old pair of men’s cotton underwear.

The cloth should be dampened, then wrung out until it’s “bone dry,” especially if humidity is high, she said. A dry cloth just scatters dust around, she added. Be sure and wipe down furniture hardware, such as drawer pulls, because it collects body oil, she advised.

Everything but unfinished furniture comes with a finish. To know what’s on your pieces, talk to the salesperson or, if it’s an older piece, take it to a furniture restorer for identification, Leruth said.

“You have to think of furniture like you would your face,” she said. “You don’t sit in the sun; you don’t want to be hot; you don’t want too much humidity, and you don’t want it too dry.”

Sunlight is hard on furniture, and it needs to be protected from heat, humidity, dryness and the kinds of accidents that faces are rarely subjected to--spills and scratches.


Nail-polish spills and cigarette burns are the two worst accidents that could happen to wood furniture, followed by mustard and ink spills, Hodges said. Alcohol in cocktails, perfumes and medicine can dissolve furniture finishes. Chemical reactions from such seemingly benign items as plastic place mats and the rubber feet on lamps and calculators can stain or darken the finish.

Some accidents are almost certain to require professional help.

Resist the urge to wipe or blot up nail polish and nail polish remover and alcohol spills, manufacturers say. Let the liquid evaporate for 24 hours, then call for professional help with the nail polish and remover spill.

Accidents aside, industry experts say consumers should stop fretting about wood furniture and worry more about fabric-covered pieces.

“Think about the way the dust looks on your wood furniture,” High said.

“The same amount is on upholstered furniture every week. When you look at dust particles under a microscope, you can see they have sharp edges, and when they accumulate on upholstered furniture and we sit down on it, we are just grinding in the little particles. This breaks down the fabric and makes it look dingy,” she said.

The solution? Weekly vacuuming with those attachments that came with the vacuum cleaner.

“It’s just vacuum, vacuum, vacuum,” said Leruth, who doesn’t recommend having the sofa professionally cleaned unless it’s stained. She also doesn’t recommend sending draperies out for routine cleaning.

“The worst thing you can do to drapes is to have them cleaned. The fabric shrinks and the backing dissolves. And the fabric shrinks on upholstered pieces” when they are cleaned too, she said.


Leruth recommends having upholstered furniture treated with a fabric protector product such as Fiber Seal, which will repel moisture, allowing spills to be blotted up before they soak into the fabric.

Speed is imperative in cleaning spills on upholstered furniture, High said, and most stains need to be turned over to professionals. “It’s not a job for mere mortals,” she said.

One reason is that the industry doesn’t give us many hints about cleaning such fabrics.

Textiles such as drapes and upholstered furniture aren’t required by law to come with care instructions, as is clothing, according to Alice Laban, spokeswoman for the International Fabricare Institute in Silver Spring, Md., which represents dry cleaners and laundry professionals.

Because fabric can fade and shrink in cleaning, the institute recommends having furniture cleaned in place. Laban warned particularly against removing chair and sofa cushion covers and sending them to a cleaner. Often the cleaned covers don’t match the rest of the upholstery on the furniture when they come back, she said.

Consumers should be aware of potential cleaning problems, such as shrinkage, or the dissolving of backings used to give loosely woven fabrics stability. The advantage of using a professional cleaner is that he knows what kind of solvent or stain remover to use for particular stains, she said.

Often the best solution is to make the right selections from the start, High said. For furniture you know you are going to live on, chose a covering you can clean “without your heart in your throat,” she said. She recommends sofas with loose cushions because they can be rotated weekly--while you’re vacuuming--and you’ll get twice the wear out of your sofa.


To extend the life of a sofa to 10 years or more, Leruth said, buy good quality, use fabric sealer, vacuum regularly and rotate loose cushions.

Good quality is especially important in wicker and leather, Leruth said. Wicker comes with a finish on it and can be cleaned with a feather duster or a drafting-table brush with soft bristles. Leather doesn’t need a lot of routine care, but because it doesn’t have a protective finish, every so often it must be moisturized like leather shoes, she said.

For the marbles and metals that are so popular in furnishing today, Leruth recommends cleaning with a damp cloth. Metals come with a protective finish, too, and using solutions such as brass cleaner will strip the finish, she said. Marble needs to be professionally repolished every couple of years.

Hard plastic furniture can be cleaned with water and a gentle soap.

And if you didn’t throw it away already, there is a use for lemon oil, she said. Instead of putting it on your new furniture, where it will just attract dust, apply it to the glass on the shower door. It’s supposed to cut down on lime buildup.

Or you could just put your feet up and forget the bathroom.