It is most important to remember that routine care of the surface finishes on historic woodwork should not involve anything other than simple cleaning and dusting without professional advice. In almost all situations the wrong treatment of finishes is likely to cause more damage than no treatment at all, and in many instances, no treatment is likely to be most suitable course of action
Woodwork in different situations and dating from different periods will have been finished in a variety of ways. On occasions the original finished surfaces will have remained unaltered, but more often they will have been re-finished and over-coated several times, leaving them with a complex patina. In this situation, there is no single ‘correct’ surface treatment for historic woodwork and professional advice must be sought.
Water should never be used to clean wooden floors. Washing with water tends to strip back polishes that have been applied and leave grey streaks across a floor, not to mention the harm that it does to the wood. Surfaces should be dusted with a soft, lint-free cloth. For carved and moulded surfaces a soft brush can be used to gently flick dust into a vacuum nozzle. If surfaces have a wax finish this will usually be sufficient to restore it. In most cases, there is no need to apply more wax, and in fact too much wax is likely to cause problems in the long run. If in doubt, leave the surface alone and simply dust it gently.
Waxing will only be needed very occasionally, perhaps once in a few years, if at all. Only use a good quality, unstained beeswax with turpentine polish. The choice of wax should always be dictated by the volume of traffic the floor will need to cope with. For high traffic areas, a floor polish with a high content of carnauba, a harder-wearing wax derived from the carnauba palm of Brazil, is the best option and should be mixed with a good quality beeswax. For lower traffic areas a good quality beeswax will suffice.
Dos and don’ts
Do: dust lightly and gently with a lint-free cloth or fine brush
Do: occasionally, and not more than once every few years, consider applying a light coat of beeswax with turpentine to surfaces which have been waxed before, but not to dry, unfinished woodwork
Don’t: apply wax to a surface which has not been waxed before; leave it as dry, unfinished woodwork
Don’t: use spray polishes, or any kind of silicone or chemical polish, or any solvents, because you will do more harm than good
Don’t: use oils of any kind
Don’t.: strip off the surface finish or use abrasives of any kind.
For a useful guide to good practice in the care of furniture and woodwork refer to The Manual of Good Housekeeping published by the National Trust.
If in doubt, do nothing, and call in an expert if you need advice.