Wooden furniture is the most versatile of furnishings. It can fit in with any kind of décor, since wood furniture comes in a vast number of styles. It can also be found at a variety of price points, ranging from budget IKEA wood furniture to elegantly crafted works of art with a hefty price tag.

Last but far from least, wood is a durable material, which is part of why it has become so common as a furnishing material.

With all these benefits to wooden furniture, it’s no surprise that wooden furniture is incredibly common in stores. How do you choose the right wooden furniture? How do you decide which of the many available options is perfect for your décor?

Hardwood Versus Softwood

Wood furniture is either made from hardwood or from softwood. Hardwood includes mahogany, oak, ash, and walnut. These are typically darker colored. Softwoods are pine, beech, birch and cedar. Softwood tends to be a lighter color. There are exceptions to these color designations, however.

In regards to price, hardwoods are generally more valuable than softwoods. Hardwood species tend to be scarcer. Again, there are exceptions. Gum is a fairly inexpensive hardwood that costs as much as most softwoods.

Benenson-Warren-Residence-Dining-Room-by-Specht-Architects Wood Furniture Design: Showcase of Modern Examples
Image source: Specht Architects

As you might imagine, hardwood is more durable than softwood. It’s often used for surfaces that see a lot of use, like sideboards and dining tables. Hardwood doesn’t split as easily, either, because of their denser grain.

So when to use softwoods? Softwood is generally less expensive, so it’s a good choice for bookcases and coffee tables.

If you have a space that will see a lot of changes in the next few years, especially if you have a young or growing family, using softwood furniture is a good choice as it provides good looking wooden furniture without breaking the bank. You’ll save money for more permanent furniture in the future.

Wood Characteristics


It’s easy to describe a kind of wood as hard or soft, but it’s not a perfect description. Not all softwoods are soft and not all hardwoods are hard. It’s actually a botanical classification. Hardwoods are flowering trees, while softwoods are conifers. Most hardwoods are harder than softwood, but there are exceptions.

Grain and Color

Grain is determined by the cell structure of the tree. Every tree species is at least a little different. There are tubular cells, called vessels, in hardwood trees that are visible as pores in the wood. Larger cells give the wood a slightly rough or open texture that may need a filler to be smoothed. Some woods with open grain are oak, walnut, ash, mahogany, rosewood, and teak.

Smaller cells mean the wood has a smoother texture and is referred to as close-grained. Some of these include beech, birch, maple, cherry, satinwood, gum, and poplar. Softwoods should be considered close-grained, even though they don’t have vessel cells.

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Image source: Centre Sky Architecture Ltd

Another factor is the annual growth rings that all trees have. The type and arrangement of these rings affect the wood’s grain pattern. Some have subdued grain patterns, others have very clearly defined grains. There’s a great diversity in grain patterns, including straight grains, stripes, swirls, waves or curls, ripples, eyes, and mottled effects.

Color, too, is widely varied, including white, pale yellow, red, purple, and black. Every species of tree has its own color and grain pattern. There can be a lot of variance from individual tree to individual tree, but the color and grain pattern can always be used to identify which species the wood comes from.

Wood that’s used for furniture is chosen for its grain and color. Rich, fine-textured grain patterns are more valued for furniture materials, whether they are hardwood or softwood.

Distinctive patterns are more expensive than woods with more subtle, subdued patterns. Stain is often used to add character to weaker grained wood. If you want to know for sure what kind of wood was used to make a piece of furniture, make sure you remove the old finish entirely.

What are the Benefits of Wooden Furniture?

Wood offers a beautiful natural look. The patterns and lines are already beautiful and don’t require much more to highlight them, except perhaps a coat of finish. Wooden furniture can provide good focal points for your décor, drawing everyone’s eyes with its authentic and occasionally antique look.

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Image source: Realm Architecture + Design

It’s also very tough. Wood has a natural strength, even softwood. It can handle a lot of use, which makes it a great choice for everything from tables and chairs to dressers and bookshelves. Properly made and properly sealed, wood furniture holds up in just about any environment. After all, houses are still often made of wood.

You can get a good set of wooden deck furniture and it will be great for many years to come. It can handle the seasons perfectly well and won’t need to be placed into storage. If you choose the right kind, you can use it for either indoor or outdoor areas and it will look great either way.

Wooden furniture is also often easy to clean. It will not rust and will not develop a strange reaction to weather or chemicals (like plastic can). You just need to wipe it off. You might want to use a wood cleaning product, as well, but that can be found in just about any supermarket. You’ll just need to spray it on before you wipe the piece down.

Wood furniture can be more expensive than furnishings made from cheaper materials, especially high quality wooden furniture, but it’s a very worthwhile investment. It lasts, it looks good, it is made well, it’s comfortable…and it’s eco-friendly.

Wood is a renewable resource. Harvesting it does not leave the damage in the environment that production of plastics does. Many logging companies plant new trees for every one they cut down, and trees grow much faster than people think.

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Image source: Michaelson Homes LLC

What Kind of Wood Should You Choose for What Style?

Classic Style

Dark wood furniture is probably the best choice for traditional décor. Look for furniture made from mahogany and walnut. It adds a sense of occasion to any space. There’s a grandeur to it that is still warm and welcoming. These dark hardwoods are also very lasting. They can be in your family for generations if provided with the proper care.

Modern Style

Modern décor is cleaner and lighter than traditional décor. Cedar or pine, both softwoods, are a good choice. Their pale color fits well in brighter, lighter interiors, like many modern interior styles. Beech is another good choice.

It’s also a bit tougher while being easy to take care of. For an even tougher material for wooden furniture, choose birch. It’s a very durable softwood that resist shrinking, swelling, and warping. It’s commonly used for furniture with clean, simple modern lines for a cooler modern image.

Country Style

For a properly countryside look, choose wooden furniture that looks rustic and full of character. Pine can be very cozy and doesn’t overwhelm a room. It also avoids feeling too matched. A sense of calculation and over-deliberate coordination is the enemy of the country style.

For country-styled spaces, antiques can be a perfect touch. If you want to know the real value of antique wooden furniture, it will help to learn what kind of wood it’s made out of it.

If you find something in your home or a family member’s home that looks interesting, knowing what kind of wood it’s made from will help you know if it’s really worth refinishing or if you should just give up and throw it away.

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Image source: Elliott + Elliott Architecture

Sometimes beat up old pieces can actually be quite valuable based on what kind of wood they’re made of. Learn the difference between the grain, patterns, color, and hardness of different kinds of wood. When in doubt, take the piece to an expert (or an expert to the piece).

Smaller or Darker Spaces

Decorating small or dark spaces can be hard. Few people think of putting in wood furniture because they’re afraid it will add an unnecessary weight to the space. However, light woods like pine, ash, or birch can be perfect.

They bring in a natural, classy beauty without crowding the limited area. Avoid using darker woods like mahogany and walnut, as they look much better in larger, brighter rooms.

How to Assess Wooden Furniture

With so many options, it can be hard to decide on what kind of wood you want for your furniture. As you start looking, however, you’ll find it getting easier and
easier. You’ll learn to recognize different kinds of wood by touch, smell, color, and grain. Start off by asking these questions:

First, think about the piece itself. How old is it? What style is it? A lot of different kinds of furniture are made from specific kinds of wood. For example, bentwoods usually use ash wood. Newer furniture is normally made with wood types not used in older furniture, due to more modern construction techniques.

Consider the color. Color can vary quite a bit from tree to tree, but all trees within a species typically have a constant color tone. Intensity changes, but not quality. Some kinds of wood have a very distinct color. Poplar, for example, is the only species that has a green tinge while rosewood can be dark purple.

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Image source: Ibarra Rosano Design Architects

Take a look at the grain. This is really important for determining the kind of wood you’re looking at. Is it open-grained or close-grained? Are the pores evenly distributed? Are the pores concentrated in the growth rings? Are you looking at a straight grain or a wavy grain? Is it mottle or swirled?

Once you determine the kind of wood the piece is made of, you might notice that it is covered with a veneer or a combination of different kinds of wood. Both are very common furniture building practices.

A veneer is thin layers of wood, often providing the external covering for select elements of a piece. It’s more common for some kinds of furniture than others, especially in certain time periods.

A lot of new furniture is made from various combination of wood types. It keeps the costs down. Rarer wood is normally used in areas where appearance is more important, like table tops or dresser fronts. More common, less expensive types are used for less visible conspicuous parts, like chair and table legs. It can be hard to identify the use of multiple woods in a furniture piece’s construction until you remove the finish.

For example, if you think a table is constructed entirely of walnut, remove the finish and you might find out that the legs are made of gum, stained to match the walnut tabletop.

If the furniture is made with more than one wood type, it will eventually need a special refinishing treatment. You’ll have to stain and finish the common wood elements to match the most visible, often rarer and better looking surface.

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Image source: Murphy & Co. Design

Once you understand the color, grain, and construction style of furniture, it can help you figure out what kind of wood (or woods) that have been used to make a piece. This can help you figure out how much you’re willing to pay for a piece, get a sense of its durability, and—if you think you’re looking at antique—its veracity.

Common Types of Wood Used for Furniture

A note: we provide the Janka Hardness Scale ratings for all these types of wood. The Janka Hardness Test measures the resistance of the wood to denting and wear. A higher number is more resistant to dents.

Red Oak

If you want a classical look that works great for traditional styles, red oak is a good choice. It has been the staple for Amish furniture builders for a long time, with it warm and comfortable ambience.

Red oak is very durable. It’s often cut so that it resists warping. It has a distinctive wavy grain. Clear finishes are the best way to highlight this grain.
Stains can cause the grain to seem too dark and over-exaggerated, making the furniture look weirdly two-toned.


Orange red, with white to light brown sapwood


Pronounced open grain. Easily absorbs stains and will be darker where the grain is close and lighter where it is more open.


Very tough and wear-resistant. The grain pattern helps hide minor wear and dents.


Has a rating of 1290 on the Janka Hardness Scale.

Overall Look

Warm and traditional.

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Image source: Platinum Series by Mark Molthan

Brown Maple

Brown maple is a more contemporary looking type of wood, with smooth feeling and a variegated grain pattern. It’s very versatile, capable of fitting into a bunch of different styles. It can look more formal if a dark stain is used, while paint can make it fit into a country style.

It’s a great fit for an eclectic style. Maple is very affordable and very durable. It can see a lot of use and still look good for years. It can also be made to look like a rarer, pricier wood, since it takes stains very well.

If you choose to stain maple, make sure it is properly sealed or else the staining will look blotchy.


Unique combinations of brown, tan, white, and cream streaks.


Smooth, with varying light and dark streaks. It absorbs stains very well and can easily made to look like more expensive cherry or mahogany. The smooth surface takes paint well.

Lighter colored stains will show off the natural range of colors in brown maple. Darker stains will make the colors blend together better for a solid colored surface.


This is a softer hardwood and is more prone to denting and scratches under heavy use.


Brown Maple has a rating of 950 on the Janka Hardness Scale

Overall Look

Very versatile, great for transitional looks and as a light, dark, or painted piece.

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Image source: Thompson Naylor Architects Inc

Rustic Cherry

Rustic cherry is very distinct, with knots, pits, and a striking grain pattern. It looks great for a more contemporary and updated rustic style. It’s a both elegant and warm material, great for nice dinners and game nights alike.

Rustic cherry is easy to shape and looks very nice when polished. Even without stain, it has a rich and lovely color. This is a very expensive wood. It tends to darken with age.


White, brown, and deep red, with brown flecks as well as natural knots and pits. It has the look of less refined cherry wood.


Fine, smooth texture and circular grain pattern. It will darken over time, especially if exposed to light and heat.


It is a softer hardwood, so heavy use will cause dents.


Rustic Cherry has a rating of 950 on the Janka Hardness scale.

Overall Look

Perfect for a naturally rustic look.

Hard Maple

Hard Maple’s smooth, blonde grain is very chic and modern. It looks excellent in modern spaces and offers a great backdrops for both cocktail parties and formal dinners alike.

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Image source: Michael Abrams Interiors


Creamy white sapwood with a golden hue. The heartwood varies from light to dark gold brown.


Has a close, fine texture with a light circular grain pattern. Stain colors appear very bold on the light color. The smooth texture makes it less suited to darker stains, however.


This is one of the hardest domestic woods in the United States. It is sometimes referred to as Rock Maple. This makes it very durable. It will hold up well under years of hard use.


Hard Maple has a rating of 1450 on the Janka Hardness Scale.

Overall Look

This is a great wood for modern and contemporary styles. It can also look good for a transitional style. It’s a very light wood and captures light nicely, brightening any room.

Quarter Sawn Oak

Quarter sawn oak has a linear grain pattern, giving it a very unique look. It’s often used for mission styles and also arts & crafts styles. It looks very good in furniture with tenon joinery or slats and corbels to create a pleasant craftsman look.


Cooler white to sage undertones.

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Image source: Gaile Guevara


The unique grain pattern often seen with this wood type is achieved by cutting the wood at a 90 degree angle to the tree’s growth rings. It has a tight grain with very drastic light and dark tones.

Quarter sawn oak absorbs stains very well, with a very rich and even final look. The wood’s natural grain color variation can be enhanced with staining.


Very tough and wear-resistant. The grain pattern can hide minor dents and wear.


Quarter Sawn White Oak has a rating of 1360 on the Janka Hardness Scale.

Overall Look

Quarter sawn oak has a great texture. It looks very good in craftsman and mission styled space.


Cherry is known as an elegant, expensive wood, the choice for formal dining room furniture. It’s lovely grain and it’s tendency to darken nicely over time make cherry furniture look rich and warm.


Heartwood varies from rich red to reddish brown. The sapwood is creamy white. It will darken over time with exposure to light and heat.

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Image source: Hugh Jefferson Randolph Architects


Satin-smooth texture with a circular grain pattern. It might also have natural brown pith flecks and small pit pockets. Stains tend to give it a very even-toned finish and cherry stains only intensity its warm hues.


This is a softer hardwood and will tend to dent under heavy use.


Cherry has a rating of 950 on the Janka Hardness scale

Overall Look

Cherry wood’s fine grain and warm color provide an elegant look that has a lot of versatility for traditional styles or transitional ones.


Walnut is a good choice for a modern space. Its distinctive grain allows it to take center stage, especially if paired with furniture with clean lines and distinct details.

Walnut is a very strong and stable wood that can stand up to intricate carving. The colors are very striking. There can be a lot of dark and light variation across even a single board of walnut. It is also one of the more expensive wood types.

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Image source: Chioco Design


Rich, cholate or purplish brown colors. There are hint of grey, black, and occasionally golden streaks. This it the only domestically gown hardwood in the United States. With time, walnut will take on a light golden brown patina that is almost unnoticeable.


The grain has a lot of streaks and movement in it.


This hardwood has a medium density. Heavy use can cause dents and other signs of wear, though the grain pattern can hide more minor marks.


Walnut has a rating of 1010 on the Janka Hardness Scale.

Overall Look

Walnut makes a strong statement when it’s used due to its rich tones and grey streaks. It fits in both more formal traditional settings as well as in contemporary ones.


Hickory is a good choice for rustic themes. It has a strong grain pattern that looks very striking in lodge and cabin-like spaces. It brings an outdoorsy feel.


Contrasting reddish hues and cream colors.


Medium grain that is smooth but earthy.

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Image source: Reiko Feng Shui Design


This is one of the strongest types of wood on the market. Because of its density, it can warp and crack if not cared for properly. Pay attention to the humidity in the space where you keep your hickory furniture.


Hickory has a rating of 1820 on the Janka Hardness Scale.

Overall Look

The contrasting streaks offer a rustic look that still has a lot of interest to it. Any furniture made of hickory is an immediate eye-catching piece.
Other Types of Wood Used for Furniture


Pine is lightweight and inexpensive. It can be either white or yellow with brown knots. It looks good when used for rustic style furnishings or in sleeker furniture designs that fit in contemporary designs. Pine is very cheap and takes paint well, too factors that make it good for children’s furniture.

In others uses, it will develop a rustic patina. It also resists shrinking and swelling very well. Just be careful with it, as pine scratches and dents very well.

White Ash

Ash is very tough hardwood that is notable for its ability to bend. It is often used for bentwood and various bent furniture parts that need as much strength as possible. Veneers made from ash are also very common. Ash has a fairly wide color variance, ranging from creamy white or gray with a brown cast to dark reddish hues. It is moderately priced.

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Image source: KCS, Inc.


This is a common hardwood and relatively inexpensive. You often find it used together with rarer woods like mahogany and walnut. The color ranges from creamy white to creamy brown to reddish colors, with wide rays and the occasional darker streak.

It has a straight and even grain. The pores and very small and the wood is close-grained.


Beech bends quite easily, but does not look as nice as ash. Being fairly inexpensive, it is often used with more expensive wood types in areas you won’t see, like table legs, drawer bottoms, and the side of cabinets.

Beech stains very nicely and you often see if stained to match the look of maple, mahogany, or cherry. Because beech is so hard and heavy, it is hard to work with hand tools.

Yellow Birch

Birch is a common hardwood that gets used in all aspects of furniture construction. It’s light yellowish brown and is very close-grained. It resembles maple in both its color and its grain. It’s a moderately expensive hardwood.


This hardwood is often called white walnut, to which it is very similar. It’s light brown with a few dark or reddish streaks. The grain is pronounced and butternut is quite coarse textured with clearly open pores. These are often filled. Butternut often gets stained to resemble dark walnut.

This is a very light wood and is very easy to work by hand. It’s moderately expensive.

Eastern Red Cedar

Cedar is a softwood that is often used in chests and closets because of its distinct scent and effectiveness at repelling insects like moths. It not only smells good, but looks good, as well. Cedar is light red with lighter streaks and knots.

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Image source: Seavey Builders, Inc.

It’s close-grained. It should not be bleached ro stained, as that ruins a lot of its properties. Treat the outside of cedar storage chests with a clear finish. It’s a moderately expensive wood type.

Rock Elm and American Elm

Elm bends very well. It’s used for bentwoods and in all other kinds of furniture. It is light brown to dark brown, normally with red streaks. Rock elm has contrasting dark and light areas. The grain is very distinctive. Elm has become very rare due to the Dutch elm disease, which has ravage the species, and has become expensive.

Red Gum and Sweet Gum

Gum is hardwood that is used in veneers or combined with rarer types of wood. You see it used a lot in moderately priced furniture. Gum has an even brown color with a reddish cast to it. Occasionally it has darker streaks. It has a moderate to low price.

Red Luan and White Lauan

Lauan is a mahogany lookalike hardwood. It’s often used in less expensive furniture and sold as Philippine mahogany. It ranges in color from tan to brown to dark red. It has ribbon-like grain pattern that resembles the grain of true mahogany. Red lauan tends to be more expensive than white lauan.

New World Mahogany and African Mahogany

Mahogany is a hardwood that is traditionally used for fine furniture. It’s one of the most valuable furniture woods in the world. It gets used in veneers often. It has a color range from medium brown to a deep red brown to a dark red. The grain is distinctive and beautiful. Mahogany is very expensive.


Pecan is a very strong southern hardwood. It gets a lot of use in office and dining furniture. Pecan veneers are fairly common. Its colors include pale brown and reddish brown, with dark streaks and a very pronounced grain. It is difficult to work by hand. It is moderately priced.

Yellow Polar

A moderately soft hardwood, poplar is used in inexpensive furniture and together with more expensive wood types. It is brownish yellow with a green tinge. The grain is fairly subdued and it is close-grained. Poplar takes a stain very well. It’s a very light kind of wood and can be easily worked with hand tools. It’s not very expensive.


Redwood is a softwood that is often used for outdoor furniture because it is resistant to both insects and decay. You rarely see it finished. It is a deep reddish brown with very clear and well-marked growth rings. It has a moderate hardness and can be easily worked with hand tools. The price varies by region.

Brazilian, Indian, or Ceylonese Rosewood

Valued just as much as mahogany for furniture construction, rosewood is often used for veneers. Its color varies from dark brown to dark purple with rich dark streaks. It is very hard to work with hand tools. It is a very expensive type of wood.

East Indian Satinwood

Satinwood is a fine hardwood that is often used for veneers as well as in decorative inlays and marquetry. It has a color ranging from bright golden yellow to a darker yellowish brown. All variations have a distinct and lovely mottle or ribbon striped pattern. It is a very expensive type of wood.


Sycamore is a hardwood that gets used in a lot of veneers and inexpensive furniture. It resists splitting well and gets used in butcher blocks often, as well. The color varies from pinkish to reddish brown.

The rays are prominent and closely spaced. It has distinctive grain pattern. It is moderately easy to work with hand tools. This type of wood is moderately priced.


Teak is a prized hardwood type for furniture. It has traditionally been used for both veneers and solid pieces. The colors include rich golden yellow and dark brown with both dark and light streaks. It is a very expensive kind of wood.

Other Types of Wood

While most furniture is made from the types of wood are made from the wood types listed above, other kinds can be used and often are. You can find wooden furniture made from (or at least with elements made from) alder, apple, aspen, chestnut, cottonwood, cypress, fir, hackberry, hemlock, holly, koa, laurel, locust, magnolia, pear-wood, spruce, tupelo, and willow.

These are some of the most common of the unusual wood types used for furniture, and you can find even more offbeat kinds in furniture construction on occasion. If you’re looking to stain, work, or maintain any piece of wooden furniture, look up how the wood type handles what you’re trying to do.

Caring for Wooden Furniture

Wood furniture requires care to look its best over time. Should you dust it or just wipe it off? Is it better to polish he piece or should you wax it? There’s a lot of difference of opinion about this among professionals, but there are some good general rules that depend on the furniture’s finish.


Regardless of the wood’s finish, you should occasionally dust your wood furniture. This removes airborne residue that will accumulate to create a dingy layer. Use dry clean soft fabric dusting cloths or plume dusters.

Make sure you dust so that the dust does not dissipate into the air. It will just hang there until it settles again back on the furniture.

What are some good dusting tools?

Standard quill duster, made from ostrich plumes, good for easily damaged and sensitive surfaces, like mirrors, art, silk lampshades, picture frames, and delicate collectibles.

Treated fabrics, soft cotton fabrics.

Lamb’s wool duster, with lanolin to pick up dust and make it stick, good for dusting grooves, turned angles, ceiling fans, and light fittings with a lengthy grip.

Ownby-Design-by-Ownby-Design Wood Furniture Design: Showcase of Modern Examples
Image source: Ownby Design

Soft cotton fabrics, like old clean shirts.

More Intensive Cleaning

Do not use universal cleaning sprays on wooden furniture unless the furniture has a plastic covering, like many kitchen tables and children’s furniture do.
You should also not use water. If you find any sticky spots on your wooden furniture, you may still need to use water and cleaner. This is a way to do it without damaging wood furniture:

  • Soak the fabric in mild cleaning agent mixed with water
  • Squeeze the fabric almost dry
  • Wipe down the section
  • Rinse the area

Quickly use a soft, clean fabric to dry it

You can use oil polishes and furniture oils to ensure the wood is protected by making the surface is slippery. It won’t give it a protective coat.
Anything with a high oil content will cause smears, exposing fingerprints. You shouldn’t clean with unadulterated olive oil, as it both smears and holds dust.

Many commercial liquid and spray furniture polishes are made with silicone oil, providing protection for wood furniture. These can also create deposits over time that can interfere with refinishing. Always check pieces over and make sure they have been thoroughly cleaned fo these deposits.

A good handcrafted formula for cleaning wooden furniture is a blend of equally measured strained lemon juice, denatured liquor, olive oil, and gum turpentine. Apply with a soft fabric and then buff it with a clean material.

Often during production, polyurethane, varnish, or shellac is layered onto the furniture to protect its wooden surfaces. Applying polish or wax helps protect these maker’s finishes and reduce the number of surface scratches. Wax provides a very durable form of protection, doesn’t smear, and is much sturdier than sprays and polishes.

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Image source: REEF Cape Cod’s Home Builder

Use either a paste or a liquid that is made especially for furniture. Paste wax might be good for about two years under normal use. Liquid wax is much easier to apply but will not last as long and will have to be applied more often.

Make sure you apply the wax so that it doesn’t streak or result in an overcast appearance. You should layer it on in thin coats, rubbing it into the surface with the grain. Leave it to dry for the prescribed amount of time and then buff it to a nice shine with soft fabric.

Cleaning Old Wood Furniture

Older fine furniture should be cleaned and cared for using this three stage schedule:

Consistently clean year round with a normal wood furniture cleaning agent and a #0000 steel wool pad. Formby’s Deep Cleaning Build-Up Remover is a good choice for cleaner. Work the cleaner with the grain and cautiously. Stick with the cleaner directions.

Restore the furniture as it needs. For sun blurring, use a commercial finish restoring item, like Howard Restor-A-Finish. Choose a color that closely resembles the wood color. Apply it using a #0000 steel wool pad to small areas at the same time. Work with the wood grain and use light to direct pressure. Clean immediately using a soft, cotton fabric like cheesecloth.

Maintain a monthly schedule of adding orange wax or oil liket Feed-N-Wax beeswax to avoid drying and splitting.

Cleaning Used Wood Furniture

How do you make that surprising yard sale find look its best?

Begin with a deep clean using water and an oil cleanser. Wash and dry it carefully and thoroughly afterwards. If the finish still seems to have some stubborn grime, clean it carefully using a #0000 steel wool pad that has been soaked in a good cleaner. If you find that drawers tend to get struck, rub white candle on their upper edge.

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Image source: Henderson Design Group

If there are some deposits on the piece, find some cleaners that are designed to specifically melt them. Avoid using anything with cooked linseed oil, white vinegars or turpentine. Experts agree that these ingredients darken the wood and cause it to attract both lint and dust.

Getting Rid of Odors

Sometimes you find an older piece of wood furniture that smells…unique. Put it outside to freshen it up on a warm, dry day. Make sure you don’t place it in direct sunlight.

Spread baking soda or talcum powder over a surface to soak up smells if they persist. If the piece has drawers that seem to be retaining an unpleasant smell, place a container of charcoal briquettes in them to help.

Polishing Hardware

To polish the handles and pulls properly, separate them from the piece of furniture. Make note of what part goes where. Use brass rod metal cleaner to clean and buff them to a nice shine, then place them back in their proper place. Avoid scratching the wooden surfaces. Do this in batches over a few days to avoid wearing yourself out or losing pieces.

Fixing Surface Scratches

If the scratches are small, apply wax paste or use a wax touch up stick in the correct shade to fix them. For deeper scratches, use a colored filler to a wood filler wax stick. You can find these at hardware stores. Pick a color that matches the furniture. Apply it in a few thing coats for best effect, rather than in a single thick coat.

Stages of Cleaning

Before you start, make sure you choose the right cleaner and cleaning method for your furniture’s finish. You should only progress to harder and harsher method if a gentler methods fails to remove the grit and grime. This makes sure that you don’t damage the furniture or its finish.

Bali-House-by-Rick-Ryniak-Architects-1 Wood Furniture Design: Showcase of Modern Examples
Image source: Rick Ryniak Architects

Step 1

Use a gentle cleaner, like dishwashing detergent (this may not work for your wood furniture’s finish). Add a drop of it to a moistened cotton ball then wipe the cotton ball on an inconspicuous part of the piece. If it mars the test area, don’t sue the cleaning agent.

If there’s no sign of a damage, keep going. Mix the water and the cleaning agent together in a bucket. Use this solution to wipe down the whole piece. Avoid soaking the wood, as this may damage it.

Use an old toothbrush for areas that are hard to get to. Brush your sponge or cloths gently over the surface and don’t let liquid linger on it for long. Use paper towels or clean clothes to see if you’ve really gotten all the grime off.

Wipe them on the piece and see if they come away clean. Once they do, so is your piece. Dry it off thoroughly with a soft cloth one you’re done.

Step 2

Test a small amount of mineral spirits on a cotton ball on an inconspicuous area to check for damage. If there is none, wash the piece down with a soft clean cloth soaked in mineral spirits. Make sure you work in a well-ventilated location to avoid harming yourself.

Mineral spirits may remove years of accumulated grime. Make sure you wipe away any remained mineral spirit residue with water once you’re done. Check for blemishes as you go and stop if you see them.

Step 3

If the finish reacts badly to the mineral spirits, or if the mineral spirits don’t work to remove dirt, move on to the next step. Determine what finish is on your piece. Dab a bit of denatured alcohol on a cotton swab and test an inconspicuous area.

Ragley-Hall-Residence-Living-Room-by-Cablik-Enterprises Wood Furniture Design: Showcase of Modern Examples
Image source: Cablik Enterprises

If the finish dissolves, you’re probably dealing with shellac. If it doesn’t, you’re probably working with oil, lacquer, varnish, or polyurethane and you can use denatured alcohol to clean it.

Again, make sure you’re working in a well-ventilated area with a lot of air flow and make sure that no deposits of denatured alcohol are left over when you finish. If you are not satisfied at this point, you will probably need to really refinish the piece to get it to the level you’re looking for.

Step 4

Once you are satisfied with your cleaning efforts, protect it from more damage and dirt by applying furniture wax. Apply it in a thin coat using a cheesecloth, rubbing it in the direction of the grain.

About five minutes after you’re done with application, buff it with a clean cloth for a fine shine. This should last for months to years, depending on what wax you use and what kind of use the surface will see.

Maintaining Wood Furniture

Keep wooden furniture out of the sun. Sunshine coming through a window can reach above 140 degrees. This will cook finer finishes, causing them to fade and even destroying them with enough time. The wood itself will dry out and shrink, causing cracks.

You should also avoid placing wooden furniture near vents or heating units. This will likewise cause the wood to dry out and crack. For drier months, use a humidifier to bring moisture up to the more wood furniture-friendly levels of 40% to 45%. Learn more from Groom+Style about which model may be the best choice for you before spending a significant amount of money.

New-Fairfield-Lake-House-by-Blansfield-Builders-Inc Wood Furniture Design: Showcase of Modern Examples
Image source: Blansfield Builders, Inc.

You can use show polish for a quick fix touch up on scratches and chips. Make sure you choose the right shoe polish color. This is a great solution for damage on the furniture’s feet. Use a felt-tip marker with a matching color first for an even better result.

There are several options for removing the white hazy rings and spots left behind by hot mugs or other items. One of the least invasive away is to sue a mild abrasive like non-gel toothpaste mixed with baking soda or cooking oil mixed with ashes. Rub it into a small affected area with your finer or use a soft cloth for larger areas.

You can also place a soft towel or cloth over the affected area and iron it gently at a medium setting for 10 seconds to 20 seconds at a time. Turn the iron up if you need to. Keep the iron moving and check to see your progress often so you can avoid damaging wood.
What to Look For With Antiques

If you’re looking to see if a piece is antique, check its back, inside, and underside. Do this for the drawers, as well, if it has any. The “secondary” wood types used in the construction of these elements will tell you a lot about the time period of the piece’s construction.

Do your research on the piece you’re looking at (or for). This is key to making sure the piece is really an antique and for knowing that you’re paying the right price for it.

If you opt to finish or restore antique wooden furniture to its original glory, be careful. Make sure you get the advice of an expert. Different kinds of wood or finishes will require different restoration treatments.

Make sure the expert you get help from knows about the particulars of your piece. The item may just need a fairly intensive clawing. For anything more, leave the restoration to a professional.

Modern-Organic-by-Courney-Bishop Wood Furniture Design: Showcase of Modern Examples
Image source: Cortney Bishop Design

Tips for Mixing Finishes

Make Use of Samples

Shop with your finish samples in hand, so that there aren’t any surprises once you’ve spent money. Sometimes you can order samples from manufacturers, but pictures can work almost as well. If you have samples and you’re looking at new furniture, sometimes you can order wood furniture in the appropriate finish.

Complementary is Better than Close

Matching sets can be hard thing to find, especially if you’re looking in flea markets and secondhand stores. Don’t bother trying to get pieces to look close. It will usually fail in a jarringly obvious way. Instead, look for finishes the complement the ones you already have.

Warm undertones makes finishes look red, orange, or yellow. Cooler ones look grayish. Beige undertones give the wood a neutral color temperature. These neutral tones are more versatile and can be mixed with any other kind of finish.

If you can’t identify the finish tone easily, look at the palest tone in the grain. You can also look at the wooden furniture piece from across the room so it looks like it’s a single shade. With time and practice, it will get easier to identify a finish’s color temperature.

Keep a Sense of Commonality

While it’s not a good idea to try to match finishes, and unlikely that you’ll find some that match perfectly, you should still try to have all your wooden furniture make sense together.

Lake-City-Home-by-Mitchell-Brock Wood Furniture Design: Showcase of Modern Examples
Image source: Mitchell Brock

The pieces should have one or more elements in common. Avoid having everything be the same, as that will be a little too on the nose and not work very well when arranged together.

What do we mean by elements? Things like formality, period, style, or shape. They don’t have to be the same, but they should have a kind of unity to them. If you have a curvy backed chair, look for other pieces that use curvy lines, for instance.

Bring in a Unifying Piece

Think about including a piece with multiple finish tones in the space. It can tie wood furniture with varying finishes together. A few good ideas for this include zebrawood, inlaid finishes, burled finishes, and high contrast pieces.

Using a piece with these characteristics as a focal point for the room can make the other, varying pieces come together as a coherent whole.

Mix Grain Patterns and Sizes

Finish isn’t the only thing that distinguishes a finish. Grain pattern and size are also very important. By grain pattern, we mean the swirls, strips, and flame-like shapes seen in wood.

Prairie-town-house.-by-LandMark-Photography Wood Furniture Design: Showcase of Modern Examples
Image source: LandMark Photography

Grain pattern size refers to the scale of these shapes in the grain pattern. Mixing the grain pattern and the scale of it adds in visual interest throughout the piece and the room.

Scatter Different Finishes Throughout the Room

You want to make sure the room is balanced. If you use dark finishes on only one side of a space, for instance, it will make that side of the room seem too heavy.

Also be careful how much contrast you have with different finishes. High contrast can be tempting and seem like fun, but it may be overwhelming. Try contrasting medium light and medium dark tones at first. Save the more dramatic contrasts for spaces where it will really help and stand out.

Ending thoughts on wood furniture

Wood furniture has a lot of different options. It can vary ion the wood type, color, finish, and style. Every selection has an attached price point and there’s a lot of room to mix it so it both fits your space and your budget.