cleaning a grubby piece of furniture

by | Feb 3, 2017 | All Things Home, Antiques, Cleaning & care | 27 comments

I have recently acquired quite a few awesome, but very dirty pieces of furniture and I’ve been asked how I clean them, so I thought I would share.



I’m all for diving in with a brush and getting straight to the fun part, but grubby pieces really need to be cleaned first.

(Just a note before we get started. This post is about cleaning pieces, not about dealing with chipping lead paint.  The pieces we worked on had old, worn paint, but they were not actively chipping.  For details on working on a piece that you think may contain lead paint, visit the EPA’s website.)

So, the first step is to call your mom, who is amazing at cleaning and is a very hard worker and ask if she can clean a couple of pieces of furniture for you.

Just kidding.  My mom actually did clean these pieces for me, but she asked if there was something she could do to help and she knew what she was in for!

So, cleaning a piece is really best done outside on a sunny day, but it was cloudy and in the 40’s, so we worked inside today.  We put down a thick plastic sheet to catch spills.

When cleaning a piece, I start out with vacuuming up loose dirt from inside the drawers, cabinets, and in nooks and crannies of the exterior.


Second, I scrub them with warm, soapy water.  Yes, you really can use water on wood and/or painted pieces.  My mom was telling me that she and her dad, my Opa, actually hosed down a wood piece of furniture she inherited from her grandmother!  Just don’t let the water sit on the surface for too long and only do this if the piece really needs it.

If soapy water isn’t getting the job done, use a stronger, grease-cutting spray cleaner.


Change out the soapy water regularly.  It’s amazing how dirty some pieces get.  The water from the chicken incubator I cleaned a couple of years ago was black.


You can use either a rag or sponge.  Brushes are nice for getting into nooks and crannies, so I’ll keep a scrub brush on hand and even an old toothbrush.

I would also suggest taking the drawers out to get all the sides clean and to vacuum the recesses.


If I’m not going to repaint a piece, I almost always seal it with Tough Coat, which is a non-yellow, matte finish, water-based poly.  This seals the old paint, inhibits chipping, and makes it feel nice and fresh to the touch while retaining the worn look.


And, for old wood, I’ll hydrate it with Hemp Oil, to bring back the luster.  It really is amazing what Hemp Oil can do to dried out wood.


If I am planning to paint the, piece, I’ll just go ahead and paint it!  I would suggest allowing the piece to dry overnight prior to painting or applying a finish, though.  You don’t want to seal moisture into a piece.


Good luck with that next grubby piece of furniture you find!


  1. Heather Anne

    Do you every use Murphy Oil soap? I recently bought an old bookcase for our family room and didn’t realize that it was from a smoker’s home until we got it in the van. I used the oil soap and cleaned it three times (the water was yellowish brown) until it was fresh and clean. Then I used your hemp oil and it is looking and smelling so much better!

  2. Paula Runyan

    I have hauled super grimy furniture into the walk in shower and given it what for with the spray handle, brush, and, soap. Works very well.

  3. Vickie White

    I have actually taken a barn stored (plenty of bird quano, etc.) to the car wash and sprayed it down to clean and sanittze it before I wiped it dry and let it finish drying overnight. Then I sealed and painted it. Not necessary for smaller or less sturdy pieces but it sure cuts through heavy dirt and grease on big dirty pieces!!

    • Kimberly

      This is a brilliant solution, Vickie; not many folks would’ve thought of dragging furniture to the car wash to hose it down, but it makes perfect sense to do just that!

      • Audrey Zumwalt

        I know people who take washable rugs to the car wash too.

      • Vickid White

        Thanks. I leave it in the bed of our truck, climb up there with the wash wand and start to work! It makes SUCH a difference in how clean it gets it. Especially if it’s a really dirty (greasy or smoke coated) piece. Those can go for a song at sales simply because they’re so dirty. A little elbow grease and hot wash water makes them much more palatable for painting with MMS paint!!!

  4. Becky Delson

    You cracked me up with that sentence about calling your mom to clean the pieces. So funny to me. Your mom is a rock star.

  5. Faye Rainbolt

    My husband is a painter, and we clean our pieces with tri sodium, you can brush it on with a paint brush and then hose it down, wipe off any standing water and let dry. It cleans stained furniture very good. It takes off some of the finish and if you sand your pieces it makes it a lot easier or you don’t have to sand at all.

  6. Kathryn Casey

    Calling my mom is often my first or second step too…what vacuum cleaner do you use? I have a standard vacuum (no hose attachments unfortunately) and a shop vac but nothing really great for cleaning furniture.

  7. Natalie in Ohio

    Marian ~

    Would you use your Tough Coat Sealer to brush onto a vintage, rusty olive bucket to prevent rust/dirt transfer from the bucket onto towels/linens one wants to store in the bucket?

    I once read to use a clear poly-type spray from the automotive section that’s used on car wheels, but when I went to look for it at Walmart, I was overwhelmed by the dozens of clear poly spray products they had in automotive, and had no idea which one to get!

    My vintage olive bucket remains un-used in the box I received it in, as I don’t know how to protect the textiles I want to store in it!

  8. Mel

    I’m with Kathryn, what vacuum cleaner are you using? That thing looks a ton handier than my shop vac.

  9. nancy

    I bought a bakers table that had been used in a garage for a workbench! Shall we discuss Oil! I washed it outside with oxyclean, baking soda and murphys soap. Not all at the same time, mind you. Hemp oil afterwards to restore it. I let it dry in the hot sun too. I love it.

  10. MaryLisa Noyes

    The cleaning first really makes a difference. This way your paint doesn’t pick up loose particles! Today my son and husband are helping me move pieces around because I acquired an awesome farm cupboard. I have one but I just couldn’t pass this one up. I know you know the feeling.

  11. Sharon

    This isn’t about furniture but about one of the filthiest dirtiest quilts I had ever seen. Was at an auction and they were selling quilts choice. I had looked over the quilts and spied one that was quilted in the round the red, blues and yellows. Just gorgeous except for the filth. I waited and waited. No one seemed to want it. I finally bid a small amount and picked it. The ring man tried to hand me every quilt but that one. Everyone thought I was a little crazy. That quilt, after washing and washing, turned out to be one of the most beautiful quilts I have. So dirt can be good!!

  12. Kathi

    We are constantly scrubbing old wood pieces and love to hear what others use. Grease cutting dish soap is one of our go to items for the really bad ones, especially old workbenches. Scrub brushes, paint scrapers, vacuum cleaners (a vintage electrolux with a hose, if you find one snap it up, they never die), steal wool, vinegar to help with odors – we use them all. I have often thought of the car wash especially during our cold WI winters and am glad to hear someone else has done it. Dragging buckets of hot water to the patio when it is below freezing is never a good time. We have determined that our next home must have a large walk in shower in a heated outbuilding, a girl can dream right !

  13. Beth Elliott

    I inherited a sign from my great grandfather’s grocery store. It definitely needs a good cleaning before I hang it but someone dripped paint on it at some point. Any suggestions for removing those drips without taking all the paint off?

  14. Jackie

    As I live in hot subtropical Queensland Australia I always hit my pieces outside with a high pressure spray hose then wipe down with methylated spirits once its dry.

  15. Lynn in DG

    Great post but mostly loving the similarities and contrast between your mom’s lovely wise hands and yours. Windows to the soul. Maybe it’s because I am a PT but I find the experience our hands show is remarkable.

  16. Lori

    What great ideas!! Thank you all for sharing

  17. Beckie

    If the hemp oil is warmed, will it go deeper into the wood and help ‘moisturize’ it even more?

  18. Teresa Mucha

    Ha. I thought I was the only one that had hosed out pieces. I have had a few that I cleaned that way. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Sheila

    I once read an article in the Family Handyman magazine on how to revive old finishes-the restorer recommended a good cleaning with soapy water. If was the first time I had every read from an expert that soapy water on wood furniture was ok. He was right. You’d be surprised how many people are horrified when they learn you dared to clean a piece of wood furniture with water. Reading your post made me braver about buying dirty filthy pieces.

  20. Tina-Marie Hamilton

    I deal with old pieces all the time, so I use Awesome from the Dollar Tree. A couple warnings, one, it is extremely strong, so use outside of with a mask, and, two, it can actually make paint soft again. I actually cleaned and repainted a piece with it! It cuts cleaning to half the time. Just a suggestion! 🙂

  21. Amy

    Love your new pieces! Great finds!

  22. Barb

    I have loved antiques and vintage for years, and like many others, this affliction led to an antique business. Primitives were my absolute favorites, but they seemed to come with WAY more dirt and chips than other pieces. I used many of the cleaning methods you used, but my favorite method for grunge cleaning is DL hand cleaner. My family operated a service station so I was quite familiar with this product (available in auto part stores). What I didn’t know was how good it was at cleaning old furniture. I did a basic cleaning then dipped DRY 0000 steel wool into the DL. Just start in a corner and swirl your way around. The best part of this is that it helps distribute the old lifted finish and transfers it to the parts that may be chipped or dinged or-whatever…After the entire piece (or section is cleaned) wipe it off with a damp rag (squeeze out as much water as possible). This must be done repeatedly or you may end up with a white-ish haze (no worries; it will come off by a quick dip and further rinsing). After your treasure has been cleaned, wiped, wiped and wiped, all I’ve ever done is buff it with a soft rag. This maintains a nice, soft primitive finish. I have NEVER had this fail me. I have NEVER had this technique ruin a piece of furniture. I feel I could be a sales rep for DL for the number of times I have shared this. Try this first on some small dirty box you may come upon, and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. This is also a great way to clean up the human grungy grime that seems to collect on hand rails and cabinet doors. P.S.. I appreciate your style. Have fun!

  23. Josephine

    Great post! I will never refinish again, but a good cleaning of grubby furniture is something I can handle!

  24. Valerie

    What kind of soap do you use? Dish soap? Thanks!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Marian Parsons - Miss Mustard Seed

I’m Marian, aka Miss Mustard Seed, a wife, mother, paint enthusiast, lover of all things home and an entrepreneur, author, artist, designer, freelance writer & photographer.  READ MORE to learn more about me, my blog and my business…


Subscribe today

and receive a FREE e-version of my planning sheets!


Articles by Date


our sponsors

Bliss and Tell Branding Company