my go-to supplies for cleaning antiques

by | Apr 6, 2021 | All Things Home, Antiques, Cleaning & care, Favorite Finds | 41 comments

I have bought and sold (and kept) a lot of antiques over the years.  Thousands and thousands of pieces!  So, I have learned through trial and error about cleaning and polishing up just about anything I find.  As I was cleaning my most recent antique finds I purchased during our trip to visit family in PA, I thought I would share some of my favorite supplies and products for cleaning antiques.  Many of these cleaning methods can work for things you already own that need a little sprucing up as we’re talking about deep cleaning through the month of April.

This is my most recent collection of antique finds…

antique finds in PA | miss mustard seed

Before we get into cleaning, I have to say that I was very restrained and left a lot of well-priced ironstone behind!  I had to keep reminding myself that I’m not shopping for a market or online sale.  I’m just shopping for myself, so I needed to have a clear idea of how I would use each find.  Also, I just organized and purged several rooms in my house and I still have more to sort and get rid of.

So, here are my staples when it comes to cleaning newly found antiques or ones I already own.

Goddard’s Silver Foam

I don’t buy a ton of silver, but I do buy some pieces now and then and Goddard’s Silver Foam is my favorite for getting off the tarnish and making them shine.  It’s not stinky or hard on my hands and it does a great job with just a little scrubbing with a soft sponge applicator that comes in the container.  I bought a beautiful Sterling silver dip pen for a great price (about $30) and it needed a little polishing…

Sterling Silver Dip Pen | best supplies for cleaning antiques | miss mustard seed

I even got the pretty nib all cleaned up!

Sterling Silver Dip Pen | best supplies for cleaning antiques | miss mustard seed

Of course, I always have a jar under the sink, because I use it to polish my everyday flatware (which is inherited silver) and my Wallace Sleigh Bells at Christmas.

SOS Steel Wool Pads

SOS Steel Wool Cleaning Pads are like little miracles and they work on cleaning up just about anything.  I use them specifically when I want to remove rust, but they are also great for removing residue from stickers or for cleaning old wood, especially if it’s greasy from being in a kitchen or garage.

I recently bought a beautiful drafting set with brass, bone, and ebony pieces, but it had clearly been exposed to some moisture and all of the tools needed to be cleaned.

antique drafting set | best supplies for cleaning antiques | miss mustard seed

I scrubbed each tool with an SOS pad, which removed the rust, polished up the brass, and cleaned off any ink.

antique drafting set | best supplies for cleaning antiques | miss mustard seed

The pieces polished up so beautifully!  To prevent further rusting, it’s important to make sure the pieces are completely and thoroughly dried before storing them again.

antique brass drafting set | best supplies for cleaning antiques | miss mustard seed

I even used the SOS pads on the ebony parallel ruler and the brass hardware on it as well as around the rim of the box, which was covered in ink.

parallel ebony ruler | best supplies for cleaning antiques | miss mustard seed

Goo-Gone & Nail Polish Remover

Another fantastic product for removing sticker residue, tape, or anything else that’s sticky is Goo-Gone.  I’ll spray it onto ceramic and glassware to let it breakdown the residue and will then wash it off with soap and water.  I’ll also use nail polish remover to remove prices put onto glass and ceramics with permanent marker.  That doesn’t usually happen at antique stores, but it’s pretty common at thrift stores.

vintage buffalo china | best supplies for cleaning antiques | miss mustard seed

Miss Mustard Seed’s Hemp Oil

Hemp Oil is one of those wonderful, all-purpose products and I always have a bottle of in my cleaning cabinet.  When I bring home antiques, I’ll get it out to hydrate old wood, polish up metal, and revive dry leather.  It’ll even bring out beautiful color in woven baskets!  I use it on so many things.  In this haul, I polished up a castiron & brass microscope (a great buy at $10) and a vintage T-square.

applying hemp oil | best supplies for cleaning antiques | miss mustard seed

It does such a wonderful job at bringing out the patina of old wood, making it look rich and hydrated again.  Just wipe it on and wipe away any excess with a clean cloth.  It is food safe, so you can use it on wooden spoons and cuttingboards, too.

applying hemp oil | best supplies for cleaning antiques | miss mustard seed

Dawn Soap

I use Dawn soap when I need to give general things a good scrubbing.  Anything I didn’t clean with the SOS pads, I cleaned with Dawn.  (If something is too greasy for Dawn, I’ll use 409 all-purpose cleaner.)  I think people are hesitant to really wash old things or those made of wood or metal, but it really is nice to get them clean before you use them in your home.  Even if they look relatively clean, pieces are often musty from sitting in attics, barns, and then the antique store for who-knows-how-long.

best supplies for cleaning antiques | miss mustard seed

This mortal and pestle was filthy…

antique ironstone mortar and pestle | best supplies for cleaning antiques | miss mustard seed

…but it cleaned up beautifully with a good scrub in warm, soapy water.   (As an aside, I recently learned you can also use Dawn to wash your dog!)

antique ironstone mortar and pestle | best supplies for cleaning antiques | miss mustard seed

Sunshine

This one is in endless supply and it’s free!  Sunshine works wonders on pieces that are musty or ones that you’ve scrubbed in soap and water and need to dry out.  Since baskets are notorious for holding dust and dirt in all of their crevices, I’ll clean them with Dawn soap and a soft scrubbrush in the utility sink.  If the basket is too large for that, I’ll hose it off on the driveway and use the same method.  I make sure to do this on a sunny, breezy day, so the basket will have a chance to dry.  This process really helps with musty/dusty smells and is a good practice to use on baskets that have been sitting around your house for while.

vintage basket drying in the sun | best supplies for cleaning antiques | miss mustard seed

Gentle Laundry Soap

After buying a few textiles that were too delicate to wash in my early days of shopping for antiques, I decided I wouldn’t buy anything in the future that couldn’t be thrown in the wash.  I want to be able to use these textiles, linens, and quilts in my home, and I won’t use them if they are stained, stiff, or stinky.  Sometimes I’ll soak them first in Oxiclean if they are really dirty, but most of the time I can just throw them directly in the machine and wash them on the gentle cycle with a mild soap.  I use either Oxiclean, Woolite, or Mrs. Meyers Lavender Detergent.  What I use depends more on what I have on hand than a preference for one over the other.

In my latest shopping trip, I bought this beautiful twin-sized white-on-white quilt that is initialed and dated 1915.  It was only $50, so I couldn’t pass it up!  I put it in the washer on delicate and in the dryer on low heat to get it clean and smelling fresh.

Antique white on white quilt | best supplies for cleaning antiques | miss mustard seed

As I said in the beginning, many of these supplies and techniques can be used for things you’ve had in your home for years and it’s amazing how cleaning the little things can make your home sparkle and smell amazing.  If you’re somone who buys and sells pieces, cleaning them will typically allow you charge a little more for the piece.  I can’t tell you how many great pieces I bought for a song simply because they were dirty.  After a quick washing, I could make a tidy profit for comparatively little work.

Does anyone want to share their favorite supplies for cleaning old things?  I know there are so many wonderful options out there…

41 Comments

  1. Karen W.

    Thank you for these suggestions. I need to shop for hemp oil. Using charcoal in small dishes helps remove stale, musty odors from drawers.

    What method do you suggest for cleaning an old hand-painted tole tray? It was handed down from an elderly relative who painted it about 80-85 years ago.

    Reply
  2. Laurie

    Thank you Marian for all your tips on everything. Glad to hear you enjoyed your much needed vacation.
    Any word on availibility on a commissioned cow painting.
    Please email me.
    Thank you

    Reply
  3. Monica

    Animal rescue groups use Dawn to clean birds, ducks, penguins, otters, etc. when there’s an oil spill.

    Reply
  4. Cheryl W

    I noticed you mentioned denture tablets in your IG post. We use the tablets to clean old bottles or glassware and they do a great job. Simply drop in a tablet (or half if a whole one doesn’t fit in the bottle opening), add water and let it fizz and soak for a while. Later, swirl it around, then dump and rinse. Highly recommend!

    Reply
  5. Babs

    I use tung oil (you could also use Hemp Oil) to seal the interiors of old dressers after I have wiped them down. Any smells disappear as they are sealed into the wood. The wood looks much better, too.

    Reply
  6. Patricia Kasparian

    I can attest to your hemp oil being very useful. I refresh all of my household woodware using it; antique wood bowls, cutting boards, wood spoons, rolling pins, you name it. Makes the grain pop out and gives raw wood needed hydration.

    Reply
  7. Dauphine Bonham

    I use Retro Clean and Retro Wash for all my old linens and quilts and crochet pieces. They are eco safe and available on line at retro clean.com. This stuff takes spots out of quilts that are 100 years old!

    Reply
  8. Dana

    I clean silver and gold with the old tin foil method.
    Tin foil on the bottom of a bowl, add a tablespoon of bi-carb soda and a few drops of dish detergent. Lay your jewelry or silver on the bottom and pour over boiling water to cover. Let it bubble up, and then remover the pieces and rinse them. Everything sparkles.

    Reply
    • LuAnn

      I have used a similar method to clean tarnish from silver, but boil vinegar to pour over the baking soda and silver pieces. I didn’t know boiling water would do the same thing?

      Reply
  9. Theresa Sethre

    Marian, thank you for all these wonderful tips. You have such good hints for every possible type of material since you’ve been down this road many thousand times!

    Tip: A refill can off lighter fluid for cigarette lighters is amazing for getting sticky tags off without a speck of damage on surfaces. It will even get sticky tags off paper items without leaving a spot or stain! You are always a bright spot in my day when I find you in my in box.

    Reply
  10. Jenn

    For white vintage linens (my fave to sew with) I boil water and add some powdered oxy clean. Once I add linens I turn down heat and occasionally stir. Once completed (couple hours to a day) I throw in wash. It typical works like a charm and have even had blood stains removed but this is for WHITE linen only as it will bleach out any colored linen. Test it out first

    Reply
    • Antonella

      Would this work even for a wool-filled pillow? Or will the wool felt? I inherited very yellowed/stained pillows filled with carded wool and I’m wondering how to clean those…
      thanks

      Reply
      • Nancy in WA

        I believe oxyclean says on the label not to use it on wool.

        Reply
  11. Margo

    You mentioned sunshine and it really does work especially on white cotton fabric. With my first pregnancy I could afford only a few pieces of maternity clothes one of which was a white cotton top. Buttoned up the back mind you. Transferring spaghetti sauce to a storage container it splashed the whole front of the blouse with tiny red dots. I washed it by hand and hung it out on the clothesline to dry despite it still having all the red dots. I actually cried over this because it was really the only comfortable thing I had left to wear. But when I took it in that evening all the spots were gone. To me it was a miracle but my mother told me that the sun had bleached them away. I was so happy..
    I was 18 at the time and couldn’t afford to replace that blouse.
    Fifty years later I’m still very careful when dealing with tomato sauce. Since then I’ve done the same thing with many discolored linens that bleach themselves in the sun.
    Just be careful not to use bleach because it will turn yellow.

    Reply
  12. marjeanna

    Baskets should be washed in the shower or hosed down outside at least once every two years just to keep the materials hydrated. They dry out and crack from age and dryness, especially if they have
    been stored in a hot dry attic. Do not soak but do clean regularly.

    Reply
  13. Sue

    Thank you for the helpful tips. I am going to try the hemp oil and other tips you provided. This helps me decide what items to purchase, now knowing how to clean them. Thank you very much!

    Reply
    • Heidi Binkley

      I have used Charlie’s Soap household cleaner and laundry detergent for years. It will take grease off my garage floor when used full strength. And laundry detergent takes grease out of my husbands clothes. But still gentle enough for baby clothes and antique linens, of which I have many!!

      Reply
  14. Lisa P

    These are all such great tips! I’m going to write them down and post them on my bulletin board. Thanks to everyone!

    Reply
  15. Taria

    I am a quilter and old quilts often find their way to me. I was taught to use Biz to soak textiles in. That was before Oxiclean was around. I have been known to use one and then the other if something is really stained. You can soak in either for days. No silk though. Just regular quilt washing I use Orvus. (you can get it at Tractor Supply). Thanks for all the tips.

    Reply
  16. Sue Cantrell

    I use hydrogen peroxide on organic stains. My granddaughter got blueberry juice on a hand smocked dress her mother wore. We got home, poured hydrogen peroxide on the stains and threw it in the wash. All the stains came out! This does not work on tomato sauce stains I am sad to say. It does work on grass and dirt stains.

    Reply
  17. Margot

    I use Liquid Gold on my baskets to “dissolve” dust and add moisture back.

    For tea and coffee stained cups, etc. I soak them in the sink with dishwasher detergent dissolved in hot water. I imagine it might remove other stains too.

    Reply
  18. Glenda

    Something my husband discovered that is a miracle cleaner is Tub O Towels. Our house burned a few years ago and what didn’t burn was as black as tar. These towels were unbelievable for cleaning the smoke off. Do not use soap and water first . Use the towels first and get the smoke off and then you can wash. We cleaned pottery, glass and even wood. Almost all were antiques.,

    Reply
  19. Terry

    Thank you for the tips. I noticed you did not link to Hemp Oil. Since you no longer have the Milk Paint line what do you have a recommendation. I use it on everything. FYI although Dawn is great at removing oils (that’s why it works for oil spill wildlife) it does strip the natural oils from dog coats.

    Reply
  20. Ellie Campbell

    Bon Ami! So inexpensive and non-toxic – a sprinkle of it on a folded slightly damp paper towel is great for scrubbing stains off of ironstone, stoneware, or enamel. Works great to polish copper and silver too! I use it on almost everything

    Reply
    • Marian Parsons

      Yes! I haven’t bought it in years, but that is a great cleaner. I used to use it for scrubbing my tubs.

      Reply
  21. Sally Gleason

    Thanks for this information. Someone once told me to take old baskets and spray them with mix of mineral oil and water so they don’t get so dried out . Have you ever heard this or tried it? We have an old Apple basket made by a by a great uncle who was blind. Made in the 1940’s . Would like to keep it preserved . Thanks.

    Reply
  22. TLDawkins

    Last year about this time I bought a set of decorator fabric placemats with matching napkins. The decorator fabric was blue and white. I’m just getting in to blue and white in my home. There were some stains that looked as if they might be spaghetti sauce so I soaked them several times in OxyClean after I had scrubbed the spots with OxyClean stain spray. They came super clean and I was able to use them at our herb society tea. I loved bringing them back to life.

    Reply
  23. monique odman

    Everybody has so many interesting recipes! For blackened or discolored white china pieces and for my white enamel pots I use a little bit of Clorox and pour hot water all the way up, let it bath this way until all the stains are gone. My mother used that and it really works. Than I wash with dish soap and rinse. Voila.

    Reply
  24. Sue in Northern Iowa

    Most baskets can be cleaned with a dry paintbrush to whisk away dust, but if extra dirty a spray with plain water and scrub with a soft brush is acceptable. After the basket is fully dry, I brush on undiluted mineral oil both to the inside and the outside of the basket to hydrate. Let the oil soak in before setting the basket down on any fabrics or porous surfaces.

    Reply
  25. Florie

    Great list! I use many of those in my cleaning too. I run an art studio and do my fair share of DIY projects and find Murphy’s Oil Soap for cleaning up acrylic paints, either the house paint or the artists paint. Dilute it a bit or use straight.
    I can’t live without Barkeeper’s Friend for pots and pans, toaster ovens, showers, toilets.
    Salt for cast iron pans.
    And we just made the switch away from liquid detergent to powdered detergent for washing clothes because we discovered that liquid detergent contains a product made from animal fat and was the reason our clothes smelled so musty and whites looked grey.

    Reply
  26. Shelly

    Lemon oil (essential oil) is wonderful for removing sticky tags, residue, and marker. It has even removed old paint from clothes that had been laundered. Bonus is the great smell.

    Reply
  27. SueA

    My grandmother had a wicker tea cart that had sat in her house for 50+ years. I’ve seen them price out at over $2000! We took the hose to it on a warm sunny day and with a bit of a scrub with a good brush (no soap) it was totally revived. This was in the relatively humid northeast but here in arid Colorado I would definitely follow with a light oil after it thoroughly dried. It now has a place of honor in my brother’s dining room.

    Reply
  28. Jean

    Great list of solutions! I wash antique linens with Orvis horse soap that you can get at tack shops. It has a neutral pH and doesn’t contain any detergents which can break down fibers.

    Reply
  29. MaryLisa

    Thanks for all the tips. I love the quilt!

    Reply
  30. Erica H

    You can use good old rubbing alcohol to get permanent marker off of things, which may be gentler on some pieces than nail polish remover. Another staple in my supply cabinet is Bar Keeper’s Friend. This scours gently enough to remove marks that dish soap won’t take off, but I would be afraid to use something like Comet to scour.

    Reply
  31. Kristin Gjertsen

    Thank you for the Hemp oil tip. I have used Goddard’s Antique restorer with success, but it has a lingering odor that my husband dislikes. I have lots of family antique furniture, including a 150 year old clock, an 1890 roll top desk and chair, and my great grandfather’s oak china cabinet and I would love to have a natural product to shine and protect the finish. I also get most of our furniture at consignment shops, Goodwill, the Habitat Restore, and the Salvation Army Family store. We live in North Carolina which was a center for furniture making for most of the past century so it is a fantastic place to hunt for discarded treasures. I am also a fan of Bar Keepers friend, Dawn dish soap, Goo Gone, Wright’s silver and brass polish, and Oxy products. I inherited some antique quilts made by my great grandmother and grandmother and Queen Elizabeth Bedspreads so I have had to learn how to care for them gently. Love your desire to share such wonderful products with your readers.

    Reply
  32. Diane

    Thank you for the tips, great finds. The drafting set is gorgeous. I would BEG people to not use Dawn for washing their pets. You can find many reasons why if you do a search online, but Dawn is designed to strip oils, ALL OIL. In my job with wildlife, we use it to remove thick oil and tar, it’s that strong. It’s very concentrated and takes a great deal of time to make sure you remove all the soap. If you don’t remove all of it, your dog will most likely lick the residue from its fur and ingest it. It can be damaging and drying to skin, especially dogs with existing skin issues and it can create new problems. It can cause eyes injuries, we use a special veterinary opthalmic ointment to protect the eyes. Any cost you save by using Dawn versus a dog shampoo will most likely be negated by expensive vet bills for skin and/or eye problems.

    Reply
  33. Daisy

    Baking soda is a miracle cleaner too even mixed with a little Dawn if needed Its just the right amount of gentle abrasion and deodorizer too!

    Reply
  34. Lynnett Ratchford

    MAAS metal cleaner is my go-to brand.

    Reply

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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…

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