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Maintaining The Finish: Wax versus Polish in Dusting and Cleaning Furniture

The benefit of a furniture polish or wax is momentarily improving the appearance of the furniture, but primarily to protect against abrasion. Furniture polishes, but particularly paste wax, repel water to some degree and create a low-friction surface that resists scratches.

NO wood, finish, polish, or wax is waterproof!
Of all the possessions we accumulate in life,
Fine furniture is one of the few that will last several times longer than we will.
When we buy or inherit fine furniture, we therefore assume some responsibility
for its care so that future generations won't be denied the pleasure of using it.


The two factors that cause the most damage to furniture and its finish are sunlight and physical abuse

  • Strong light, especially direct sunlight, causes finish to deteriorate and some finishes do it faster than others do. Sun damaged finish will be dull and crazed.  Sun can also cause the stain to fade and best noticed by comparing the "sun side" with another side. It can also cause the natural wood color to shift lighter or darker.
  • Physical abuse comes from simply lack of care. Always use table clothes, place mats, coasters, and anything that keeps the finish from being scratched or exposed to moisture..  The use of furniture polish or paste wax reduces friction and helps to protect the finish from abrasion and moisture..


  • The greatest benefit of a furniture polish or wax is momentarily improving the appearance of the furniture, but primarily to protect against abrasion.
  • Furniture polishes, but particularly paste wax, repel water to some degree and create a low-friction surface that resists scratches.
  • The secret is to keep the finish clean. Dusting with a damp cloth or a chamois should be enough for routine maintenance.
  • No furniture polish or paste wax will cause any damage to your finish or to your wood. Brands of furniture and floor wax can be used interchangeably.
  • Properly used but requiring a little more effort, we recommend the use of paste wax for fine furniture and fine finishes, especially on wear surfaces such as table and dresser tops. Wax does require dusting or cleaning with a damp cloth and with no use of furniture polish being involved. Don't mix the two.
  • On balance over time wax will require less effort and provide superior protection against moisture and abrasion. The key is to never mix the polish with the wax.
  • Dusting: Both polish and wax assists in dusting because they make the surface slick so that the dust is less likely to stick or scratch as the dusting cloth slides across the surface.
  • Cleaning: Petroleum-distillate solvents in furniture polish dissolve wax and grease, so furniture polishes make good wax and grease removers. But, such solvents don’t remove water-soluble dirt such as children’s sticky fingerprints. Water or water based cleaners must be used for such soiling. Waxed items should be dusted with a slightly water damp cloth or chamois.
  • Scent: Scent is important to the degree that it makes the homeowner have the “clean home smell”. Some polishes and waxes have a scent added only for this purpose.
  • Shine and Scratch Resistance: Both polish and wax assists in adding a slick protective film that helps to protect the finish from abrasion. But, there are clear differences between each approach.


  • Wax does not evaporate, so paste waxes provide a more permanent shine and scratch resistance.
  • The trick to using wax as a protection is to understand that only the wax in contact with the surface does any good. Though wax adheres tenaciously to almost any surface, it does not bond well to itself. When applying wax, all the excess should be removed by polishing before it has dried hard.
  • Wax is resoftened by the application of more wax. Therefore a reapplication of wax will result in the same thickness of wax you had after the prior application.
  • It does not build in thickness, of and by itself.
  • New wax needs to be applied only when a shine can no longer be buffed with a dry cloth. It requires more effort but is the protective application of choice.
  • After applying a wax you can not then dust using a liquid polish because the petroleum distillate in the polish will remove the wax.
  • Waxed items should be dusted with a slightly water damp cloth or chamois.


  • Furniture polish does evaporate because it is based primarily on oily petroleum-distillate solvents in the range between paint thinner and kerosene. Some polishes evaporate slower than others do. They are easier to apply than paste wax because they are always in a liquid form and do not require buffing away of any excess.
  • The disadvantage of any longer lasting liquid polish is that they leave the surface smeary. 
  • Non-drying oils include mineral or paraffin oil, which are contained in liquid polishes marketed as "lemon oil". These never dry, and in fact evaporate quickly. Non-drying oils can be applied to a finish surface to make it appear shiny for a while, but that is all. The build-up of excess oil is common. The application of a liquid polish on a waxed surface will streak and damage the wax.
  • Manufacturers advise preserving the wood or the finish by "feeding" with oil. This makes no sense at all. There is no measurable quantity of oil in the wood to begin with, nor in the finish.
  • The reapplication of furniture polish basically adds to the prior coat, which eventually builds into a thick layer.
  • Furniture polish requires less effort, but is required more frequently, provides less protection from abrasion, and any oil in it only attracts dust.


  • Dusting can best be done by wiping with a soft cloth that has been slightly dampened with slightly warm water, whether you use paste wax or furniture polish. You can use furniture polish on your dust rag, if that is what is on the surfaces you are dusting.


  • Dirt can take the form of children’s fingerprints, spilled drinks and food, kitchen grease, acidic body oils, among others.
  • All these forms of dirt can be removed just by using slightly warm water.
  • If the dirt is stubborn, just add a little mild soap.
  • Neither water nor soap will damage the finish if it is basically sound to start with.

This information is based on articles by Bob Flexner in Woodshop News and Professional Refinishing, and we thank him for organizing such thoughts.

At The Wood Works Inc we specialize, among many others services, in top quality finish repair, finish restoration, and finish stripping and refinishing.

  • We primarily use acrylic lacquer for its excellent elasticity and superb quality, and hence, longevity.
  • We recommend the use of furniture paste wax and a water damp rag for dusting.
  • The reasons should be clear.

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