Antique Glossary: Cleaning Agent Basics

Some antique collectors, novice ones anyway, are foolhardy enough to simply grab a rag and whatever cleaning product might be handy and tear into the bentwood rocker they just bought. Most are wise enough to do a little research before mangling a newly purchased piece.

Today’s glossary pertains to various chemicals and products commonly used to clean and repair antiques. The list is by no means exhaustive but is meant to assist the beginner in understanding the basics of antique restoration.

Acetone- A colorless flammable liquid that is highly soluble in water. It is the most common ingredient in many commercial solvents, the most familiar being nail polish remover. It is sometimes used to remove varnish and wax from antique furniture. Acetone is poisonous, smells terrible, and should be in any restorer’s arsenal.

Ammonia- A compound of nitrogen and hydrogen that is famed for glass cleaning. Ammonia evaporates very quickly and is the key element of commercial glass cleaners. It will also remove old varnish and wax from wooden furniture.

Benzene- A flammable, colorless liquid with a pleasant smell used in the production of many industrial solvents, dyes, and pesticides. Once a common tool for restorers; most wisely avoid the chemical. Benzene is believed to cause cancer with prolonged exposure. While working with small amounts is unlikely to cause cancer, the fumes can cause confusion, headaches, and have even killed. Avoid benzene like the plague it is.

Carnauba Wax- A product of the carnauba palm tree native to Brazil. A very common ingredient in many furniture polishes and is the main component of the wax used on surf boards. It is also widely used in the cosmetics industry. Carnauba wax is among the hardest naturally occurring waxes and is nearly insoluble in water.

Hydrogen Peroxide- A medicine cabinet favorite and common ingredient in toothpaste. Hydrogen peroxide is an excellent bleaching agent, disinfectant, and curiously, a rocket propellant. Is often used to remove stains from antique rugs and other textiles. Peroxide will also take many stains out of china and ceramics. This is an essential for any restorer.

Linseed Oil- A yellow oil extracted from the seeds of the flax plant. Boiled linseeds produce a fast drying oil that makes an excellent rejuvenator for wooden furniture. It is a common ingredient in products as varied as furniture polish, animal feed, and is wonderful for preserving leather goods.

Pumice- A light porous rock formed during volcanic explosions. Technically, pumice has no crystal structure and so is considered by geologist a glass. Pumice is ground into a powder for a variety of industrial uses including the manufacture of cement, cosmetic exfoliants, and metal polishes.

Putty Powder- Putty powder is an oxide of tin, or of tin and lead in some combination. It is widely used in polishing glass, metal, and precious stones. It works especially well on old pewter and antique silverware.

Thymol- A fungus-killing agent commonly used to treat athlete’s foot. Thymol can be used to rid antique books, documents and textiles of mold. I can’t really advise you to spray old maps with athlete’s foot medication although I’ve heard of it being done.

Turpentine- Since ancient times man has used the extracts from certain species of pine trees for purposes as varied as treating head lice and protecting ships hulls. Even in modern times there remains a little turpentine in some medicinal chest rubs. It is an excellent chemical for removal of old varnish but will dissolve paint as well. Turpentine should be stored in a well-ventilated, dark place, as light will make turpentine cloudy and thick.

White Spirit- A paraffin derived solvent similar to turpentine and is a good substitute in most circumstances. It is often referred to as Stoddard solvent and is a common ingredient in wood preserving products, lacquer, and varnish. It is included in this list because of its frequent appearance in older restoration guides.—-
Silas Finch is freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques. He can be reached at Content and Solutions.

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