Living with Country Antiques: Fixing a Table with a Sticky Top
When trying to clean a country farm table, if simple soap and warm water doesn’t work, don’t despair, there are other options.
I received a letter from a reader, asking about a country farm table with a particular problem:
“We found it at an outdoor antiques show last fall. It sat in our garage until this spring, when we finally were able to use our new room. We didn’t cover the table because the garage is clean. Plus, we thought we’d be in the room sooner than we were. Anyway, the tabletop is so sticky with something; we really don’t even want it in our house! I didn’t notice that when we bought it. But, I didn’t check carefully because the table was the right size, and we loved it. Now, I don’t know what to do to make it usable. The top is pine, three boards wide, and doesn’t seem to have a finish on it. It’s a great color with wonderful patina. So, I don’t want to refinish it. Can you make any suggestions about what we can do to make the surface fit to use?”
This sounds like a nice table with a typical problem. Without seeing it, I would guess the top has years of wax, spilled food, and any number of other elements, which could become sticky. I’m fairly sure it didn’t happen while the table was being stored in your garage. You are right about not refinishing it. There is no need to be that drastic. Also, you’d ruin a lot of its charm if you refinished the top.
What you need to do is clean it. From your description, I doubt that simple warm water and soap will work. But have you tried that? When cleaning something like this tabletop, always begin with the simplest, least aggressive method. So, start with the easiest. Try washing the surface with dish detergent in very warm water, using a kitchen sponge: Scrub the wood with this soapy water. Then, rinse the surface with cool, clear water and wipe it dry. If you’re lucky, this will work, but don’t expect it to!
The next step is to try cleaning the top using vinegar. Pour some cheap, white vinegar into a plastic container. Then dip in a sponge and scrub the tabletop. Try cleaning one board at a time, going from one end to the other. Next, rinse with clear, warm water. After rinsing, wipe the surface dry. If that doesn’t do the job, go on to the next, more drastic method: cleaning with household ammonia.
When using ammonia, work outdoors or in an open area with good cross ventilation. I’m not sure inhaling this stuff is good for you. But, regardless of that, it’s very unpleasant. I use ammonia a great deal. It shouldn’t damage your pine top. However, to be on the cautious side, first test an area on the underside: Pour some ammonia into a plastic container. Then, with a pad of steel wool, rub the test area.
Rinse with cool water and wipe it dry. Allow the surface to completely dry before deciding whether or not to use ammonia on the top. It should be all right. But, it’s always better to check first to know you aren’t going to discolor the wood. Clean as you would with vinegar, one board at a time. Then, rinse with clear, cool water and wife dry.
The problem with the top probably is a combination of things. Along with the stuff I already mentioned, sitting in the garage possibly helped cause some of the stickiness. However, that doesn’t matter. What’s important is getting the surface usable and keeping it that way. You didn’t mention the base. I assume it isn’t suffering from the same problem. If it is, try cleaning it the same way, beginning with the least aggressive method.
If you’re able to clean the top with soapy water or vinegar, do the following: once the top is clean and thoroughly dry, use steel wool to lightly rub with the grain of the wood. Be especially careful that you don’t run into splinters. It’s easy to pick them up with steel wool. If you are rubbing vigorously and hit a splinter, it could do some real damage to your finger or hand. Be particularly careful where the boards join. Always check for loose wood, which could become a damaging splinter, before you start rubbing.
The reason for rubbing with steel wool is to take care of any raised wood grain, which the washing may have caused. Once the surface is smooth, apply a coat of good paste wax. If the top is fairly light in color, use white, or clear, wax. If the wood is dark and has lots of patina, use a darker or tart-colored wax. Apply it with a lint-free cloth. Then, buff the surface with a brush like one you would use on shoes. Once this has been done buff with a rag such as an old bath towel, rubbing with the wood grain. Again, be careful of splinters.
If you had to use ammonia, scrub the wood with white vinegar afterward. This will help wash away any ammonia residue. If all of this liquid washing has caused the grain of the wood to rise a great deal, you may have to sand the top. Water doesn’t always make grain rise, especially on old, well-worn surfaces like farm tabletops. However, after all of the scrubbing, if the wood feels like it has sand or grit on it, sand it with a fine sandpaper. I would use 120 grit. Then, depending upon how the surface feels, you either can use steel wool or proceed right to the wax. If it’s smooth after the sanding, skip the steel wool.
Once the top has been waxed, you shouldn’t have any more sticky problems. All you will need to do to care for the surface is wipe it after every meal with a damp, not wet, cloth. If something is spilled, wipe it up right away. Depending upon how hard you are on the top, you will need to wax the surface only once a year. I would do it each spring or early summer, before the arrival of higher humidity.
If you are watchful about spills and protect the surface from hot containers right out of the oven or off the grill, there is no need to coat the tabletop with anything other than wax. After all, it isn’t a Chippendale banquet table! Enjoy the simplicity of this country piece!
— by Lew Larason
Lew Larason has been working with wood and antique furniture for more than five decades. He was born in Lambertville, N.J. and grew up in New Hope, Pa.
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