Taking care of and maintaining your Mid Century furniture

Many items you will find carry stain “rings” on the surface tops. This is often the result of coffee cups or planters. All is not lost, though, if you are a little handy with a palm sander!

Often, you will find rings stains on the surface tops of Mid-Century Modern furniture left over from a misplaced coffee cup or over-watered planters. All is not lost, though, if you are a little handy with a palm sander!

Furniture produced during the post-war era, or “Mid-Century Modern,” was generally very well made. There are a few exceptions, but we will not get into those right now. If you are a collector of MCM, or have the desire to get started, knowing how to maintain, treat and/or repair your furniture is of the utmost importance. Heck, that coffee table has lasted 50 to 60 years already; why can’t it last another 50?

Luckily, your better companies back in the 1950s used higher-quality woods and construction techniques. Those include, but aren’t limited to, Knoll, Herman Miller, Heywood Wakefiled, American of Martinsville, and Gunlock, and the list goes on and on. They used real wood veneers and sometimes solid wood, especially Danish manufacturers. The metal portions of MCM furniture often consisted of brass, steel, chrome and aluminum. The clean, simple lines of this furniture and the lack of heavy, glossy finishes make for easy maintenance/repair.

The best way to clean a piece of MCM furniture is to use a very fine “0000” steel wool, or “4 ought,” as they call it. Run the wool with the wood grain to remove wall-bumps, minor scratches and some stains. Murphy’s Oil Soap helps with the movement of the steel wool, but do not use more than you need to. Wipe the area with a dry cloth then apply Orange Oil, or if you wish to color match, I recommend Howard’s Furniture Restorer Oils. These can be purchased online or at most any antique store and the colors range from Golden Oak to Walnut to Mahogany and even the color “Neutral,” which works great for Heywood Wakefield pieces.

You can get Steel Wool in a range of grades, from super-fine to course.

You can get Steel Wool in a range of grades, from super-fine to course.

Many items you will find carry stain “rings” on the surface tops. This is often the result of coffee cups or planters. All is not lost, though, if you are a little handy with a palm sander! First, you would use high-grit sandpaper, such as 220. Quickly go over the top until the ring is gone but make sure to sand the entire top so it is even. DO NOT sand too far, as many tops are comprised of thin veneers and sitting the sander down for too long in one spot will ruin the veneer. When finished, wipe the dust away and apply a Minwax stain, wood wax or Tung Oil and wipe off. Usually, one coat will work depending on the wood.

The metal portions can be cleaned as well. For chrome, you would use very fine steel wool (4 ought) and a little WD-40. Aluminum cleaners can be purchased at most auto stores. Steel and Brass should be buffed with a mild metal polish using a soft cloth. Steel wool will ruin the finish on steel and brass.

Maintaining a piece in original condition is easy. Simply dust with a dry cloth or feather duster and every few months wipe the furniture down with Orange Oil or the above mentioned oils by Howard’s. Even wood wax can bring out the true beauty of the wood. Danish Oil is fantastic, as it is very forgiving and can be built-up to a gloss or sheen you prefer by adding layers after each application dries.


Depending on your need, you can find an specializzed oil.

Try to avoid Teak oil or Boat oil, as Teak oils can often be very sticky and unforgiving, like a varnish or polyurethane. If you want the protection of a heavy varnish, then apply it with a soft, lint-free cloth or sponge brush to avoid streaks and thick spots.

There is so much more information pertaining to this subject and most of which depends on the piece of furniture in question. So, if you have a question about how to maintain a piece you own, feel free to send me an email!

Bradley Downs is a Worthologist who specializes in Mid-century modern furniture and the owner of Odd 2 Mod in Atlanta, Ga. You can e-mail him at odd2modauctions@earthlink.net.

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  • alex e.

    Hi read your article on maintaining furniture pieces and like the fact you stressed greener alternatives such as Howards Orange Oil. We have a indoor Teak table and have been using this product. With the huge weather fluctuation in Atlanta, do you recommend we keep using this product, or also use another product in addition to this? We do not want it cracking, and want to use green products – we hear watch teak oil is good but this has toxic stuff. any feedback would be great.

  • Tom A. Pratt

    Very informative article. We have a few mid-century pieces in our home that came from our grandparents and the tips I got here will be very helpful to maintain their elegance. Many thanks.

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