A piece of furniture you find at a tag sale or second-hand shop might look dirty and dingy at first, but even if a table or chair is down-at-the-heels, you may well be able to bring it back to its original condition with very little effort. Older pieces of furniture are more likely to be made of solid wood than the majority of furniture made today, and the hidden beauty of the wood alone may be reason enough to restore an old table.
One way to know if a table, for example, is made of solid wood is to compare the grain of the wood on the top, where it will be finished, with the underside, which is unfinished. If the grains are the same, then you can be sure it is solid wood. Many pieces need only to be cleaned up to be made presentable again; you might wish to refinish them somewhere down the line, but first see what you can do by just cleaning and waxing a piece.
Eli Rios, a furniture restorer and conservator in New York City, recommends beginning the cleaning by wiping the surface with water and a clean rag to remove any surface dirt and grime. Then clean with mineral spirits and a very fine piece of steel wool, rubbing the surface lightly to take off deeper layers of dirt. Mineral spirits will clean only the finish and will not damage the wood. Then clean with denatured alcohol and a clean rag to get the last of the dirt up. Wax and buff a small surface area to see if the surface is clean enough to be waxed. If the surface is clear and not cloudy after buffing the small area, then wax and buff the rest of the furniture's surface.
Learn more about ECR Conservation and Restoration.