Cleaning faux painted surfaces


Well-known member
I recently picked a particularly nice c1870 four drawer ladies dresser, with mirror. Pine with excellent grain painting all over, ivy decoration in green on the drawer fronts and decades worth of what looks like nicotine, hands and the general accumulation of everything that falls on wooden surfaces.

Over the paint is a layer of shellac, also original from what I can tell.

Any suggestions on how best to cleanse the surface? I'm not all that familiar with faux painted surfaces of this era and what might harm the finish. I do have a decent book on early painted furniture but for the life of me I can't find it.

Thanks, Gary
Gary, when I clean painted pieces I first find a spot that won't show and do solvent tests to determine what the finish is for sure, you don't want to accidentally wash off the paint. I did that once and then had to repaint part of the piece to match. Once you know what the surface actually is you can form a plan to clean it with out doing damage. What to use depends on what the finish is, in general you want to start with the weakest solvent and move towards a stronger one, until you get the results you want. You don't want to scrub the surface, you want to treat it like you are cleaning an oil painting. I will normally apply a solvent with a soft brush, let it sit for a few seconds then blot it off with a soft cloth, you want a solvent that will dissolve the dirt but not the surface. You work on a small area at a time. Mineral spirits are normally the weakest solvent other than water, I however avoid water if at all possible. I have had mineral spirits turn certain shellac cloudy on occasion. On the other hand I've seen guys go at a piece with a pressure washer and get away with it, it all depends on what the surface is. Hope this helps and good luck.
Thanks for the suggestion. I usually approach finishes with care. In this case, it's a combination I've not had the occasion to tackle as I rarely buy grain painted furniture! This one sat in the same house since the day it was bought.

Aside from mineral spirits, my usual first choice, I'm fairly stumped on this one. Possibly acetone at some point, or a mix of mineral spirits and acetone as a friend who restores oil paintings uses this mix. Strangely enough, KrudKutter has worked well on some pieces but in those cases the base woods were ash and oak and the base paint was milk paint.

What other solvents would you suggest?

What's lacking here is my knowledge of what paint was used for the faux work. The shellac finish is fairly well crackled and is not providing much protection, hence my hesitation at hitting it with anything strong and not wanting to apply any pressure or rubbing much.
Gary, if the dresser is circa 1870 and grained, then historically, it's more than likely oil scumble. The murky surface you describe is almost certainly a spirit varnish that was applied later in the piece's life (over an already dull and dirty surface) to liven it up again. The spirit varnish could comprise a number of resins, including shellac, though my bet is it's not shellac if it has decayed to the extent you describe.

If you want to preserve the dresser, I would recommend a very gentle cleaning with a soft cloth dampened in a 70/30 mix of water and vinegar.

If you want it to shine again, then repeating - albeit more proficiently - the varnishing process would be the most appropriate action. Try cleaning a small area with mineral spirits to test the soundness of the graining. Assuming all's well, try cleaning the same area with alcohol and see if just the dirty varnish comes away. If it does, you then have the option of cleaning off the varnish, carefully cleaning the scumbled graining and re-varnishing the piece.

If the dirty varnish is unaffected by the alcohol, then it's probably an oil varnish of some form, though I think this unlikely. If it does turn out to be an oil varnish, then separating it from the oil scumble will be somewhat trickier.

I would run the above tests first before getting too concerned about removing oil varnishes.
Gary, I just picked up what appears to be an excellent book on the cleaning and conservation of furniture.  It is Furniture Care and Conservation by Robert McGiffin.  This book is on the required reading list for the old Furniture Conservation Training Program that the Smithsonian used to run.  It has a great deal of information about cleaning and repairing old surfaces. It might help you here. I'm about halfway through the book right now, and the testing that Jack outlined is described in great detail in the book, so I suspect the book has the answers.
Jack and  Zach (I'll refrain from singing a refrain)

Thanks for the information. I'll try out these methods and see what transpires. I may even have that book as it seems to ring a bell, unless I've sold it or donated it already... I do tend to forget what remains on the shelves and what has moved on.

When I get some results, I'll report back in