Wax on, Wax off

Sara Weissman, MCHS Volunteer
March 15, 2022

The bannister of Acorn Hall’s front staircase is one wooden surface that experiences a significant amount of visitor traffic.

Acorn Hall brims with historic furniture, much of it mid-19th century, and some of which has lived at the Hall since it was first owned by Dr. John P. Schermerhorn (1853-7). From monitoring their environment to the specific needs of each piece, there are a variety of factors taken into consideration as we clean and protect these one-of-a-kind treasures. To ensure their longevity, MCHS has developed routines both general and particular, and after significant research, amassed a wide variety of cleaning tools, products, and methods to best preserve them.

One of ten heavily carved pieces in Acorn Hall’s front parlor.

As important as products are for maintaining our furniture, so are the tools. While some are specialty, others can be found around the house. Furniture throughout the Hall gets dusted with a reusable microfiber cloth. For our heavily carved Rococo seating suite (10) and large gilded mirrors (4) we have a collection of special purpose brushes. Periodic dustings allow the opportunity to check for changes in a piece’s condition. Wax can be applied, sparingly, with an old, clean t-shirt or tea towel and a soft toothbrush or shoe polish brush is useful for carvings. Any second wax coat can be applied with surprisingly soft #0000 (superfine) steel wool.

In addition to dusting, wooden and metal surfaces are waxed for protection, in particular, the walnut, rosewood, and stained oak pieces that line the visitors’ route. A hard, long-lasting carnauba wax produces the more durable finish needed lower to the floor and closer to foot traffic. The balance of the furniture receives a softer, more traditional British beeswax-based polish.  As the carnuba is harder, it needs a longer set-up time than softer beeswax before buffing. Brass handles and trims are treated with a long-lasting Renaissance wax that does not yellow. Delicate furniture, like the painted cottage set in the summer bedroom, are only dusted, never waxed.

Brass handles on a dresser, waxed three years ago with Renaissanc wax, are seven years from needing a new coat.

How often to wax depends upon how quickly the coating is rubbed off by dusting and other activities; a home’s furniture may need it more frequently than a museum’s. MCHS is currently on an 18-month to three-year cycle, depending upon the location and exposure of the furniture. Our stewardship plan can easily be adapted to your own home and your own family treasures.


Managing dust in historic houses–a visitor/conservator interface, Lithgow and Lloyd, et al 2005
see especially discussion of dust and humidity

Properties of natural waxes, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, CAMEO database

Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, Furniture Care and Handling