Clean Dirty, Greasy, Gummy Surfaces
The results of a simple surface cleaning with mineral spirits may amaze you. Polish buildup and the dirt embedded in it muddy the finish but will wipe away. Don't use stronger solvents; they might dissolve the finish itself.
Soak a coarse, absorbent, clean cloth with mineral spirits and wipe the finish. Keep applying and wiping until the cloth no longer picks up dirt. Then do a final wipe with a fresh, clean rag.
Clean crevices, grooves and carved areas with cotton swabs dipped in mineral spirits.
Fill in gouges with colored putty sticks, sold at most hardware stores and home centers. This putty works well for small holes and nicks but is somewhat trickier to use as a fill for larger damage like we show here. Unlike hardening putties, it remains soft and somewhat flexible, so you have to shape it carefully. And it won't hold up under heavy wear.
Buy several sticks of putty similar to the color of the stain you want to match. Scrape flakes from each, then mix and knead them with your fingertips until the color is right. The heat from your fingers also softens the putty for easy application. Make the patch slightly darker than the furniture; lighter will be more obvious. Press putty tightly into the gouge with a small flat stick, then flatten it and scrape away the excess with the stick's long edge. Round the end of the stick with sandpaper.
Wipe away any putty adhering to the wood around the gouge, and smooth the surface of the putty with a clean cloth. A thin, light-colored line will usually appear around the perimeter of the patch. Use a matching marker to color this line. Spray the patch with two or three quick passes of shellac, then after it dries, a few quick passes of spray lacquer—either high gloss or satin, depending on your furniture's finish. Never apply lacquer or polyurethane/varnish directly over a putty patch; it will leave a permanently soft mess. Shellac will harden; however, the patch will remain somewhat pliable under the finish, so don't attempt this on a heavy-wear surface.
Wipe Away Scratches and Recoat the Surface
You can buff out fine scratches using very fine (0000) steel wool saturated with clear Danish oil. (You can also use ultra-fine automotive rubbing compound.) The process shown here only works for scratches in the finish itself, not scratches that are all the way into the stain or the wood.
Pour a generous amount of clear or neutral Danish oil onto a very fine steel wool pad. Rub the surface with the oil-saturated pad using your flat hand. Rub with the grain, never against it or at an angle to it. Continue rubbing until you remove enough of the clear surface finish to eliminate the scratches, but be careful not to remove any of the stain below the clear finish. Rub not only the scratched area but also the area around it in gradually decreasing amounts. Be careful to rub edges or corners excessively; they wear through quickly.
Wipe away all the Danish oil with rags or paper towels, then thoroughly clean the entire surface with mineral spirits several times to make sure all the oil is removed. If any oil remains, the lacquer won't adhere. Allow the surface to dry overnight before applying lacquer.
Spray the entire surface with clear lacquer. Move the spray can in one continuous, straight stroke, allowing the spray to extend beyond the edges in all directions. Wipe the nozzle with a rag after each stroke to prevent drips. Move with the grain, and make sure the angle of the spray remains the same all the way across. Keep the spray aimed away from other surfaces that you don't want coated, or mask them with newspaper.
CAUTION: Rags and steel wool saturated with Danish oil can spontaneously combust if left bunched up. Dry them outdoors, spread out loosely, when the oil has dried, you can safely throw the rags and steel wool in the trash.