How to Clean Sticky Wood Furniture

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Here’s how you can naturally remove wax buildup and get your sticky wood furniture clean again.

Closeup of wood swivel task chair in a home office

If you’ve ever had to peel your arms from the dining table, you may have wondered how to clean sticky wood furniture. It’s such an unpleasant sensation, and simple soap and water do nothing to remove it. Why did it get sticky in the first place? The culprit is wax buildup from spray polish.

Why Wood Furniture Gets Sticky

We all love it when wood tables and chairs gleam like they’ve just been polished. Unfortunately, the very same commercial sprays we use to create that beautiful shine also lead to sticky residue on wood furniture. Why? Because commercial sprays contain silicone, a substance that creates a smooth, reflective surface.

But, over time, the layers of silicone trap humidity and moisture between them. This prevents the layers from adhering to each other so they don’t harden. Instead, they leave a sticky residue on wood furniture. Eventually, the buildup makes your table and other furnishings look dull and dirty even when you’ve just cleaned them.

If you want to get rid of the sticky feel on your wood furniture, you need to remove the wax buildup. Now, that doesn’t mean you’ve got to scrub as your grandmother did. These days, few people use the heavy furniture wax favored by past generations. Modern commercial furniture polish may attract dust, and it may turn your furniture cloudy and sticky, but it’s easy to remove.

Tips About Removing Sticky Wax Buildup

Dust first. Use a damp microfiber cloth to dust your furniture before using one of the wax remover methods below.

Use a toothbrush in crevices. To remove wax buildup in wood furniture’s crevices, dip a soft toothbrush in the cleaning solution, scrub, rinse immediately, and buff dry.

Let it dry, then repeat if needed. You’ll know you’ve removed all of the sticky residue and wax build-up when you can slide your hand against the grain of the wood and feel the wood’s grain, not the wax.

How To Remove Sticky Wax Buildup From Furniture

Here are two ways to quickly and inexpensively remove the sticky wax buildup from wood furniture. Use caution and test the solution in an inconspicuous spot first. For antiques, it’s best to see a professional.

Wax Build-Up Remover For Light Wood

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup warm distilled white vinegar
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 1-2 drops liquid dish detergent

Directions

  1. Add the ingredients to a spray bottle and lightly swirl to combine.
  2. Spray lightly on the surface to be cleaned. Then, using a soft cloth, rub in the direction of the wood grain. Rotate the material often, so you’re always working with a clean spot.
  3. Follow with a clean, damp cloth to rinse then buff the surface dry.

Wax Build-Up Remover For Dark Wood

The method above works for dark wood, but using the method below will help bring out the wood’s grain and preserve its color.

Ingredients

  • 3 black tea bags
  • 1 cup hot water

Directions

  1. Steep the black tea bags in the water for ten minutes. Remove bags and allow the liquid to cool.
  2. Use a clean, lint-free cloth to apply to furniture following the grain of the wood. Rub well. Then use a second cloth dipped in the tea and go across the grain.
  3. Wipe off with a damp cloth and buff dry, then apply a homemade furniture polish.

Still Feel Sticky Wax Buildup?

In humid areas, or if you have several layers of wax buildup, you may need to repeat the process a couple of times to remove all of the layers.

But, if you’ve repeated the process a couple of times and still feel like there’s a waxy buildup making your wood furniture sticky, try wiping it along the grain with mineral spirits and a soft cloth. Once you’ve gone over a section with the mineral spirits, follow with a clean, damp cloth and buff dry. You can pick up mineral spirits at most hardware stores or find it online. Since this is a solvent, it’s only for use on sticky unpainted wood furniture and should be used outdoors.

Where to Next?

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58 Comments

  1. Ernie McQuillan says:

    Sorry for being stupid,but is it safe to assume you mean white vinegar, also my table is oak,any other ideas?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Yes, I mean white vinegar. 🙂

  2. darlene lesch says:

    my grandson put hot plate on wood table, resulting in white spot on wood, i assume its melted wax buildup-how do i get rid of white spot

    1. Katie Berry says:

      It’s probably trapped condensation from the heat of the plate. Try rubbing oil or even mayonnaise into the area and covering it with plastic wrap overnight. The next day, wipe away the oil/mayo and it should look like new.

    2. Put a wet towel over it and iron it. It works amazingly very old tiny trick

  3. Thinking about purchasing a wooden table that has been used. It is dark wood and she has been waxing it. Is it hard to remove or should I not get the table

    1. Katie Berry says:

      It’s not too hard. You can always sand it, too.

  4. Mary Faux says:

    Tried the black tea to remove old buildup on a hutch. Really turned out great! Now going to try the homemade furniture polish

  5. I have floor wax stains on my dark furniture. Should I use the black tea method on it and if not what should I use.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m a bit confused. Did you try polishing furniture with floor wax? Unfortunately, if that’s the case, there’s no easy way to remove it. Household ammonia will strip that wax, but it smells horrible and you need to take serious precautions to protect your skin. You also need excellent ventilation, because ammonia will irritate your lungs and eyes.

  6. Sandra Brown says:

    I have a lovely polished wood table that came from South America ( Louie Phillippe table by Willis and Gambia. We’ve had the table for about 15years and was told not to polish it. I had forgotten this comment and remembered being given a lot of tins of furniture beeswax which I had never used and stupidly decided to give my beautiful table a polish with it. Well all I can say is the table looks patchy, cloudy, and scratched but it isn’t really scratched but badly marked.
    I’m actually quite upset about it as I’ve really looked after this table and other furniture that we have as you can imagine ,and really don’t know what to do.
    To have a French polisher look at it and try to sort it would be about £500-600 pounds which I just cannot afford.
    The shop that actually sells the same table but in a different wood suggested I use methylated spirits on a soft cloth working the way of the grain to get rid of the cloudy ness, which I have done and although it has improved it it still looks marked.
    Can any of your remedies work safely for me to try?
    I look forward to hearing from you
    Many thanks Sandra Brown

    1. Katie Berry says:

      With furniture of that quality and price, I’d recommend talking to a professional.

  7. Ian JAMES says:

    Cleaning a waxed pine table with cold left over black tea from the teapot … genius. First with the grain … then across it … so easy and time saving. Thanks for that tip !

  8. Hi,
    I have furniture I purchased in Korea in the late 90s It has a high gloss finish which has been polished. This now shows fingerprints and smudges. Do I clean it the way you suggest here? I just want to remove the layer which shows the smudging.. and leave the gloss finish underneath.

    Thanks,
    Sus
    E

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Sue,
      That kind of lacquered surface should come clean with a warm cloth in soapy water followed by buffing dry with a lint-free cloth.

  9. I set a bottle of floor cleaner/wax on a table while cleaning my floors and now there is a ring the shape of the bottle, how can I remove it? Thank you in advance.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi William,
      I’d try applying warm vinegar to the area and rubbing it well with a microfiber cloth to lift up the wax. Change the cloth and repeat as needed.

  10. I used the teabag treatment on my 50s sideboard/dresser and it has removed the old polish, it looked SO much better when I left 3 hours ago BUT I just came home and there are some black marks (along the grain of the wood) in a central panel of the wood top. It also looks a bit dry around the whole srupfacecthat I treated with the teabag water earlier.
    Im not sure how to deal with the situation.
    Many thanks,
    Mairi

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Mairi,
      I’d go over it again with a lightly damp microfiber cloth to make sure you’ve got up all of the tea and any old residue, then moisturize it with a homemade furniture polish.

  11. Hi, I have just purchased some secondhand walnut veneered bedroom furniture. It wasn’t until I got home, I realised that the person before had used wax on the veneer and it feels tacky and in the light looks awful. How can I remove the wax and get the veneer back to its original finish? I have tried white vinegar with water and also washing up liquid but I’m really struggling as the wax is very thick in places.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Spencer,
      Are you using a microfiber cloth while cleaning it? The fibers can help lift away the grime without damaging the veneer. Sorry that I don’t have any other solutions off the top of my head.

    2. Cathy A Evans says:

      Would this work on a painted wood table?

    3. Katie Berry says:

      No, to clean a sticky painted table just spray it with equal parts warm water and white vinegar plus a couple of drops of liquid dish soap mixed in. Rinse it with a microfiber cloth dampened in plain water then buff it dry. Wait an hour or two and repeat if it’s still sticky. Be sure you don’t drench it at any point, or you may damage the paint.

  12. Hello, I bought a Beautiful used couch that was just reupholstered that has gorgeous wood arms on it. I’ve been trying your recipe to take off the wax build up that’s been there for years and iI’m not sure it’s working. Can you tell me what the difference is between pulling off the years of wax build up and the disintegrating topcoat would be? As I’m rubbing, there is a cloudy film and sometimes a layer starts to roll up a peel away.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      When the surface feels smooth and not gummy, you’ve removed the wax.

  13. Rita Hutchinson says:

    Which is the best to use on mahogany table tea bag or the vinegar method ,after cleaning can you polish it with beeswax thank you

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Rita,
      I’d use the tea method. If you want to apply beeswax afterward, I don’t know any reason why you couldn’t. But you may need to do this again in the future because even beeswax builds up over time.

  14. I have a dark hammered wood table. Will the tea treatment cause any discoloration to the table? Thanks!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      It will color the scratch to whatever color the tea is. For darker wood, use a strong brew. If you’re concerned at all, though, you might want to use a scratch-filling wax that matches the table. They’re available in many hardware stores like Home Depot. Here are some on Amazon if you’d prefer ordering online.

  15. Katie Berry says:

    Hi Marianne,

    The stickiness is loosened buildup. I’d keep at it until it feels smooth again.

    Best,
    Katie

  16. Arnold Montenegro says:

    We have a Teak dining room table which method would be better? Not knowing if teak is considered light or dark wood.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Since I can’t see the tone of your teak dining table, I’d recommend choosing the method that’s closest in color to what you have.

  17. Don McKinley says:

    I have a restored 130 year old buggy. In the past 10years it has been gone over yearly with furniture polish. The shiny black paint on spokes and wooden body look dull. How do I bring back the original shine of the paint?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      With antique items, I recommend contacting a professional restoration service.

  18. Rob Lawrence says:

    Hi katie. I have a very large Oak table and over the years has water Mark’s.I want to strip and get the color all the same.Should j use tea method or what. Rob.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      If you’re stripping the table, you’ll get rid of the watermarks in the process, so I would skip these steps.

  19. can i use apple cider vinegar?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Yes, ACV also works to remove sticky wax from furniture.

  20. My old ercol Windsor furniture has been polished with an orangey coloured beeswax polish which I’m rather unhappy with. I wanted it to look paler. Is there any way I can rectify this?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      This method works to remove wax and furniture polish. If that’s what has caused the orange tinge, it should help — though I recommend consulting professionals for antique restoration. If varnish or stain is the cause of the orange tinge, this will not help.

  21. My daughter used a whole can of spray furniture polish on my piano. The lovely black shiny surface is now smeary, sticky and dull. What can I do? Please Help!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m so sorry that happened — what a mess! I’d use a soft cloth and soapy water made using a liquid dish detergent with good degreasing power. Wring out the cloth well then wipe a small section of the surface and then immediately buff it dry with a soft, lint-free cloth. Repeat until you’ve gone over the whole piano then wait. Repeat if needed.

  22. We have a very large solid cherry wood kitchen table that we have used daily for more than 26 years. We’ve always protected it from stains, burns and water rings. We’ve used place mats and table cloths and I make sure to wipe it after each meal and dry the surface. It has always remained smooth and never sticky. I’ve noticed that it is starting to show it’s age with small scratches (some are lighter) and small dents (those are darker) just from having stuff sat on, and slide across the table over the years. I would like to give the table a good “cleaning” and apply something to “protect” it, but I don’t want anything like a varnish or anything that is going to get sticky, hazy or gummy. I’m also not looking to do any sanding to anything drastic like that. I’ve seen stuff like beeswax (terrifies me), and I’ve also read not to use anything with silicone but to use carnauba instead? I’m so confused. I’m not afraid of using elbow grease but I need direction. Any suggestions?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Karen,
      The steps I’ve described in this article are for the kind of cleaning you’ve described. If you want to polish and moisturize the table after you’ve cleaned it, try my homemade furniture polish.

  23. Hi Katie,

    I have a big desk that I think is wax finished originally. I’ve cleaned it over time with Scott’s from time to time but it seems to sit on top and not seep in. Today I spilled a huge mug of hot coffee on the desk and when I blotted it up it all left whitish stains. I tried to clean that up and it pilled up onto the paper towels. I then tried Scott’s on it but it does nothing. What should I do? I don’t want to have to re do the entire surface of the desk, just this one main area. Help!

    Shari

    1. Katie Berry says:

      The whitish marks may fade in a day or two. If they don’t, then you can try these steps to remove water stains from wood. And you’re absolutely right that if there’s a heavy wax buildup, Scotts can’t sink in.

  24. Hi again Katie,

    I forgot to ask in my last comment, the desk is darker wood, but if water and liquids caused this problem, why would the tea water help? Does the tannin in the tea cut through the crud?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Yes, the tannin in the tea cuts through the stickiness. Since you’re not letting it just sit there like a puddle, it won’t cause a haze.

  25. Ms. Margo says:

    My Husband vapes (tobacco) on the couch and we had built up a sticky residue on the light wood couch frame. This method took it back to smooth with just a few minutes of work. I recommend it!

    Note that there are other websites that have copied this page, but have the light and dark wood backwards. Don’t do the tea bags on light wood!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m so glad you found my page and didn’t make what could’ve been a big mistake using the wrong method. 🙂

  26. Fiona Neil says:

    We have been sanitising our oak church benches with a wood safe product after each service. Now people are sticking to the seats. Have you any suggestions for the safe removal of residue. Thanks

    1. Katie Berry says:

      My guess is that the sanitizing product contained isopropyl, which can soften and erode varnish over time if it’s not properly diluted and buffered. If that’s the case then, unfortunately, I don’t know of any solution besides stripping and revarnishing them. Before you do that, I’d recommend contacting a local professional carpenter or woodworker. They’d be able to look at the exact problem and provide a more definite answer.

  27. Camille Rowe says:

    You described my table perfectly! My arms stick to the table and make marks that do not come up after trying to cleaning it, and I can’t put warm plates on it without having them leave white marks. I have had my table for about 7 years, and it seems like it has been a problem the whole time. I am tired of babysitting my table and excited to try this method for removing the wax. Once I try to remove the wax, can I apply a different finish, such as a polyurethane to make my table more durable to everyday wear with kids?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Once the waxy buildup from furniture polish is gone, you can refinish it however you want.

  28. Maureen challener says:

    I brought a oak kitchen table that needed to be waxed I applied the wax polish provided from the company but it don’t look even now it leavesfinger marks on table what’s best to clean help?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I really can’t answer that, since every wax formulation is different. I recommend contacting the company for their advice.

  29. I have two Ethan Allen mission style chairs about 9 years old. Never polished the wood. The arms are getting sticky and if you rub wood, a super thin film balls up under microfiber or hand. Any idea why they got sticky and how to fix the problem?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Over the years, you can also get the same effect from body oils from skin coming into contact with the wood arms. Try the tea method.

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