How to Clean Sticky Wood

Benna Crawford

A big part of the appeal of wood is tactile -- but not if it's sticky. When gunk coats the grain, be smart about restoring the wood's satiny gleam.

Wood is luxurious, rich, warm, and beautiful -- except when normal wear, long neglect or jelly-smeared kids leave it tacky, gummy and sticky. The dining room chairs, the kitchen island counter and cabinets, those charming monkey wood salad bowls and plates, the chair rail and the windowsill need some emergency TLC to get the stickies off. But don't rush in to do battle with a sponge and a spray bottle until you determine what's under the tacky film covering your maple, oak and pine.

Fragile Finishes

For most wood, your cleaning efforts work on the finish, not the bare wood. You need to know what that finish is so you don't accidentally strip it, soften it or create some ugly film. A mystery finish may yield its clues to the linseed oil test. Rub a couple of drops of boiled linseed oil on the underside or unseen section of the wood, which will absorb the oil if the finish is also oil-based. If the linseed oil beads on the surface, test the inconspicuous spot with a clean rag soaked in acetone. Rub the spot gently to determine if the finish is lacquer -- dissolves in about 30 seconds; varnish or shellac -- gets gel-like and sticky in a couple of minutes; or polyurethane -- no effect.

Tough Enough Cleaners

Mild Detergent

Start small to apply the least disruptive cleaning treatment to the sticky wood. Whip up some mild liquid detergent in warm water, apply just the soap foam to the sticky spot with a soft cloth and wipe the goo away. If that doesn't do it, dip the cloth in the liquid, wring it out until it is just damp and rub at the spot. "Rinse" away the soap with a new clean rag dampened with plain water and dry the area with a soft, lint-free cloth.

Citrus Cleaners

Citrus cleaners remove stickiness from painted wood safely, leaving the paint or the design intact. A chemical called limonene in the citrus is a solvent that works in the cleaner formula to break apart the tackiness so the mild detergent can wash it away. Try placing an orange peel directly on a dried sticky soda mark for 10 minutes or so; then wash the softened spot gently with liquid dishwashing or household detergent to restore the smooth, non-sticky finish.

Baking Soda

Sticky surfaces on wood cooking and baking utensils -- rolling pins, salad bowls and cutting boards -- disappear when you sprinkle baking soda on the wood and rub it with a damp sponge. The water on the sponge makes a paste of the baking soda which gently loosens sticky resides.

The Big Guns

Wax Build-up

Wax build-up is not your friend. It dulls your fine furniture and creates a sticky film over the wood. Remove sticky wax build-up with a soft lint-free cloth dipped in mineral spirits or a cleanser-conditioner specially formulated to dissolve the wax -- not the furniture finish. Always test the product on an inconspicuous spot to avoid calamity. And work with the minimal amount of cleaner on the cloth, refolding it to a new spot frequently so you're not just spreading around the dissolved wax.

Kitchen Grease

When kitchen cabinets are coated with a sticky greasy film, break out the oil soap or degreasers to cut through it. Murphy's Oil Soap and Pine-Sol (both need to be diluted) work well on grease film. A mixture of trisodium phosphate cleaner (TSP) and water will take care of grease buildup and most other stickiness without damaging finishes or wood -- but always test it on your wood just for your own peace of mind. Try a degreasing dishwashing liquid formulated to cut oils and grease without killing your hands. Blue Dawn dishwashing liquid is used to remove tar and grease from marine animals and birds after oil spills without harming the wildlife. It might work its magic in your kitchen.