News & Politics

2005 Guide to Home Repair: Cleaning

Cleaning a favorite vase or quilt sometimes does more harm than good. Here's the right way to care for your things.

Wear, tear, and the passage of time can damage treasured possessions. But experts say owners do even more harm through improper storage and cleaning.

"I remember seeing an article in the paper about cleaning a painting with olive oil and bread," says Alexandra Tice, a painting conservator in Chevy Chase. Such suggestions make conservators shudder.

When caring for valuables, less is more. Never spray or rub cleaning or polishing products directly onto a piece. Instead, put a small amount on a soft rag. Some items, such as paintings, antique furniture, and gilded frames, can't handle any cleaning agents. Dust them gently with a soft makeup brush. If the surface is flaking or cracking, don't touch it; take it to a professional.

Store valuables in the main living area of your home instead of the basement, garage, or attic, where temperature and humidity levels are more extreme and can cause damage. Also watch out for direct light, which fades paint, dye, wood, and wood finishes.

Brown paper, canvas, and cotton pillowcases are good for storage because they breathe and are nonacidic. Avoid plastic; it traps moisture, creating a greenhouse effect that can damage just about anything, from quilts to silver to wicker furniture.

Want more advice from experts on how to keep antiques and other items in good shape? Contact the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works (202-452-9545; or the Washington Conservation Guild (


Just like cars, clocks last longer if you oil them. Have them serviced–which entails cleaning and oiling the clock's inner workings–every two to three years.


Wash by hand. Repair shops say they get lots of business because of dishwashers. Don't leave standing water in crystal vases longer than necessary–water can etch crystal.


Avoid cleaning products that contain ammonia; over time, the chemical damages the silver in mirrors.

Paintings and Photographs

Try not to hang in direct sunlight or close to heat or air-conditioning vents. If possible, avoid placing valuable works above fireplaces or on perimeter walls, where the temperature fluctuates more than on interior walls.

When storing, choose an acid-free container. Conservation Resources International (703-321-7730; in Springfield offers a catalog of archival supplies.


Wash by hand using a mild detergent designed for quilts, which you can find at most fabric stores. (Treasure Wash from Cottage Mills is a good one.) After washing, put the quilt in the dryer on a medium setting just long enough to become warm and hang it to dry inside the house. To remove dust, put quilts in the dryer on a cool setting for five to ten minutes.


Vacuum often; dirt can damage rug fibers. Rotate every couple of months so that the rug will fade evenly. Don't place potted plants on rugs; the water can seep through and cause rotting. To store a rug, roll from one side of fringe to the other and wrap it in acid-free brown paper.


Silver experts say use your silver often and keep it clean. "If you wash it with dish soap and water and dry it, it never tarnishes," says Beverle Sweitzer of Abercrombie & Co. Silverplaters in Silver Spring.

Pacific cloth, a fabric that contains tiny bits of silver, is great for preventing tarnish. But commercial storage bags made of Pacific cloth can be pricey. To save money, buy the cloth by the yard at a fabric store and wrap it around your silver. Pacific cloth lasts forever as long as you don't wash it.

Wood Floors

To protect hardwood floors, put felt pads on the bottom of furniture legs. Vacuum or sweep floors often; dirt can damage finishes. Oil-based cleaning products like Murphy Oil Soap can leave a residue that attracts more dirt. Instead, try the water-based cleaner from Bonakemi (, which works well on a dry mop.