Depending on the state of deterioration, there are several options for rejuvenating a dull wood-finish. For a dry finish, but one that hasn't suffered severe damage, try applying a coat of ordinary paste wax.
Apply paste wax with a soft cloth (Image 1) and rub it into the pores of the wood using a tight, circular motion. Paste wax is easy to apply, and is an effective treatment since it can be worked deep into the wood. Once it penetrates the wood, it hardens to form a protective seal much like an automotive wax.
After applying the wax and rubbing it into the wood, allow it to begin to dry. After about five minutes, use a clean, dry rag to buff the finish. Buff in the direction of the grain (Image 2) to remove excess wax and create a low-luster sheen. This results in a subtle finish that is appropriate for an antique -- rather than a shiny, high-gloss.
For a more advanced level of deterioration in which the finish is very dry and lifeless, paste wax may not be sufficient to bring the wood back to life. In those cases, tung oil may be a better choice. Tung oil is a thin-bodied oil (Image 1) that soaks well into the grain of wood.
Make sure that you have adequate ventilation when using tung oil or other oil-based finishes. Tung oil best applied with a clean rag or applicator. As the oil is rubbed into the surface (Image 2), it immediately clings to the wood and soaks well into the pores.
An applicator pad can also be used to apply tung oil. Simply dip it in the oil, squeeze out the excess, and apply the oil to the wood (Image 3). Tung oil is very easy to control, but the job can get a little messy so confine this process to a work area, or put down newspaper or other protective layering for easy cleanup.
Allow the tung oil to soak into the wood for about five minutes before wiping off the excess with a clean rag. Allowing time for the oil to soak in for a few minutes ensures adequate penetration and hardening inside the pores. Avoid letting the oil puddle and dry completely on the wood surface, however, as this will result in a sticky mess.
In the case of authentic antiques, it's always preferable to avoid removing or destroying the original finish. However, if the piece you're restoring has a finish that's been severely damaged -- to the point that it has actually become rough and dry -- there's a fairly dramatic measure that might be taken.
To smooth the rough surface without destroying the original finish, consider using extremely fine sandpaper in conjunction with lemon oil. In our demonstration, 600-grit sandpaper was used. Since even a grit this fine can scratch the finish, it was used in conjunction with some ordinary lemon oil. Apply lemon oil to the sandpaper (Image 1) as well as to the finish itself. The objective is to avoid sanding away wood, but to remove some of the dead finish.
Once the oil is has been applied, use the lubricated sandpaper to gently sand the top layer of finish (Image 2). This technique should result in a finish that's very smooth, and which brings life back to the aged wood.
Since the lemon oil simply acts as a lubricant, wipe it away with a clean rag once you're done sanding (Image 3). If done properly, this is a safe technique for restoring a badly damaged antique finish while helping to rejuvenate the wood.