Hereís a quick tip to help you find out. Take a cotton ball and moisten it with some nail polish remover. Place it on the furniture and leave it for just a few seconds. If the cotton ball sticks on the furniture that means the finish is varnish, lacquer, or shellac and you should use furniture refinisher. If it does not stick, then you need to use paint remover.
Test for an oil finish by rubbing a few drop of boiled linseed oil into the wood. If it absorbs, the wood has an oil finish. If it beads up, the wood has a hard finish.
Once you determine what to use you can go on to create the ideal project for your home. And remember any time you are working with harsh chemicals itís a good idea to where gloves to protect your hands and safety goggles.
The type of finish on the wood, not the type of wood, determines how to care for it, clean it, and repair damage; so know what kind of finish with which you will be working.
Here is some additional information you can use from the Michigan State University Extension on caring for wood in your home.
After you have decided which finish is on your wood furniture, follow the appropriate procedures.
Excessive dampness, dryness, heat, or cold can damage wood furniture. Sunlight can change the color. Rubber or plastic mats should not be used unless marked safe for wood, since some may soften or stain the finish. Wipe up spills at once to prevent spots that require refinishing.
Polish occasionally, not more than 3-4 times a year unless it gets heavy use, with a polish recommended for the kind of finish. Too much polish may build up a cloudy film; wipe off polish before it dries completely.
Do not mix types of polish. Oil causes wax to become gummy. Clean the furniture surface thoroughly before changing furniture care products.
Regular Cleaning: Vacuum and/or dust with a soft, dry cloth; do not use oiled or treated cloth.
Special Cleaning: Protect finish with a liquid furniture wax or cream polish that gives the desired gloss. If dirty, clean with either a cleaning/polishing wax for furniture. Following the directions on the label for cleaning; or use a solution of equal parts of boiled linseed oil and mineral spirits. Moisten a soft cloth with cleaner and rub briskly, changing cloth when soiled. If surface is very dirty, process may have to be repeated. Use 3/0 or 4/0 steel wool to remove stubborn soil and smooth roughened places. If finish is in poor condition, use denatured alcohol to remove, and refinish with modern finish.
CAUTION: When using mineral spirits or other solvents, follow all label directions and warnings. They are flammable, so don't use near flame or spark or pilot light, and donít smoke.
Wear rubber gloves to protect your hands, and dispose of them afterward or wash with hot suds and let them air dry thoroughly before storing. Work in well-ventilated room and avoid breathing fumes. Air-dry cloths used to evaporate solvent before disposing.
Wood Furniture-Finish Repairs
Most oil-rubbed or penetrating seal finishes can be easily repaired. Touch up jobs on varnished; lacquered or painted surfaces are likely to appear patched. A professional should repair extensive damage in these finishes.
If spot removal changes the luster of a finish, rub the entire surface with a mixture of pumice or rottenstone mixed with boiled linseed oil. Rottenstone is finer and will give a higher polish. Always rub in the direction of the wood grain. Use the palm of your hand or a soft cloth. If mixture becomes sticky, add a few drops of mineral spirits. Finish by wiping off the mixture and buffing with a clean cloth. Oil should be almost completely buffed off. If wax desired, wait for 48 hours.
Wood, Modern Lacquer Finish--Care and Cleaning
Lacquer is hard and glossy but may be dented or chipped so avoid hard blows. Avoid use of water unless furniture label recommends it. Much new furniture has a durable lacquer finish. Older lacquered pieces or imported items may have finishes affected by some solvents, so test products first on an inconspicuous place.
Vacuum and/or dust with a soft, dry cloth; do not use oiled or treated cloths on waxed finishes. Some finishes can be wiped with a damp (not wet) cloth, followed at once by rubbing with a dry cloth, (test first in inconspicuous spot) to remove fingerprints and smudges. A solvent-based furniture cleaner can be used on most finishes (test first).
Use solvent-base furniture cleaner. Apply with soft cloth in one hand, and wipe at once with soft cloth in other hand, doing only a small area at a time. An oil soap may be satisfactory on some finishes but test first in an inconspicuous spot to be sure it is OK with finish.
Protect with liquid wax or polish to maintain gloss.
Resin Lacquer Protection:
3-M has introduced a "Scotchgard" wood protection which is synthetic resin looking much like a traditional lacquer finish. But it is claimed to resist stains, chips, scratches, heat; spots or rings from water- alcohol, and oil-based liquids, and damage from solvent- based products such as nail polish and polish remover. It can be cleaned with soap and water, and a damp cloth.
Waxing is not needed but can be used. It is claimed to not wear off during the life of the furniture under normal use. Currently it is first being used on dining table tops.