How To: Clean velveteen or velvet furniture

May 2, 2012

Q. I have had two velveteen high-back chairs for about 20 years. They are in very good condition, but the fabric needs to be cleaned. If I can do this at home, I’d rather not have them cleaned professionally. What kind of solution or upholstery cleaner can I use?

A. Modern velveteen, which is normally made of synthetic fibers, can usually be cleaned successfully at home, says Andrew Harvell, owner of Dural-Clean Fabric Specialists in Washington.

But he recommends against home cleaning of actual velvet, which is made of cotton, wool, silk or a combination of those natural fibers. Cotton velvet is especially problematic. “It will kink up like a wet cat,” Harvell says, with the authority of someone who’s about to begin his 52nd year in the fabric-cleaning business.

Assuming you’re dealing with synthetic fibers, he recommends that you start by thoroughly vacuuming the chairs. Prepare a cleaning solution of lukewarm water with a little clear dish soap or upholstery cleaner. Working on one chair at a time, lightly mist the upholstery. “But don’t overdo it,” Harvell says. “That’s the most important thing.” Rub the fabric with a Turkish towel, a fairly coarse type. The tufts act as soft, miniature scrub brushes, helping to lift grime from the upholstery and transfer it to the towel. Rub; do not blot, because blotting can matt the velveteen, Harvell says.

To rinse out the soap residue, he recommends rinsing out the towel and then dipping it into a bucketful of clear water mixed with a capful of white vinegar. Wring out the towel, then use it to wipe off the upholstery. If the velveteen appears matted, brush it lightly with a very soft brush, like one for a baby’s hair. If the fabric dries before you brush it, dampen the fibers and then brush.

“It’s like hair,” Harvell says. “Once it gets wet and dries, that’s where it stays. But if you wet it again, you can move it around.”

If you’re unsure of the fabric type or decide that you’d rather get a professional cleaning, the cost depends on how complex the chairs are. Harvell (202-581-3800, www.duralcleanfabric
specialists.com
) charges an $85 minimum for calls in Washington and can usually clean two simple chairs in the time that fee covers. If the chairs are fancier and have removable cushions, the price is usually $110 ($55 per chair). Professionals use water-based cleaners when the fabric allows but can also turn to solvent cleaners when necessary.

Lots of vintage and antique furniture has lead paint or glaze. I’ve heard it can be stripped. Is that a big undertaking?

Yes, furniture finishes that contain lead can be stripped, and stripping can be a big undertaking.

Before you start, consider whether it’s worth the effort. Stripping a valuable antique reduces its value, so be especially cautious if you have a piece of this caliber. If your furniture is merely vintage and has ugly paint, you’re probably better off simply repainting. It’s faster, cheaper and safer, because there’s no need for harsh chemicals and no risk of creating lead dust.

If the piece has flaking paint, though, you need to strip the old finish before you can repaint.

Stripping is also the only way to go if you want to create a clear finish on a piece that’s now painted. But test the stripper on a small area before you commit to this switch. If the paint comes off relatively easily and cleanly, the piece probably had a clear finish to begin with, and you will probably have good luck stripping and refinishing. But if you find that the bottom layer of paint stuck in the wood pores, the piece probably was painted from the beginning and isn’t a good candidate for a clear finish. The wood parts are likely to look mismatched, because the builder assumed they would be covered by paint.

If you do strip, read and follow instructions for dealing with lead-based paint. The Environmental Protection Agency offers advice tailored to homeowners at www.epa.gov/lead (click on “Do-it-yourselfers”).

When you’re done, bundle up the residue and dispose of it as household hazardous waste. If you live in the District, you can take the waste to the Fort Totten Transfer Station (4900 John F. McCormack Rd. NE) on the first Saturday of each month from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Drop-offs are also allowed on the preceding Thursdays, 1 to 5 p.m. It’s closed on holidays.

Have a problem in your home? Send questions to localliving@washpost.com . Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.

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