before and after

Before & After: Building Your Cleaning Arsenal

by Daniel Kanter

To continue with our New Year, New Start theme, I invited my furniture makeover guru, Daniel from Manhattan Nest, to join us. Daniel is my go-to guy for home renovation and furniture salvaging advice and knows more than anyone about how to turn something scary into something absolutely loveable. He’ll be joining us all this month with makeover basics, so please help me in welcoming him! xo, grace

Several years ago, when faced with the prospect of moving into my first dorm room and entering my freshman year of college, I began to gather what I saw as my survival kit for cohabiting with a bunch of 17-year-olds. While I was vaguely aware that other prospective students would be busy sourcing the ideal lava lamp or that one ultra-hippie-psychedelic wall tapestry that would just scream I’m so cool and relaxed please be my friend OMG I’m so lonely, I set my sights on grander visions for my future and created two carefully labeled boxes: one for tools and the other for cleaning supplies.

If memory serves, I had already scoured our shared bathroom with a toothbrush and vacuumed the floors before my roommate and I ever had our first (and, as it turned out, last) real conversation. Conveniently, on nights before exams and big papers were due, my windows were somehow always filthy, and the wood laminate furniture really needed a good scrub. Finals week? My goodness, this grout sure is yellow! And so on.

Not only did cleaning become a (somewhat) healthy and (somewhat) useful way of diverting and reducing stress, it also became my most prized social strategy. Which is to say, my only social strategy. Being the only one out of 40 people with a vacuum cleaner meant that my peers started to get mighty friendly really fast. Soon they were even texting me in the middle of the night to ask how to clean their radiators or what to do about a Jägermeister stain on their shag rug! Talk about clout.

They say that in college, you find out what kind of person you are. For me, this has always translated into gaining membership to one of two distinct social groups: the slobs and the not-slobs. And when the slow build-up of dust, dirt, grime, trash and rot overwhelmed the rooms of the slobs, the not-slobs’ rooms became ultimate hang-out zones. I won’t say that jocks complimenting me on my pristine bathroom was the apex of my college experience, but I won’t not say it either.

But wherever you happen to be in life, the same rules still hold: People are just happier in a clean space, and you’re probably happier living in one. While there are many cheap and easy things you can do to enhance a space (paint! hang art! cover it in glitter!), cleaning it is always going to be the cheapest and easiest and will have the biggest impact. For the next few weeks on Design*Sponge, I’ll be showing you products, potions, strategies and projects you can do to make your place a bit cleaner and keep it that way. — Daniel

Continue after the jump for Daniel’s list of must-have cleaning supplies . . .

Assembling a cleaning toolkit seems like a natural place to begin this column. Just like any DIY, you’re going to need the right tools and supplies. But with all the different products on the market nowadays, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by options or end up with your cabinets packed full of specialty cleaning items that you don’t even use frequently enough to warrant their storage.

While there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with specialty cleaning products, I find that many of them tend to be overkill most of the time. The chemicals can be overly harsh, which in the long term can be bad for your health and too hard on the very surfaces and materials you’re trying to maintain. They tend to work quickly, yes, but it’s difficult to say what the environmental or personal impact of these products is (and their mysterious, often undisclosed ingredients), not to mention the monetary cost of buying them.

What I’m really trying to say is: I’m cheap. I like to get my cleaning products at the dollar store (everything in the photo above was about $10), and I like knowing what’s in them since I’m spraying them all over my house. While these homemade concoctions lack the fragrances and perfumes of most commercial cleaning products, I don’t mind going (mostly) scent-free. My main girl Martha (Stewart) says it best in her Homekeeping Handbook: “Nothing indicates a clean house more than a complete absence of odor other than fresh flowers or food cooking.” And she knows a thing or two.

The staples of a good cleaning toolkit, for me, are as follows:

1. A few empty spray bottles for mixing your own cleaners.

2. White vinegar is great for deodorizing and disinfecting, and its acidity means it’s good for breaking down calcium in tubs and other inorganic compounds around the house. Need to clean glass or wood floors? One part water, one part white vinegar. Done. Vinegar smells, well, like vinegar when it’s wet, but the scent quickly dissipates when it dries.

3. Baking soda is a very gentle but powerful abrasive, and it’s good at cutting through grease, so it’s a great option for cleaning pots and pans, ovens and stovetops. It’s also safer and cheaper than commercial cleaners. To scrub away messes in the kitchen, mix one part baking soda with three parts warm water and get to work. Place a box of it in your fridge to keep food odors at bay.

4. Dish soap is great when diluted in water as an all-purpose cleaner or mixed with baking soda into a paste to scrub things in the bathroom, like grout. For an all-purpose cleaner, mix two tablespoons dish soap with two cups of water. Just remember to wipe everything down with water to avoid leaving a soapy residue.

5. Lemon juice has mild bleaching properties, naturally deodorizes and disinfects and is great to mix with a vinegar solution for bathroom and kitchen cleaning. It smells fresh, too!

6. Rubber gloves. Your hands will thank me later. If you’re at the dollar store already, get fancy and spring for the $1.49 gloves that are made of thicker rubber and extend further up your forearm. That’s class.

7. A toothbrush. Toothbrushes are essential for cleaning hard-to-reach areas like corners, around faucets, the edge of a kitchen sink, grout lines, the base of your toilet . . . the possibilities are endless!

8. Sponges with a soft and rough side (much like your personality) are helpful when scrubbing stuff with natural cleaners. Low-tech cleaning products do take a bit more elbow grease, but you can usually make up for that with a little light scrubbing.

9. A lint-free cloth is good for cleaning almost anything, including glass and acrylic, and wiping down countertops.

10. Paper towels. Yeah, I know they’re wasteful, but sometimes you need to be able to throw it away and be done with it. You’ll know when the occasion to use a paper towel arises because the mess will rank high on the grossness scale. I favor brands like Bounty, which make thicker, higher-quality towels that don’t fall apart when wet.

While the basic cleaning toolkit is enough to get you through most day-to-day cleaning hurdles (think of them as *opportunities*), sometimes you need to go to that murky territory between cleaning and restoration. Maybe you need to refresh a piece of vintage wood furniture or just really clean something you’ve owned for a while. Here are some good things to have on hand:

1. Murphy Oil Soap is a mild detergent used for cleaning wood. It’s highly concentrated, so you only need a little bit to go a long way to clean wood furniture and floors. I don’t use it all the time, but it’s helpful when you have to cut through old furniture polish, waxes or other such grime.

2. If wood has not been treated with varnish or polyurethane, look for a wood oil to help protect the wood and seal it from moisture and sun damage. Once the surface is clean, wipe on oil, let it stand for about 15 minutes and wipe off excess.

3. Howard’s Feed-N-Wax is my favorite wood polish. It’s great to use after a wood oil treatment (like Danish oil), or just to periodically buff up your wood furniture after cleaning. It smells good, too.

When dealing with metals, sometimes you need to bring in the heavy hitters to cut through serious grime, tarnish or even paint.

1. Get a big, cheap pot that you don’t mind throwing away if you need to remove paint from hardware. This one was $4.99 from a thrift store and will work great. (We’ll talk all about this in another post!)

2. Steel wool is sometimes essential when scrubbing very tough stains or baked-on grease and food residue. To play it safe, I like to get finer-grade steel wool at the hardware store than the thick, rougher pads generally sold at grocery stores.

3. Barkeeper’s Friend is an absurdly effective metal cleaner. It comes in a powder, is activated with a little water and cleans almost all types of metal with minimal scrubbing. I use it about once a month to clean my stainless steel kitchen sink and to clean the outside of my stainless steel and aluminum pots and pans that have become discolored over time.

4. Brasso is my favorite metal polish. It’s old-school and stinky, but it works extremely well.

I have more cleaning products and gear than just this, but what you see above is my basic survival kit that should arm you for the majority of your household cleaning endeavors! Do you have a favorite tip, trick or secret for cleaning? What about a particular cleaning challenge you’d like to see addressed? I’d love to know in the comments!

Suggested For You


  • I have been using ENJO products – just fibres and water and I am LOVING them – they clean burnt-on-greasy-grossness off my stove top in just a could sweeps, no scrubbing!

  • I’m in second year university and finals or stressful deadlines are when the serious bathroom bleaching gets done. It feels so good to see the grout sparkle!

  • I whole-heartedly second your suggestions (and yes, Bar Keeper’s Friend is MAGIC). I’ll also add my two favorites:
    1) Ketchup is great for spot cleaning copper, and
    2) Toothpaste cleans silver like nobody’s business!

  • Daniel – I love the way you write. Both on this post & in your blog. Who knew you a post about cleaning (I’m probably in the mid-range between slob & non-slob) could be so entertaining to read? Well done!

  • Ok, I’ve asked about this on twitter before, but – old wood floors (house is 1836, no idea about floors.) – I mop and mop, and there is ALWAYS a grimy film. What can I do? Will the vinegar make it go away? I’ve tried Murphy’s but it adds more film. :(

  • I’m so excited to see you on Design Sponge, Daniel! I’m addicted to your blog and now look forward to even more great writing from you.

  • Daniel on d*s? My favorite worlds collide! I just want to add that adding 30 drops of lavender extract can give your vinegar water spray a nice fresh scent.

  • i use a lot of what you do.
    i go for the “chore boy” scrubber, though, instead of finer steel wool. i have lots of cast iron and messes. if i didn’t have that tool, i’d cry.
    cool post.

  • I like to add tea tree oil to the bathroom vinegar spray to boost the germ fighting power. I also lightly spray this mix on my yoga mat and running shoes to keep those clean too.

  • I would love to know how to get rid of the hard water ring in the toilet. A friend said vinegar worked for her, but I wasn’t sure how to use it. Help?

  • Thank you SO much for this post. I help people reorganize their spaces and it is helpful to have an updated version of great cleaning products. Looking forward to the next in the series.

  • I love your writing- “at home” @mahnhattannest.com and here! Even a post about cleaning is done in a witty and funny way- I want more!

  • I found this soft scrub recipe yesterday on Pinterest and its my new BFF. If you let it sit for about 20 minutes before scrubbing it works magic. I didn’t use the tea tree oil.

    Homemade Antibacterial Soft Scrub Cleanser:

    3/4 cup baking soda (you can add a little more if it seems a little thin after it’s all mixed together.)
    1/4 cup castile soap (I used Dr. Bronners Almond)
    1 Tablespoon water
    10-15 drops of tea tree oil
    1 Tablespoon vinegar

  • Great article! Looking forward to more. Just wanted to add this thought: Laura, I wouldn’t use toothpaste on your silver. It works in a pinch, but the rough particles in many commercial toothpastes will scratch and damage silver.

  • Daniel, thanks for the tips. I have a question for you. What would you recommend for cleaning bamboo floor?

  • Equal parts white vinegar and blue Dawn dish detergent. Heat vinegar in microwave until hot and pour into spray bottle. Add the Dawn and gently shake to mix it up. Cleans just about anything – but it’s great on soap scum buildup in the tub and shower. Spray, scrub with a brush, and rinse – for tough jobs – leave on for a few hours – it’s magic!

  • Yay Daniel is here! I’ve searched for Howard feed and wax to restore a beautiful timber chair I found at the op-shop but can’t find it here in Australia, is there a generic term or product I could look for instead? Poor chair has been left to collect dust because I don’t what to do.

  • Great post – thank you! I use supercharged vinegar to clean nearly my entire house. In addition to the 50/50 mix I add, 1 tablespoon of liquid soap (like Doc Bronner’s Sal Suds), 1 tablespoon of Citra-Solv (citrus cleaner) and a few drops of essential oil just for kicks. (http://garlicpig.com/2012/05/07/coming-clean) Having just become the proud owner of a dishwasher, I’m wondering how often and how the interior should be cleaned. I’m assuming that gunk gradually begins to collect somewhere!

  • Oh, this post is awesome! Exactly my type; cleaning to get rid of stress using stuff that I can find around the house.
    I feel like giggling! Of course I use a lot of paper towels, but sometimes I use coconut husks to scrub/clean certain areas of the sink, so I can just throw it away! (Coconut is a staple here :)) And limes instead of lemons. (lemons are way too expensive here. )
    Looking forward to Daniel’s future posts. :)

  • I love the whole point of this article… don’t remodel or DIY if a good clean will restore it! I used to be a slob and then I had children. Now I’m constantly cleaning and thanks to the three of them I’m never able to enjoy clean for a full day, ugh! Lucky for them I love them because children, unlike college roommates, can’t be replaced!

  • I love an enzyme type cleaner called QuicknBrite. It isn’t soap, has no scent and with it I spot clean my laundry, clean the oven, eradicate mineral build up, wash all surfaces (with various strengths)…EVERYTHING. There is no rinsing necessary, as well.
    But it doesn’t have suds and sometimes I want soap so then I add a little dish soap.
    I buy a tub every other year at my local county fair…hows that for economical…and I have seen it on TV and at Bed, Bath and Beyond. I wouldn’t want to live with out it.

  • This looks like it’s going to be a really useful series – I love the idea of using milder cleaning products too – might even be inspired to start on my studio…

  • Epic stuff! The cleaning power of lemon is amazing. Vodka’s another one, apparently, so you could (if you are inclined that way) swig from the bottle as you go about your cleaning duties. Not all of us are Keith Moon, though.

    I use Ecover products for my cleaning, most of the time. For some reason it actually makes the process seem fun!

  • REMOVING THE MINERAL RING FROM THE TOILET BOWL AND AROUND SINK DRAINS. Forget the chemicals–this is fast and easy. Buy a small piece of “drywall sanding screen” at the hardware store. It’s cheap–like a couple of dollars. You can cut it with scissors. A piece 2 x 4 inches is about perfect. Use it to scrape the calcium deposit from porcelin without scratching. Wear rubber gloves. It lasts basically forever.

  • I wish I were a stress cleaner (instead of a stress eater).

    Daniel, your blog is one of my favorites, and it’s exciting to see you here. How can I clean a 15-year old refrigerator that has suddenly developed the smell from hell? I took everything out, threw almost everything away, and wiped it down with detergent and water, but the smell still lurks.

  • Everytime I buy a new bottle of vinegar for cleaning I drop in 3-4 big strips of citrus peel and about 8-10 whole cloves. They gradually dissolve, smell good and add aantibacterial/anti mould power boost.

  • To Tamera about cleaning wood floors: If the house is that old the floors may never have been sealed and are just waxed? So you could be dissolving and pushing around old wax…I don’t have experience with that, but I’m sure you can find info online. If they have been sealed (polyurethaned) at some point, then putting some vinegar in the cleaning water will help prevent the film. Don’t use the Murphy’s, it actually seems to make the floors pick up more grime as it leaves a slightly oily film.

  • This article KILLED me! Not only was it super-informative (we’re about to move and I think I might be throwing all of my old cleaners out to start fresh), but touched close to home with such hilarity. I would read Daniel again any day.

  • Might add that lemon *oil* (in the rind, or more specifically, the zest) is an excellent solvent for removing oil-based gunk from surfaces (e.g. label or tape residue). Heavy gunk might need a light coat of oil (vegetable or mineral) first.

  • Good advice about cleaning chemical and detergents. Much of this applies to my pressure washing service. We use d-limonene which is citrus extract. It smells great if you don’t use too much. lol..

  • A fun article…alas, I find myself reading more about cleaning than actually cleaning anything! Hard not to with entertaining writing like this. But tomorrow morning when I do resume the race against grime, I’m armed with a couple of new tips. Thank you!

  • Thank you for the wonderful information. I, too, clean when stressed…I was advised by the wise woman in my life (grandma and mom); “when the rest of your life seems to be messy, make certain your home is not. It will create a place to be calm, a way to burn off the nerves and give you something you CAN control.” It works like a charm every time.

    QUESTION: What is the recommendation for cleaning leather? My leather chair is tacky even when I wipe it clean…what’s up with that?

  • DANIEL FTW! Glad to see this guy leaving the nest (pun furiously intended) even if only for a month, wish him only the best in his writing career!

  • This is awesome… putting in a little extra scrubbing effort definitely makes your bathroom feel cleaner in the end! I find dollar store rubber gloves too flimsy and prone to tearing, but always pick up magic erasers (they’re just melamine foam, nothing special, so the cheapo ones work exactly the same) and buy baking soda in bulk because I go through it so fast! My favourite use for it is a detox bath after a cleaning blitz: add 2 cups Epsom salts, 1/2 c. baking soda, a 3 inch piece of ginger (grated), and about 10 drops of your favourite essential oil to the hottest water you can stand – it will make you sweat like a marathon in August. Sink in and enjoy the fruits of your labour!

  • Tamera with regards to your floor; Ifound an advert for antique flooring on this site. The name is Mountain Lumber Co.. They might be able to tell you how to care for your floors. good luck.

  • I try to use less cleaning solutions. i think that they are dangerous and i know from my parents that for all of the things that we create in our factories, there is an easier and more effective solution thanks to mother nature!

  • Bon-Ami is an excellent cleanser when baking soda won’t work and environmentally friendly. When shopping for your double-sided sponge, look for the 3M biodegradeable products made of sponge and loofa; they are light brown and available at Target.

  • Thanks Daniel, great reading. I use everything you suggested, but Feed & Wax.

    My tip:

    Rather than scrubbing the dickens out of crusty pans, pour a “glug” of Murphys in pan with the hottest water, let soak for an hour or overnight. 99% will come right off.

  • Daniel, I love your blog so I’m so excited you’re also writing for Design Sponge! I love the post – I’ll be a college freshman this fall (!!!) so hopefully I can stick in with the not-slobs :)

  • Thanks for the great ideas, Daniel. I’d like to add that blue dawn works wonders on grubby white, textured vinyl floors. And Borax is an essential!

  • Also white vinegar is an easy way to clean microwaves. Pour about half cup in a microwave proof bowl (duh) and blast on high for a minute or two. The vinegar really softens up gunk so it can wiped clean.

  • Informative and fun to read article on natural cleaning methods. Great alternatives to all the harsh stuff. Lots of good tips in the comments too.
    Question for future post maybe: cleaning the stovetop grills and those collector trays underneath them, mine have blackened over the years, even with cleaning. they were a nice gray color. Someone told me oven cleaner and yeah, no, I’m not going there, stuff is toxic.

  • Love the emphasis on environmentally friendly products. Most of the info I have known about and practiced for years, but it’s good reinforcement & good to teach the younger generation of which I am not. You are a creative and joy-to-read writer. Keep it up, we love you!

  • I like using alcohol for sanitizing and cleaning phones, TV & other remotes, and computer key boards.

  • I’m very late to the party here but I just have to say that this was the first D*S post that I read in its entirety in quite a while. Usually I just scan the pretty pictures. I really hate to admit it but I am KIND OF a slob. I hate it. I hate that it’s so hard to motivate myself to clean. I would so much rather live in a sparkling clean Martha Stewart worthy home. TEACH ME. I imagine all or most of this series is already published… well I’ll get to it slowly as I wade through my RSS reader, haha.

  • WD 40 is AMAZING if you google – cleaning with WD40 you will honestly be amazed. Use it in the shower to get it sparkling

  • I was wondering if you have any advice on how to clean and restore lead paint off of vintage window locks and fixtures

  • These are all really great tips, thank you! There is a trick that my Aunt taught me for removing sticky residue left by price tags or other hard to remove gummy substances. You just slather the sticky goo with butter (oil can work too) and let it sit for a few minutes or a few hours (it depends how stubborn it is), then try to work off the sticky goo with the butter still there and finally wipe it all off with a towel (you may need a little cleaner to remove the butter). Obviously don’t use this trick on anything that would be damaged by oil.

  • Hola!! en mi caso pido ayuda!! …se incendio mi casa!! pregunto!?Cómo limpiar hollín de las diferentes superficies! Gracias!!!

  • My bathroom tiles were a sight for sore eyes, the grout was stained and looked a bit filthy. Sadly I couldn’t afford to replace the grout for the entire bathroom. I found out about Nugrout products and decided to give it a try. I am amazed by how new my bathroom now looks with the new grout color, and how affordable the entire process was. Check out their website http://www.nugrout.com, I highly recommend them.

  • It was e delight reading this article. Gave me some great ideas for my spring cleaning this year. I have never fancied cleaning the bathtub, but for sure, soaking the tub with lots of foam and a scrubber can do wonders.
    Thank you !