Exactly how you need to set about cleaning wood paneling will to some extent depend on the wood that was used for the paneling and the finish that was applied to it. However, the following should give you more than enough information to at least make a start on cleaning your wood paneling.
Painted Wood Paneling
To start with, and in order to avoid rubbing more dirt into the paneling, using a duster or fine and lightweight brush, remove any surface dust from the paneling. When doing this, do make sure that you clean between the joints, along any seams and adornments to the paneling. If the paneling has an enamel paint surface you can then clean it thoroughly with any detergent or preparatory cleaning agent.
If the wood paneling incorporates things like switch plates, then you might need to apply some of the neat, undiluted, detergent around those areas as they often have quite ingrained dirt around them, due to being parts of the wood paneling that are constantly being touched.
Cleaning Other Finishes
Although the principle of dusting any wood paneling before getting down to the real cleaning task still applies, if the wood paneling has been waxed, stained, varnished or even left in a natural state then you shouldn’t rush in to cleaning it with general purpose detergents. You will need to see what cleaning products your DIY store has available for the type of finish you need to clean.
Always test the cleaner on a part of the paneling that is rarely visible, to check that it doesn’t alter the actual color or finish itself. You’ll need to be careful with this as, if the paneling is really rather grimy – then the newly cleaned surface could look quite different to the rest of the paneling. However, in this respect the newly cleaned and revealed surface is what you need to aim for throughout the rest of the paneling.
If it is your intention to re-finish the wood paneling then using abrasives to clean it will be ideal. Using glass paper, especially with a power-sander, etc will be very cost effective and a speedy way to clean the paneling. However, if you do use abrasives be sure to maintain an even surface pressure.
If you’re not intending to refinish the surface of the paneling then you’d advised not to use abrasives, as at some point you will invariably make the finish look unbalanced by either using the abrasive to heavily or to lightly, compared to other areas. Things like heat or chemical stripping should also be avoided unless you intend re-finishing the paneling.
General Cleaning Techniques
Whatever cleaning agent you’ve determined to use – start at the bottom of the wood paneling and work upwards, as this tends to reduce the risk of excess cleaning fluid running down the paneling without being controlled and causing unsightly ‘drip lines’. Having cleaned a section, rinse it in clean water, again from the bottom upwards, and then when dry buff it up with a soft dry cloth.
If you read about the cleaning agents they used to use a hundred years ago or more, then you’ll know that vinegar was often put to various and alternative uses. I read about one preparation for cleaning wood panelling that was half a cup of vinegar topped off with olive oil. So, if you have some antique wood panelling – that could just be the cleaning preparation that has been used on it in the past.