I inherited a couple old wooden boxes full of tools that are both generally dirty, stained, and dusty. Could someone please give me some suggestions on how to clean them up, specifically a product and technique? It would be nice to preserve the general older look but make them look nice at the same time.
How far to take a cleaning is always up to the individual. As with old tools you can basically clean something up a little bit all the way to a full restoration and it's completely up to you how far you take it.
The minimalist approach often seeks to "preserve patina" – note that the majority of patina is actually built-up dirt and rust on old things! (not that this is an argument in favour of removing it, just an FYI) – and at the other extreme you can make the thing look new or nearly so, and there are various levels in between.
First step is the same regardless and that is getting the dirt off, although with some cleaning procedures (many of the traditional ones) the cleaning solution also does some 'restoration' of the finish. I think it's better to separate the steps in most cases so you clean, then assess how it looks and proceed from there.
I'd break it down like this:
- restore (if desired)
So here, first thing to do is dust them off with a soft brush or duster. Sometimes it's quite amazing how much difference that alone makes! A 1-2" (25-50mm) paintbrush with natural or synthetic bristles makes an excellent dusting brush.
Basic first step in cleaning is to use warm soapy water1 but a slightly better result is often obtained if you use a mixture of soapy water and one or more solvents. One of the best cleaning solutions I've discovered through reading is also one of the simplest, hot soapy water with a little turpentine or mineral spirits (UK: white spirit) added. The water alone will do a decent job but the turps/spirits adds a little extra cleaning power.
Gentle use of one of these is often useful:
Use the sponge side for most of it, flip over and use the nylon scourer side for stubborn dirt and if you want to give the thing a deeper clean.
Although these boxes look stout as a general point the cloth or sponge used in cleaning wooden items should be damp not wet. Even with that you might want to have a dry sponge or cloth in the other hand to dry the surface off as you go. How much dirt gets transferred to the dry sponge/cloth also tells you how much grunge is still present.
When you're done cleaning stop for a few hours to overnight before doing anything further. Once the wood is dry you're in a better position to assess the condition and the look of the piece, and anyway most restoration processes require the surface to be dry.
If you're not happy to stop at this point the old advice was often to wait for a day and then apply a little paste wax and this is still a good option generally today and might be the best call here specifically. In addition to adding a bit of shine wax helps the wood not to look so 'dry' 2 and that is often just enough restoration of looks for old items to look cared for, without having to add any new finish.
1 If you want to retain the traces of paper labels on the box closest to camera in the first image you might want to stop there. Any cleaning with water might do some damage to the paper or start to dissolve the glue/paste used to adhere it to the surface.
2 Be aware that the wax doesn't actually make the wood wet or help it not to dry out further, the furniture-polish industry's idea of "feeding" wood is complete bunkum. Wood doesn't just dry out, even bare wood takes on moisture as easily as it loses it, this is why wood expands and contracts through the seasons.