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How To Get Rid Of Light Watermarks From Woodworking Furniture

Mug With Dark Beer On The Wooden Table

If a wet drinking glass is left on your wood furniture, it can leave an ugly dark or white ring. You put a lot of time into your projects, and don’t want them flawed by such a thing. Here is how you can get rid of lighter water marks, such as from a glass that sat on your furniture and left a ring on it.

Watermarks happen on furniture that have aged finishes. The marks, which are referred to as water rings when they have a round shape, rarely take place on film-building finishes that have been recently applied. This is true even with finishes like shellac that have a reputation for having weak water resistance.

Watermarks come in two different forms: dark or light. A light mark is milky white in color and occurs when moisture gets into the wood finish and creates voids that disturb the transparency of the finish. Dark marks are either black or brown, and caused by metal and water residue that penetrates through cracks that are in the finish and then get inside the wood.

It is easy to remove both types of marks. However, usually the finish needs to be stripped in order to remove a dark watermark. We will show you in a future post how to remove the dark marks. For now we will concentrate on the lighter ones. (Don’t confuse light watermarks with heat damage or dark watermarks with ink stains. Usually it is quite difficult to remove both of these.)

To get rid of a milky-white watermark, you have to either cut back the film below where the damage is or consolidate the finish (eliminating the voids) to reestablish the transparency. You can’t predict success. However, a white watermark, in general, is easier to get rid of in the following situations: 1) there is a newer finish, 2) the watermark has only been on the finish for a short time, 3) the damage has gone into the finish to only a shallow depth.

The following are the best ways to get rid of milky-white water marks. They are arranged from least damaging (usually least effective) up to most damaging.

• Use an oily substance, like mayonnaise, petroleum jelly or furniture polish and apply it to the damaged area of the furniture. Let the gel or liquid stay on overnight. Frequently some of its transparency will be restored by the oil (through filling in some of the small voids). However, it seldom restores all of the transparency.

• Use a heat gun or blow dryer to heat the finish. This will soften and consolidate it.

If you are able to get just the right temperature, it might restore some of its transparency. However, if the finish gets too hot, it might blister. You need to avoid letting the finish get any hotter than what is comfortable for you to touch.

• Pour denatured alcohol onto a cloth and then gently wipe down the damaged area. The key here is only dampen the cloth enough to leave a trace of evaporating alcohol trailing behind as you are wiping (one thing you can do is practice wiping a surface that is more resistance, like plastic laminate or polyurethane).

If the cloth is too wet, the excess amount of alcohol might smear the finish, dull its sheen or soften it too much. If it is a shellac finish (used on a majority of furniture finished prior to the 1930), this is more likely to happen. However, it is the most effective technique to use with shellac finishes.

• Take an aerosol of blush eliminator and spray a light mist onto the water damage. It has a butyl Cellosolve solvent, which restores the transparency and dissolves the lacquer. Make sure the spray is not too wet or the finish may be damaged.

The aerosols are normally only sold to professionals. You may be able to find one of these aerosols with a distributor catering to professionals, or if you happen to have a spray gun, you could use a lacquer retarder and spray a mist of it into the furniture.

Rub the damaged area with toothpaste or another mild abrasive to cut through the damage, or use a rottenstone (this is an extremely fine abrasive powder that can be found at a majority of paint stores) and mix it with a light oil. It is more effective to use fine #0000 steel wool that has been lubricated with mineral oil, or another type of light oil, due to the fact that it cuts faster. However, steel wool does leave scratches in the surface that are quite noticeable. Only use steel wool as your last resort.

Continue rubbing the area with the damage, until you get rid of the water damage. Be care that you don’t rub through the finish. Next, if the sheen and surrounding area are different, even it all out by using an abrasive to run the whole surface to produce the sheen you desire.

• Use padding lacquer to french polish the damage area. This product is also one that is usually sold to professionals. The padding lacquer has a lacquer-thinner solvent in it that softens the finish (it is the same as if it were sprayed on or wiped separately). This will frequently clear up any damage. To produce an even sheen, you might need to keep polishing the whole surface.

On surfaces that are in fairly good condition, this technique works pretty well. However, on deteriorated surfaces, it is risky. If the initial application doesn’t remove the watermark entirely, the remaining milky whiteness gets sealed in, and that makes it more difficult to get rid of it.

If you don’t have any experience getting rid of milky-white watermarks, my recommendation for you is to try rubbing using an abrasive or wiping using a cloth dampened with alcohol. Usually these two techniques are effective, and there is less risk of serious damage taking place.


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Ted Leger –


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Updated: December 22, 2014 — 2:04 am
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