How to remove water stains from wood tables
“What we’re looking at when we see a white mark — sometimes it’s a white ring, sometimes it’s a cloudiness — is moisture that’s trapped in the finish. That’s the sign of a weak finish,” says Bruce Johnson, a wood finishing expert, spokesman for Minwax and author of the book The Wood Finisher. The ring indicates that the finish is wearing out and not keeping out moisture properly, he writes on the Minwax website. In this case, the moisture has not yet reached the wood itself but has settled into the layer of finish. The good news: If you act quickly, there is hope.
One of the best treatments for water marks that have recently occurred is also one of the simplest: a hair dryer. Johnson suggests setting a hair dryer on warm or low and moving it back and forth directly over the mark. In most cases, the action should draw out the moisture, dry the surface and cause the ring to evaporate.
Be aware that the fix will also heat up the wax finish on the wood and melt it slightly. Try buffing with a soft rag once the water mark evaporates.
What not to do: “A lot of times people will grab the furniture polish or wax and pour that on the white mark,” Johnson says. “Well, all that does is prevent the moisture from escaping on its own.” He says to just leave it alone. Try moving the piece to a dry area of your home and set up a fan to blow over the area or use a blow dryer on a low setting to release the moisture back into the air.
Timothy Dahl, home improvement expert, DIY enthusiast and editor of the website Charles & Hudson, says he’s had success removing water marks and rings with some admittedly dubious techniques. He experimented on a table of his own using three different removal methods: toothpaste, mayonnaise and baking soda. “They might seem a bit far-fetched,” he says, “but we were pleasantly surprised.”
Although he successfully removed water marks from the tabletop with each technique, Dahl says a big part of whether a stain will come out depends on how long it has been allowed to soak into the wood. “There is a point of no return,” he says. “It depends on how long the moisture has been locked in there and how long it has dried.” The white water rings he worked on with the following methods were several months old.
What not to do: Dahl warns against scrubbing too hard or too far outside of the stain, which could potentially inflict additional damage by wearing away the finish. In addition, avoid using gel toothpastes and brands with bleaching agents. For his own experiment, Dahl used Sensodyne. In other words, keep it simple.
For white rings that don’t respond to a hair dryer, Johnson says his next step is using a superfine 4/0 steel wool. He advises pouring a finishing product such as Minwax Antique Oil directly on the stain, then using the superfine 4/0 steel wool to lightly abrade the surface, rubbing in the direction of the grain. (Howard Restor-A-Finish or Beaumont Paste Wax are other products that can be used.) Then use a towel to wipe the finish off. When you are done, use the finishing product again and wipe the entire surface of the table to polish it.
“Finally, once you’re done with the oil, wipe off the oil and put on a clear finish so it won’t happen again,” Johnson says.
Dark water stains on a wood surface mean the water has soaked through the top layer of the finish and been absorbed into the wood. These stains are too deeply ingrained to be removed with surface techniques, and the piece may need to be refinished. “When it gets into the wood, it will have to be stripped,” says Jose Arroyo, wood refinisher and owner of A&A Restoration in Long Beach, California.
Arroyo says the best way to deal with water stains is to avoid them altogether. To prevent stains, he suggests applying a topcoat of conversion varnish. “It’s the strongest product we have right now,” he says. “It’s a little more expensive, but I think it helps, and the water slides right off.”
Finally, of course, don’t forget the coasters.