How to Remove Even the Toughest Water Stains from Wood
All is not lost! A DIY solution and a little elbow grease may be all you need to remove water stains from wood.
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What to know about water stains on wood
Ack! While you were doing your regular weekly cleaning, you found the glass someone in your family left on the coffee table—and a cloudy ring blooming beneath it. Time to grab the sandpaper? Not necessarily. “I always caution people about creating more damage than there is” when figuring out how to remove water stains from wood, says Sabrina Fierman, vice president of the cleaning company New York’s Little Elves. Instead, Fierman recommends trying a few simple tricks that won’t cause harm and may, in fact, solve the problem.
Just like when attempting to remove other stains, speed matters when it comes to water stains on wood. With any luck, you found the mark quickly. Having a supply of white towels for blotting helps (and will come in handy for spring cleaning too). Beyond that, the color of the water mark and the actual finish on the furniture signal whether a home remedy can bring success.
Are some water stains on wood permanent?
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: A dark water stain is likely to be permanent. It basically means water has breached the finish, breached the wood and settled in. Refinishing the piece entirely may be the only recourse. And now for the good news: A light-colored or milky ring offers more hope for home fixes. That cloudy mark is actually water trapped within the finish. But while newer light stains are easier to rectify, your vintage table may be salvaged as well. Sometimes a couple of noninvasive methods work well in tandem and can save you from a bigger refinishing bill. Here’s what you can try at home before calling in the pros.
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A little patience
Works best on: New stains on modern furniture
It may feel counterintuitive, but after a quick mop-up, do nothing for a few days on newer furniture, says Dan Brister, owner of Pohl Custom Cabinets. Generally, a light, cloudy mark will dry on its own. Brister says that’s because a contemporary finish is less permeable than the older one on grandma’s table. Water can and may evaporate, and residual marks can even be polished out.
It’s a different story for older furniture with light-colored water stains. The chemicals in old finishes are often more porous, allowing liquid to seep deeper and get trapped more tightly. If you’re uncertain about the seal, Brister recommends testing it with lacquer thinner in a hidden area. A surface that turns gummy is probably an older piece of furniture that will need to be stripped, sanded and refinished. To expedite stain evaporation on both old and new wood furniture, try using a hair dryer or iron as outlined below. If your piece needs a little more TLC, here’s how to clean wood furniture to restore its luster.
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A hair dryer
Works best on: Recent stains
You don’t necessarily need a chemical product to remove water stains from wood—you might just need your trusty hair dryer. Using a hair dryer’s diffused heat can speed the process of drying water that’s close to the surface. It’s a similar principle to running a fan in a room that’s been flooded.
On the lowest setting, point the hair dryer at the stain for 10 minutes. Avoid getting too close to the wood. If the surface feels hot to the touch, let it cool for about 10 to 15 minutes before trying again. As the stain dissipates, it might release moisture. When that happens, blot the moisture with a clean cotton cloth. One cautionary note: If the finish becomes tacky, stop immediately. You can also use a hair dryer, FYI, when cleaning couches.
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Works best on: Old and new furniture with light-colored stains
Brian Kelsey, a licensed contractor and the creator of Ten Minutes With, is a fan of the iron method. Here’s how to pull it off successfully: First, cover the stain with a cotton rag or towel. (Make sure the cotton rag or towel is completely clean and free of any blemishes or decals that could transfer to the wood.) Then, set the iron’s heat on its lowest setting, wait a minute for it to heat up and press the iron on the cloth. “Don’t use steam, and hold it for 30 seconds. That usually does the trick,” he says. If this doesn’t work after two to three tries, consider another method. Also avoid heating the furniture surface too much, which may disrupt the finish.
Also, just to reiterate, under no circumstances should you use steam or extra water. As mild as water can be, wood is one of the things you shouldn’t clean with water unless extreme caution is used. The goal with the iron is to release a surface water stain from the wood and help it evaporate.
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Works best on: Cloudy water stains
Yep, you read that right: toothpaste. It’s fast and easy—if you use the right type of toothpaste, that is. Gel toothpaste doesn’t work for this type of stain removal. It’s the mildly abrasive baking soda in white toothpaste that helps draw the water out. “I find white toothpaste really effective,” says Fierman, noting that it’s one of her favorite solutions for water stains on wood. “Plus, you find out right away if it works.”
She recommends using a small amount of toothpaste and applying it in a small circular motion on the stain for 30 seconds, making sure to leave it on for no longer than a minute. Remove the residue with a damp white cotton cloth; you can also use a hair dryer afterward. Just make sure to test the toothpaste on a small unseen area to confirm it won’t harm your finish before doing this.
Toothpaste is also an option for removing permanent marker stains from wood, so put it back in the cabinet for safe-keeping when you’re done!
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Works best on: Light, recent stains
Grace Reynolds, co-founder of Handmaid Cleaning and the American House Cleaners Association, heads to the kitchen for her preferred science-based way to remove water stains from wood. That’s right: Salt isn’t just for cooking! “White stains are trapped condensation under the surface. Salt dehydrates,” she explains. “Through osmosis, it pulls the trapped moisture to the surface.”
Make a thick paste by mixing a few drops of water with the salt. Apply the mixture to the stain without rubbing it in, and let it sit on the stain for 10 to 20 minutes. Remove the salt with a dry or damp cloth without pressing down, outside edges first, and then remove any residual residue with another clean, damp cloth. Once the stain is gone, Reynolds likes to follow up with Orange Glo to polish the wood.
An important note: While gently rubbing the salt mixture onto the stain can help to remove the stain, it can also irritate the finish, so Reynolds says to proceed with caution if you attempt this.
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Works best on: All stains, but particularly effective on older ones
Sure, it’s a condiment, but mayonnaise has many uses beyond making a killer sandwich. Cleaning expert Leslie Reichert, author of The Joy of Green Cleaning, starts with this solution, since it can remove light water marks and is unlikely to cause damage. “My first reaction to a water stain on wood?” she says. “I go to the mayonnaise and rub it down.” The oil in the mayo works by disrupting and lifting the water from the wood. Reichert says oil by itself could work as well, but the mayo stays in place better.
Just be aware that your success may depend on the age of the water stain: Sooner is better than later! Plus, Reichert says sometimes the stain is not completely lifted, but it is lighter. She also warns that mayonnaise might alter the appearance of the furniture finish, so, as always, test it on an unseen area before going all-in on the surface.
To try this at home, apply the mayo with a clean towel or rag, then let it sit for a few hours or overnight. Remove any excess with a dry cotton towel. If you’d like, go a step further like Reichert and follow up by polishing the entire piece with Howard Feed-N-Wax Wood Polish & Conditioner.
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Specialty stain-removal products for wood
Of course, there are also commercial products on the market created to remove water stains from wood. Here are a few customer and expert faves:
- Homax White Ring Remover: Rub this smooth, saturated cloth over the stain, and make sure to rub against the grain. While it does take a little bit of elbow grease, customers have had success with it. Even better, it’s reusable.
- Guardsman Water Mark Remover: This little stain-removing cloth does the same thing as the Homax, and it also works on heat and alcohol stains. Plus, more than 5,700 five-star reviewers on Amazon sing its praises, raving that its results are “outstanding.”
- Howard Restor-a-Finish: For smaller nicks and marks and even some white water rings, Reichert has gotten great client feedback on this Amazon bestseller. Its chemical formula penetrates and restores wood, and it comes in multiple colors to match a variety of finishes.
As with any cleaning substance, confirm that the product is meant for your furniture finish, and test it in an inconspicuous spot first. Homax, for example, shouldn’t be used on faux-wood or polyurethane finishes, while Guardsman says its cloths are safe for all finished wood, including painted and veneer surfaces, but not unfinished furniture. And, unfortunately, the pretreated cloths won’t be successful on darker, more permanent stains.
What should you do if a stain won’t come out?
Some water stains won’t respond to a topical approach, especially dark ones that have penetrated the finish and settled in the wood. That’s when you have to call in the experts—or DIY it yourself. According to Brister, stubborn stains require complete refinishing by a professional or a skilled home carpenter.
If you’re attempting this at home, start by cleaning the furniture. Next, use 120-grit sandpaper or wood stripper (or a combination of the two) to remove not just the stain but the finish on the entire wood piece so the new finish, once you apply it, will look seamless. Then re-stain and seal to prevent another catastrophe, making sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions exactly. Polyurethane offers a clear finish and water resistance. Painting over water stains is another option.
Experts say there is a lot to consider when refinishing, including the type of wood or veneer and the preferred finish. For family heirlooms, you may want to consult a professional instead of trying to DIY it.
All that said, who wants to deal with stains in the first place? Prevention is the way to go, so invest in cute and stylish coasters so your whole family will want to use them. And give your home a quick once-over at the end of every day to take care of new water stains before they become a larger problem.
Now that you know how to remove water stains from wood, find out how to clean hardwood floors so they look as good as new.
- Sabrina Fierman, vice president of New York’s Little Elves
- Dan Brister, owner of Pohl Custom Cabinets
- Brian Kelsey, licensed contractor and host of Ten Minutes With
- Leslie Reichert, cleaning expert and author of The Joy of Green Cleaning
- Grace Reynolds, co-founder of Handmaid Cleaning and the American House Cleaners Association