Water rings and heat marks can destroy the looks of an otherwise beautiful piece of furniture. But, if you have developed a water ring on your wooden table, nightstand, or similar furniture piece, don’t chuck it out just yet. There are a few things that you can do to repair those unsightly water rings and heat marks.
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What Causes Water Rings and Heat Marks on Furniture?
Water rings and heat marks are white, milking-looking spots that appear after moisture penetrates beneath the finished surface of furniture.
It can happen when a glass develops condensation and is allowed to rest on a table or nightstand for too long.
It can also happen when a hot steamy item is placed on a table’s surface – such as a piece of toast laid on top of a napkin.
The steam and/or condensation is forced down into the microscopic openings in the sealant. Once the item is removed, the marks are noticeable, but the moisture has already become trapped.
Moisture and the voids created by moisture presents itself as what we call a water rings or heat marks.
Is it a Water Mark or Something Else?
Water and heat marks will always appear milky white. If you have a ring or mark that is dark, this means that the wood beneath the finish has suffered damage.
Usually, this occurs when the moisture has penetrated all the way down to the bare wood and created a stain.
This type of damage will require more than a simple fix. It will likely need to be stripped and refinished.
The image above shows both trapped moisture (water rings) and water stains on the wood.
How to Prevent Water Rings and Heat Marks on Wood Furniture
The best way to prevent water rings is simply to use a protecting divider between the surface of the wood and the item placed on it. For cups and glasses that would be a coaster. For hot items, a placemat is a good protector.
Before Getting Started
Regardless of the method that you choose to use to remove that old water ring, you need to make sure that the surface is clean before beginning.
If you have ever used furniture polish on the piece, it may have a build-up of silicones that will need to be removed. Depending on the refinishing technique, furniture polish can cause havoc on restorations.
Wash with a good degreaser. In most cases, dawn detergent will do. On surfaces with a lot of build-up or dirt, clean with mineral spirits.
How to Remove Water Rings and Heat Marks Once they Develop
The only way to make a water or heat mark disappear is to remove the moisture that has become trapped beneath the surface and/or to fill the voids created.
There are several methods that can work for this. Some work better than others. Some work faster, and some don’t really work at all.
First, I want to show you my go-to method for removing water rings. Then, I’ll go over other options that you can try, and we’ll discuss how well each works.
My Go-To Method
Of all the techniques available, the one that I prefer is a hot iron. I like it because it gives immediate results. It can work on different finishes and has never failed to work for me.
Heat from an iron will work because it forces the trapped moisture to evaporate. However, this method can have its downsides.
For one, if you use too much heat or you apply it for too long, you may cause the surface to over-dry or to develop tiny cracks. In worse case scenarios, you can cause the finish to blister or even burn.
You want to avoid doing that. The trick is to go slow, using the minimum amount of heat necessary, and working in short bursts.
How to Use an Iron to Fix Water Rings On Wood
To remove water rings from a table with an iron first, turn the iron on to its lowest heat setting. If you notice that you are not getting results, you can always increase the heat. But, it is best to start at the lowest and increase in small increments.
Next, make sure the steam setting on your iron is turned off. You do not want to force more moisture into the table as this will just cause more problems.
Once the iron begins to get warm, place a paper towel or old t-shirt over the wood’s surface. The cloth should be large enough to hold the entire iron without allowing any part of the iron to make direct contact with the wood.
Place the iron on top of the paper towel or cloth and iron over the mark for 10-15 seconds. Lift and check the progress.
Continue heating the wood through the cloth for intervals of 15 seconds; however, do not allow the wood to become too hot. (surface should be warm to the touch but not hot)
If you notice that the iron is not producing results within a few minutes, you may increase the iron’s temperature. It is best to not go beyond the settings for polyester, wool, or silk.
These are typically 300 degrees and should be more than enough for water rings. Remember to frequently check the table’s surface with your hand to make sure it is not becoming too hot.
If the water rings do not begin to show improvement within 2-3 minutes, it is likely that what you have is not damage caused by moisture. Discontinue use of the iron if no improvement occurs within this time span.
What to Avoid
If your furniture is old and/or antique, you may want to practice extra caution with this method.
Old finishes can crack easier than newer finishes. And while the cracks may not look as unsightly as the water ring, you still want to avoid creating them.
You also do not want to remove too much of the wood’s normal moisture content. This will cause the area to appear a bit dried out.
Should either of these things occur, you can use a wood conditioner to help the wood recover.
I have over-dried my furniture before, and it always returns to its normal moisture content on its own. But, it takes several months for the house’s humidity to set things right.
To help things along, I like to use Howard’s Feed and Wax Conditioner.* I like to use this when wood looks thirsty. It conditions the wood and can help old furniture look refreshed. Sort of like applying lotion to dry, cracked skin.
Other Ways to Fix Water and Heat Rings on Wood that Work
Use a Hairdryer or Heat Gun
The same way that heat from an iron will remove a water ring and/or heat mark, a hairdryer or heat gun can also be used. However, there are a few caveats.
A hairdryer will only go to about 140 degrees. This can work on fresh rings or on a finish with a more porous surface. Give it a try and see if it works.
Heat guns are dangerous because they can get incredibly hot. Given that a heat gun is frequently used to remove a finish, you can see why it may be overkill for something as delicate as a water ring. But it will work if you are careful.
Mohawk’s Blush Remover
Most store-bought furniture is finished with lacquer. That is good news in the case of water marks because there is a wonderful product that will help.
The product is Mohawk’s No Blush* and it will remove most water rings from anything finished with lacquer.
This is my go-to method when I have the furniture piece in my workshop. But, there are few things to remember before using this product.
1. You must know what type of finish you have before you attempt to use a blush remover. It will not work on wax or polyurethane finishes, and you should avoid trying to do so.
2. You must go very lightly with this spray or you may cause an alteration in the level of sheen that your finish has.
3. You must NOT apply a cloth to the wet spray. This product must be allowed to evaporate on its own.
How Blush Removers Work
The best thing about a blush retarder or remover is that they conveniently come in spray cans. Using spray-can finishes is one of the easiest ways for DIYers to get a professional result.
A blush remover is made up of lacquer thinner and will soften or reflow the lacquered finish temporarily. This allows the moisture to be released.
The lacquered surface will dry back to its original state and the wood will no longer have a defect.
To Use Blush Remover
Very lightly spray a small amount over the water ring area. Make sure that you hold the can 12″ away from the furniture. The amount of spray should be a very light mist.
Allow the blush remover to evaporate on its own. If the water ring does not completely disappear, you can repeat the process.
Do not clean or polish the surface until the sealant has had time to cure. Then, polish as normal.
Downsides to Blush Removers
Although blush remover is quite easy to use for both professionals and novice woodworkers, there is always the possibility that you will over apply the product and cause yourself additional work.
You can also cause damage to a finish if you apply this to anything other than lacquer. If you don’t know what type of finish your furniture has, you can do a test in an inconspicuous spot to find out.
Howard’s Restor-a-Finish* is one of my favorites to use when I want to quickly improve the looks of a piece of furniture. It is virtually foolproof, and who wants to spend an entire weekend stripping and refinishing furniture?
The way that Restor-a-Finish works is that it penetrates and fills in voids, covers scratches, etc with a color that matches the stain or wood. I love it for very mild scratch improvement and it sometimes will work on water marks.
How To Use Howard’s
Restor-a-Finish is a wipe-on wipe-off application. It is best to begin with a soft lint-free cloth. Apply in the direction of the grain and quickly wipe away the excess.
If this mild application doesn’t work, a more abrasive application can be used. Reapply the product but this time use a 0000 steel wool pad.
Rub lightly in the direction of the grain but do not scrub or apply too much pressure. You do not want to go all the way through the finish.
Use a clean lint-free cloth to remove the excess as soon as you finish distributing the product with the steel wool. Never let the product set on the surface.
After using Howard’s Restore-a-Finish, it is recommended to follow it up with Howard’s Feed and Wax. This works best on older pieces that have a worn, dried-out appearance.
How I Use Howard’s Restor-a-Finish
Although it is meant to be used straight from the bottle, this is often not strong enough to remove deep-set water rings or heat rings.
I like to do a bit of alteration to the product, but I recommend that you try it straight from the bottle, first. Then, move onto this method only if you feel comfortable with your skill level.
To use Howards, I first mix 5 parts of Restor-a-Finish to 1 part of lacquer thinner. This allows the product to re-amalgamate the finish, similar to the blush remover and will work on more severe cases.
Next, I make sure the wood surface is thoroughly clean. Then, I pour a small amount of the mixture on the defective area.
Using a 0000 steel wool pad,* I lightly buff the damaged area following the grain of the wood. Make sure that the steel wool stays saturated with the wet mixture.
Gently scrub for up to 15 seconds, then wipe the mixture away with a lint-free cloth. If the water and/or heat damage is gone, wipe away all product mixture and allow the surface to dry thoroughly before polishing or cleaning.
DIY Hacks that May (or May Not) Work
I wanted to take the opportunity to go over some of the common hacks that are frequently mentioned as cures. If you prefer to try products that you have around your house, you may want to give one of these a go.
I personally have found most of these to be useless. But, I am not going to knock it if you try it and get results. However, I would love to hear how it turns out if you do try one of the below methods.
Olive Oil and Vinegar
The idea behind the olive oil hack is that it should penetrate the surface of the finish and fill in any voids. This is similar to how Old English Scratch Repair works.
It is possible for this to work on really porous finishes. However, don’t expect it to work quickly. You may need to leave it overnight. Even then, it may not remove the entire ring.
In my experience, it rarely works. When it does work, it is usually on very mild damage and/or on very old wood.
The Old Mayonnaise Hack
Yes, this can work, too. But, it is basically the same concept as the olive oil. It penetrates and fills voids. Use it if you like, but don’t be disappointed if/when it doesn’t work.
Brush with Toothpaste
Honestly, I have never been able to get rid of water rings with toothpaste, but some people swear by it. So, I am including it in this list.
The idea behind this method is that you are using an abrasive to create more surface openings in the sealant. This is similar to how steel wool is used with the methods mentioned previously.
By adding more surface openings, the trapped moisture has more ways to escape. If the moisture penetration is very shallow, you may be able to buff it right out.
Use a soft cloth and rub the toothpaste into the water ring. Move with the grain and rub hard enough to create friction. Wipe and clean when finished.
I should not that this method can cause a dulling effect to the sheen. I highly recommend that you go with one of the other methods.
Try Backing Soda
This is the same concept as the toothpaste. If it works, it does so by creating tiny pockets in the finish. I don’t like or recommend abrasives alone because again, it can dull the finish.
If All Else Fails
Sometimes nothing that you try will correct water rings and heat marks. When you have exhausted every avenue, the only thing left is to strip it down and refinish the furniture.
This might be something that you are willing to tackle yourself. But, if you feel intimidated by that idea, there are professional refinishers out there that will do it for you.
The downside to this is obviously the cost. Depending on the size and detail of the furniture, the cost can be several hundred to several thousand dollars.
The good thing about this method is that you will have a piece that looks brand new!