Nothing spoils the luster of wooden furniture like a watermark.
Watermarks – or water stains – are often caused by cold glasses, spills, or hot dishes placed directly on the wood. Fortunately, however, they are not always permanent.
This guide will walk you through the process of removing these stains. But first, remember: even a quick touch-up can damage an inheritance. So, follow the directions carefully and be patient when removing the stains. For added confidence, test the method on a hidden area before going all the way to the top surface of the wood.
1. Identify the stain
Is the water stain white, dark brown, or a shade of black? The color of the stain will determine the ease of treatment and the methods to be used.
White spots. Lightly colored marks, usually in the form of rings, are caused by the bottoms of cold glasses or hot plates and cups resting on a wooden surface. In both cases, water is the culprit, in the form of condensed moisture (cold) or vapor (hot). This water penetrates the wood finish below to turn the otherwise clear coat to white or milky gray.
It sounds bad, but it’s actually less serious than you might think. Because moisture did not penetrate the real wood beneath the finish, it likely did not cause irreversible damage.
Dark spots. A dark brown or black mark indicates that the water has reached the wood itself, so a quick fix is not possible. Read on for some tips you can try.
2. Light stain? All you need is an iron
An easy way to deal with light watermarks is to expose it to gentle heat and pressure. For this you will need an electric iron and a regular non-abrasive cloth.
- With the iron set to its lowest heat level, lay the cloth over the stained area. Make sure all steam modes on the iron are turned off. The last thing you want is to create more moisture and heat based stains.
- Then, gently run the hot iron over the fabric, making sure to move in the same direction with each pass.
- Lift the rag to periodically check if you have made progress, about every five passes. The wood finish should gradually release the trapped moisture, the cause of the watermark.
I have personally tried the technique on my vintage vinyl turntable which is housed in a wooden console cabinet. Somehow, a big, fat, ring-shaped filigree had sprouted right above it – no doubt from someone’s stray Bourbon glass. Surprisingly, after just a few minutes, and about 10 iron hits later, the ring was almost completely gone.
3. For dark spots, take a toothbrush
Sometimes water stays on a wood surface long enough to seep past its protective finish and into the wood below. This is often the case with leaky planters, which can cause damage for months without anyone noticing. The result is usually a dark brown or black ring. Unfortunately, an iron cannot solve this problem.
This is where an old toothbrush and a bit of regular white toothpaste come in handy.
The fix: Using a small dab of paste, gently brush the entire watermark. Be sure not to press too hard or brush for too long or you may remove the wood stain with the watermark. Of course, in many situations this result is inevitable and the only remedy is a complete overhaul by a furniture restoration professional.
4. Maintain your wooden furniture regularly
Even after successfully banishing those unsightly watermarks, wood furniture needs regular maintenance to keep it looking its best. The most common task you will need to do is dusting with a soft, dry cloth. To limit unnecessary wear and tear, don’t dust often, once a month perhaps.
Another way to do this is to dust the wood with a citrus oil such as Howard’s Orange Oil. Products like these are designed to prevent wood from drying out and add shine. Do this infrequently, as overuse will lead to an unwanted build-up of dirt, dust, and oil. That’s what the Smithsonian recommends, and the museum knows a lot about caring for priceless wooden artifacts.
5. No success? Consider these factors
There are countless additional factors that will affect the effectiveness of your watermark removal. For example, whether the furniture you plan to treat is soft pine wood or hardwood like oak and rosewood. It also depends and often determines the smoothness or thickness of the finish and the substances used to create them. Examples include shellac, polyurethane, and lacquers.
In these cases, you may need to take your furniture to an expert who can use other methods, such as staining, to remedy the watermarks.