Water and heat rings on tabletops and other surfaces rank high on the list of common finish faults. Here are some tricks that just might make them go away.

Fixing Damaged Finishes

Water and heat rings on tabletops and other surfaces rank high on the list of common finish faults. Here are some tricks that just might make them go away.

"There are no guarantees when it comes to removing water and heat rings," according to furniture repair and finishing ace Jim Kull. "Some methods for getting rid of white marks are potentially damaging to the finish," Jim says. "And ultimately, all efforts may fail, leaving stripping and refinishing—or living with the marks—as your only options."

But if you're game, it might pay to try some of these tricks before you resort to refinishing.

Let's see what you have there Start by assessing the damage. "A simple repair may be possible for finish discoloration, damage that doesn't penetrate the wood," Jim says.

  • The mark itself will tell you a lot
  • A white mark signifies damage to the finish only.
  • A darker mark denotes damage that's gone through to the wood.
  • Check the surface, too
  • An unmarred surface over the mark generally indicates damage caused by moisture.
  • A slight indentation over the area usually points to heat damage.

Heat Marks

  • Play it cool with heat marks
  • "Often your only solution for heat marks is to strip and refinish the surface," Jim says. Even so, you may be able to clear heat marks in shellac or lacquer finishes. Here's how to determine whether the finish you're dealing with is lacquer or shellac.
  • Dab a little denatured alcohol on the finish in a hidden spot. If the finish softens, it's shellac.
  • If it doesn't soften, try the same thing with lacquer thinner. If the finish softens now, it is lacquer.
  • If neither has an effect, you're contending with some other finish.

Shellac or lacquer tricks Clean the area thoroughly with paint thinner. Then, wash it with a mild soap, such as Murphy's Oil Soap. Wipe it down again with paint thinner, and let it dry.

Wet the finish directly over the mark with alcohol (for a shellac finish) or lacquer thinner (for a lacquer finish). "It's best to spray it on," Jim says, "but you could brush on a wet coat and leave it. Don't rub it." The solvent dissolves the finish, which will then reflow as it dries, maybe erasing the mark. "This may not work," Jim cautions, "but it's worth the effort."

Try buffing for other finishes "Buffing is my least favorite approach; it rarely works for me," Jim warns. "And you can easily polish right through a thin finish." If you buff, apply a fine-grit automotive polishing compound with a high-speed buffer and a lamb's wool pad.

Water Marks

Now let's dive into water marks Jim reports mixed results with commercial white-ring removers. The Jasco ring-remover cloth shown below (from Restoration Hardware, 800/816-0901) renders most rings less visible. An almond stick works in many cases, too. With either, the rings may reappear after time.


Go for the grease An easy fix to try is to smear mayonnaise, petroleum jelly, or shortening on the mark. (Jim likes mayo on his furniture because it's easier to clean up.) Slather it on generously, and leave it overnight. The idea is to let oil seep in to clear the mark.

"If that didn't quite do the trick, try again," Jim counsels. "If another application doesn't get it all, you need to try something else."

Beyond sandwich spread That something else would be wiping gently with denatured alcohol. "But be careful," Jim cautions. "Alcohol will dissolve shellac, mess up a lacquer finish, and damage some water-base finishes."

For this procedure, fold cheesecloth or cotton fabric into a pad, and dampen it with alcohol. It should be thoroughly damp, but not wet.

"Then," Jim explains, "gently, gently, gently wipe the pad over the ring area. Swing your arm, brushing the pad across the mark much like an airplane landing and taking off, with the landing being very soft. Don't rub," he says. "A slight haze should appear; this is the alcohol evaporating and, we hope, taking the subsurface moisture with it."

If that doesn't happen, you could try the same tactic again, but using lacquer thinner. "This technique, which is best left to pros, could totally destroy the finish," Jim warns. But by this point, you may have become resigned to refinishing, anyhow.