Stained and Blemished Wood Repair

Stained wood.

Stained or blemished wood may seem irreparable. However, it is possible to salvage your furniture. These tips and tricks will save you big!

Alcohol Stains

Alcohol stains are caused by spilled drinks and by many medicines, lotions, and perfumes. Since alcohol dissolves many finishes, it is important to react quickly. Wipe up the spill quickly and rub the spot vigorously with your palm or with a cloth dipped in a small amount of furniture polish.

  • For older stains use a paste of rottenstone, baking soda or cigarette ashes mixed with mineral oil, linseed oil, or lemon oil. Rub lightly in the direction of the grain. Then wipe with plain linseed oil. Rub briskly with the grain of the wood, using a clean soft cloth. Wipe frequently to compare and match gloss of the repaired area with the original finish.
  • Powdered pumice (from paint store) is a harsher abrasive than rottenstone. Test to be sure it will not damage finish. Rottenstone is a very fine abrasive, found in some hardware and paint stores.


Light cigarette burns which have not penetrated the finish may be removed with a thin paste of rottenstone, soda or cigarette ashes mixed with mineral oil, or linseed oil. Rub lightly in the direction of the grain. Wipe with plain linseed oil. Repeat as necessary, then polish.

Another remedy for minor burns or blemishes is to dip a cotton swab in paint remover and rub the damaged area gently to remove charred material. Scrape the area if needed. Use one to two drops of clear fingernail polish to fill the depressed area. Let set and repeat until you build up the area to the same level as the wood around it. If the burn is too deep to be restored by this method, consult a professional.

Candle Wax

Scrape away as much wax as you can using your finger, a plastic kitchen scraper, or a stiff piece of cardboard. Applying ice cubes in a plastic bag to the wax may help it to crumble. Wipe up water as ice melts to prevent water spots. Remove remaining traces of wax with a cloth moistened with mineral spirits (paint thinner) or cream furniture wax. Repeat if needed. Re-polish entire surface area.

Checking and cracking of finishes is usually caused by exposure to extreme heat or cold, or extremely dry or wet environment, and appears as thin, hairline cracks. It may also be affected by thickness of finish, chemicals in the finish, and age. Although it is usually necessary to refinish the surface, waxing with paste wax will improve the appearance when checking is not too extreme.

Apply thinly, in a circular motion, and polish dry at once with a clean cloth. Try to rub the wax out of the cracks; if it dries in there, it may appear white. To remove the white lines, rub with a cloth saturated in turpentine. Use an old toothbrush to get wax out of the crevices. Wash with mild soap and warm water, rinse with clear water and dry well. Re-wax the surface.

Note: When working on a checked finish, always use a circular motion.

Cloudy or Streaked Surface

This may be caused by grease deposited from cooking or heating; or it may be oily cloths rubbed on waxed finish, or too much wax/polish applied and not wiped dry. Clean by rubbing with furniture wax/polish containing solvent, and wiping off with clean, soft cloths.

Dark Spots

Rings and discolorations caused by some plastic or rubber items react with the finish and cannot be removed without refinishing. Dark spots and discolorations that have not penetrated the finish may be removed with a rotten-stone and oil paste. See "Burns" for more information.


Dents are depressed layers of wood caused by hard impacts. They can be raised back to original level by steam. Place several layers of damp fabric or damp, brown wrapping paper over the dent. Touch the fabric or paper with a warm iron. The steam will cause the wood fibers to swell back into place. It may be necessary to repeat this process until the dented area is level with the surface around it. Allow the area to dry.

Since the steam opens the wood pores, sand the area thoroughly to "repack" the grain. If you don't, the area will absorb more stain and have an uneven color.

Note: Don't use this treatment on veneers. The steam can soften the glue under the veneer and cause it to come loose. Also, be careful when applying steam near joints because the glue there can soften, also.

When an impact has been great enough to cut through the wood fibers, steam and heat will not repair the damage. Fill the dent with a wood filler to make it level. Follow directions on the package.

Finish Repairs

Most oil-rubbed or penetrating seal finishes can be easily repaired. Touch up jobs on varnished, lacquered or painted surfaces are likely to appear patched. Extensive damage in these finishes should be repaired by a professional.

If spot removal changes the luster of a finish, rub the entire surface with a mixture of pumice or rotten-stone mixed with boiled linseed oil. Rotten-stone is finer and will give a higher polish. Always rub in the direction of the wood grain. Use the palm of your hand or a soft cloth. If mixture becomes sticky, add a few drops of mineral spirits. Finish by wiping off the mixture and buffing with a clean cloth. Oil should be almost completely buffed off. If wax desired, wait for 48 hours.

Glue Joints

To reglue a joint buy a glue that says on label it is made for wood. Remove all old glue from both parts to be re-glued with sandpaper or steel wool. Sometimes vinegar will soften some old glues, but be sure wood is clean and dry before re-gluing. Check fit of parts before gluing. If joint is loose, put narrow strips of cloth over ends of loose-fitting piece to fill space, and check fit again.

Traditional wood glues call for a priming coat of glue on each part, to set until tacky, and then a second coat of glue before joining parts at once. Follow directions exactly on glue you use as there are many different types. Spread glue evenly as directed, and join parts. Apply pressure on joint for time specified on glue label. Use a C-clamp, or tourniquet of rope of clothesline for pressure. Pads of folded cloth, paper towels, or magazine pages may be placed at points of pressure to prevent marring wood. Weak corner joints may be braced with angle irons, and triangles of wood.

Grease Stains

Removing grease stains on furniture is at best a very difficult procedure. If the stain is very deep or old, it may be impossible to remove. One of the methods described below might aid in removal of less severe stains. They may also damage the finish so that refinishing is required.

  1. Place a blotter over the greasy spot. Press with a warm iron. Repeat until the spot is removed. Heat of iron may soften and damage the finish. OR
  2. Make a thick paste of Fullers Earth and liquid dry cleaning spot remover. Apply to the spot and allow the paste to dry. Brush away dry residue. Repeat several times if necessary. Caution: Dry cleaning spot remover and mineral spirits are poisonous and flammable. Follow caution on labels. Use in well-ventilated area. Do not use near flame, spark, or pilot light. Do not smoke. Do not get on skin or clothing. Solvent in spot remover may soften and damage finish, so test before using. OR
  3. Saturate the area with mineral spirits. Place Fuller's Earth, talcum powder, sawdust, or an old cloth over the spot to absorb the grease as it is drawn out by the first application. Continue until the spot is removed. The mineral spirits will remove most finishes so that refinishing is needed. CAUTION: Dry cleaning spot remover and mineral spirits are poisonous and flammable. Follow caution on labels. Use in well ventilated area. Do not use near flame, spark, or pilot light. Do not smoke. Do not get on skin or clothing.

Ink Stains

If ink is spilled on a worn or damaged finish in which the unsealed wood is exposed, it will penetrate deep into the wood and become almost impossible to remove. If, however, the finish has been protected with a layer of wax, ink can often be blotted up immediately without staining.

Blot the spot immediately before the ink has a chance to penetrate the wood. Clean the surface using a cream wax or damp cloth. Do Not Rub. Keep turning the cloth to prevent smearing. Should the stain persist, treat the spot with rotten-stone and oil as for alcohol stains. If stain remains, apply an oxalic acid solution with a medicine dropper or glass rod (two tablespoons oxalic acid to one pint lukewarm water). Allow the solution to stand a few minutes and rinse.

The oxalic acid solution is a bleach and works slowly, so give it time to work on the stain. It may also bleach out part of the natural color. The bleach will work better if the spot is sanded lightly before application. (CAUTION: Oxalic acid is poisonous. Follow label directions.)

Nail Polish

Do not apply nail polish remover to the stain; it will quickly damage finish. Instead, soften the nail polish by rubbing it with a cloth saturated in mineral spirits. CAUTION: Dry-cleaning spot remover and mineral spirits are poisonous and flammable. Follow caution on labels. Use in well-ventilated area. Do not use near flame, spark, or pilot light. Do not smoke. Do not get on skin or clothing. If the finish is hard, apply paste wax with fine 0000 steel wool in the direction of the grain. Apply a small amount of oil to an oil finish.

Paint Stains

Never use paint remover or strong chemicals to dissolve paint. They may cause extensive damage to the finish. Wipe off water-thinned paints with wet cloth. Wipe surface immediately with dry cloth to prevent water damage to finish. Caution: water will make shellac finish sticky. Remove fresh oil-base paint by rubbing the spot with a cloth saturated in liquid solvent-base wax.

For paint stains that have dried, cover the spot with boiled linseed oil. Let stand until softened; then remove with a cloth dampened with boiled linseed oil. If any paint remains, remove with rotten-stone and oil, using the same procedure as prescribed for alcohol stains; or gently scrape off paint with stiff cardboard, a plastic bowl scraper, or a fingernail.


Light scratches will often disappear when carefully rubbed with furniture polish or paste wax. Deeper scratches can be hidden by carefully rubbing with a piece of oily nutmeat such as Brazil nut, black walnut, or pecan. Be careful to rub the nutmeat directly into the scratch so it will not darken the surrounding wood. Color the scratch with brown coloring crayon or liquid shoe dye (especially good on walnut).

Stain the scratch with iodine:

  • Mahogany-use new iodine
  • Brown or cherry mahogany-iodine that has turned dark brown
  • Maple-dilute one part iodine with one part denatured alcohol.

Commercial scratch removers or stick wax to match the wood finish can also be used. After the scratch has been hidden, polish or wax the entire area. Deep scratches on some modern furniture finishes which resist staining are almost impossible to hide.

Silicone Polish Blemishes

Silicone is used in most modern furniture polishes. It adds gloss and water repellence and so protects the finish. If one is refinishing furniture at home, silicones left on may cause problems. These silicones must be removed during the refinishing process, or the new finish will not adhere properly, and craters and pits, called "fish eyes," will form on the new finish.

Remove the silicone before stripping and sanding by washing the surface with a cloth wet with turpentine and sprinkled with a heavy-duty powdered laundry detergent. Allow the turpentine to remain in contact with the finish for two or three minutes. Wipe the surface with a clean cloth, using a fresh part of the cloth with each wipe to prevent transfer of the silicone back to the wood surface.

If some evidence of "fish eyes" appears on the surface when a new finish is applied, wipe off the finish and mix in with it a finish additive made to eliminate this problem. Finish additives are available under various brand names at paint stores or wherever refinishing supplies are sold.

Veneer Gluing

Small pieces of loose veneer or blisters in veneer can be re-glued. Large veneer repair jobs should be taken to a professional furniture repairer. If a piece of veneer has come off the surface, lay the veneer on a flat surface and scrape off the glue. Do not wet veneer. Remove the old glue from the piece of furniture, not the veneer. Put glue on both pieces and put the veneer in place, add a paper pad, and clamp down with C-clamps or lay weights on it. Be sure the pressure covers all parts of the piece of veneer and don't remove the pressure until the glue is dry.

If the veneer is still attached but has loosened from an edge or corner, use a hypodermic needle or thin knife blade to insert wood glue into the area. Proceed with clamping as described above.

If you have a blister in the veneer, cut a slit with the point of a sharp, thin knife at the side of the blister where the veneer is still glued. Be sure to follow the grain of the wood. Hold the slit open with the knife. Fill the blister with warm white vinegar and let it stand for several hours to dissolve the glue. Wipe away any vinegar that remains with a damp cloth.

Let the blister and the surrounding wood dry thoroughly before adding glue. Then work plenty of wood glue under the blister, using a hypodermic needle or thin knife blade to get the glue in the blister. Apply pressure to flatten it. Leave it under pressure until the glue is completely dry.

Water Rings

Water rings, which appear as filmy gray spots, are especially common on furniture. To remove, use one of the following methods.

  1. Rub with paste wax and 4/0 (very fine) steel wool.
  2. Rub spot lightly with a soft lintless cloth moistened with camphorated oil. Wipe immediately using a clean cloth.
  3. Dip a small piece of cheesecloth in hot water to which two to three drops of household ammonia have been added. Wring cloth out tightly and rub spot lightly.

White Haze

White Haze, which appears as filmy white-gray stains, are especially common on furniture. To remove, use one of the following methods.

  1. Rub with paste wax and 4/0 (very fine) steel wool.
  2. Rub spot lightly with a soft lintless cloth moistened with camphorated oil. Wipe immediately using a clean cloth.
  3. Dip a small piece of cheesecloth in hot water to which two to three drops of household ammonia have been added. Wring cloth out tightly and rub spot lightly.

White Marks

Some of the causes of white marks are liquids containing alcohol (perfume, medicine, beverages), heat and water. Your success in removing such marks depends on the amount of damage and its cause. The following treatments may be helpful in minimizing or removing such marks.

Many spots will disappear if rubbed with a solution made of equal parts of boiled linseed oil, turpentine and vinegar, or with a cleaning-polishing wax. If the mark is stubborn, rub with 3/0 or 4/0 steel wool instead of a cloth. Rub with the grain of the wood. Do not use steel wool on high gloss finishes. Turpentine is flammable so follow cautions for solvents: no flame or spark nearby, do not get on skin, do not breathe.

Rub the spot lightly with a paste of powdered pumice or rottenstone and linseed oil. Spots on all finishes except lacquer can be treated with a cloth dampened with spirits of camphor, essence of peppermint or oil of wintergreen. As these may make the surface tacky, do not rub. When dry, you may need to smooth the roughened spot by rubbing with a paste of powdered pumice or rotten-stone and linseed oil.

Alcohol spots often respond to a quick exposure to ammonia. Rub lightly with a cloth dampened with non-sudsy water and a few drops of household ammonia. Not all treatments will work on all finishes. When completed, wax/polish entire surface. If spots cannot be removed, refinishing may be necessary.

Yellow Spots on Light Wood

As bleached or blond furniture ages, the chemicals used to bleach out the natural wood color begin to lose their effect, causing a change in color. Often this change is so gradual that it is not detected until a new piece is purchased in the original shade. Exposing light furniture to direct sunlight can cause a change to occur in only a few days resulting in unattractive yellow spots. Since nothing can be done to remove these spots, it is necessary to keep furniture of this type out of the sun.

Now you will have no trouble repairing stains and blemishes that have plagued your wooden furniture. You'll also be able to salvage those flea market and yard sale finds!

This article has been contributed in part by Michigan State University Extension