Water Mark Damage To Wood Furniture and Its Finish
Wood furniture finish can be damaged by water from plants vases dishes. Some damage can be repaired, or require refinishing.
Wooden furniture is especially vulnerable to water damage to the finish and to the wood itself. Most wood in the home, whether in furniture or on the home such as trims or cabinets, has a finish whose primary protective function is to prevent water from getting to the wood. Other functions of the finish include appearance, protection against abrasion, etc.
Milky white water rings are a fairly common problem in finishes, especially after the finishes have aged and started to break down from wear and sun. The better the quality of finish, the longer it might take to start to break down. As long as the finish maintains its integrity, water can’t get through it to damage the finish or the wood underneath. As an absolute, no finish is waterproof.
Paste wax or liquid furniture polish that is on top of the finish assists the finish in repelling water to start with. They never get water rings, since these items do not turn white with water.
Milky white water marks are caused by water penetrating the finish changing its transparency. They are always in the finish itself. The water causes minuscule fractures that prevent you from seeing through. It is much like solid ice that is transparent in relation to cracked ice that has voids and is opaque.
Milky white water marks are often caused by moisture from under drinking glasses, flower vases, or hot food containers, all of which did not have a coaster or trivet beneath them.
It has been argued that the milky white water marks are due to water trapped in the damaged finish. This is true only to the degree that the damage is very recent to where the water has not yet dried. The cracks caused in the finish and their appearance, however, remain.
Black water rings occur once the water breaks through the finish, where the water along with whatever chemicals it might contain can also damage the wood or its coloration. Water damage to the wood takes one of several forms: black marks, raised grain, peeled or lifted veneer, warpage, splits, joint or glue failure, and water logging.
Knowing the real explanation for milky white water rings makes it easier to understand the cures and the reasons the cures don’t always work.
To remove milky white water marks you need to pull the fresh moisture out of the finish as soon as possible, and realize that you still have to fill or eliminate the miniscule fractures.
Success in performing repairs is unpredictable because of the various types of finishes, the age and condition of the finish, the age of the water damage itself, and how deep the water has reached. Any repairs should be attempted realizing the risks involved. One problem may lead to another problem.
Start by removing the build up of polish or wax from the damaged finish:
- The removal of the existing polish or wax can best be performed using naptha and a clean lint free cloth. Gently wipe the surface with a damp cloth without flooding the surface.
- Another way to remove the build up of polish or wax is to use Murphy Oil Soap. Be sure to follow the instructions on the container. Most important is the guidance to spray the product on a damp cloth and then to gently wipe the finish to remove the build up. It may require several applications.
Ways to remove milky white water marks are:
- Apply a thick application of an oily substance, such as some furniture polishes that contain lemon oil, or even petroleum jelly to the damaged area and allow it to remain for 12 to 24 hours. The oil has a greater affinity to the finish than water and will sometimes replace the water if the damage is superficial and recent. The result is temporary until the oil dries. The result reduces the hazy appearance of the tiny cracks, but does not cause the finish to reconstitute itself to eliminate them. It is a relatively safe procedure.
- Warm the finish slowly with a blow dryer or lamp bulb to dry the moisture. Depending on the kind of finish the heat might help fuse the finish back together, at least to some degree. A goose neck lamp is perfect. Be very careful to apply the heat slowly and not overheat the finish. The finish should not ever become so hot you can’t place your hand on it. Remember that slow warmth is better than a blast of too much heat. Apply this technique with care.
- Dampen a lint free clean cloth with denatured alcohol and gently wipe over the damaged area. Dampen the cloth and the finish just barely enough so that it leaves the appearance of a comet’s tail as you gently wipe the finish. You can practice the correct quantity of alcohol by wiping across your plastic laminate kitchen counter top. Too much alcohol, too much wiping or too much pressure may damage the finish. Since alcohol absorbs moisture, this procedure will pull out most fresh water marks. We do not recommend this procedure for high gloss finishes. Use this procedure with care.
The above solutions are really the only approaches that might be tried with some degree of success and minimal risks by the do-it-yourselfer.
- IF the finish is quality lacquer, professionals can spray on a special lacquer retarder. This may soften the finish so any remaining moisture can escape and the finish can reconstitute itself. The result will slightly change the sheen level, but the total surface can then be hand rubbed to a constant sheen. This procedure can not be applied to any type of finish other than quality lacquer. This approach is only for professionals.
Surface Cracks: It is sometimes possible for a professional to repair very slight surface cracks in the finish by sanding them back and applying more finish on top. The careful hand sanding is with 320 grit and finer paper and shouldn’t remove more of the finish than necessary. The respray results may vary widely. It works best if the finish is quality lacquer. This approach is only for professionals.
- When the finish begins to separate from the wood and peel, there is no way to repair it. It has to be stripped off and replaced. However, when the damage is confined to an out of the way location, maybe just that surface can be refinished to match the rest. This approach is only for professionals.
- The use of coasters and trivets is highly recommended. Never place a hot moist container directly on any finish. Such a container might be a pottery bowl with mash potatoes or pasta.
- The best way to prevent water damage, beyond having a quality lacquer finish to start with, is by maintaining a properly liquid polished or paste waxed protective coat on top of the finish.
- We offer a discussion paper on the advantages of using furniture liquid polish versus paste wax.
- Any repair should start by removing the polish or wax.
- The timing of applying repair techniques after the water damage has occurred to the finish is a major controlling factor.
- Any repair may simply exchange one problem for another.
- A quality acrylic lacquer finish is the finish of choice because it remains flexible so it expands with the wood, is repairable, and can usually be top coated.
- Other finishes, such as polyurethane, are not flexible and can not be spot repaired.
At The Wood Works we specialize, among many others services, in top quality finish repair, finish restoration, and finish stripping and refinishing. We exclusively use acrylic lacquer. The reasons should be apparent.
This information is based on articles by Bob Flexner published in the August 1995 and March 1998 editions of Woodshop News.
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