How to Fix Furniture Finishes

A scratched piece of wood.
What You'll Need
Denatured alcohol
0000 Steel wool
Ultra-fine grit sandpaper
Paste wax
Murphy's soap oil or mild dish washing soap
Lint-free cloth
Artist brush
Stain markers/pens
Wax sticks
Scratch cover polish
Auto polishing compound

Usually well-loved furniture is also well-used; this means it's ground zero for accidents, spills, and scratches. To keep wood furniture beautiful it's important to care for damaged finishes as soon as possible and to properly treat them to prevent further damage or discoloration. Improper repairs can have the opposite desired effect and actually draw wandering eyes to the damage. While refinishing a wood piece is always an option, sometimes just a quick spot repair is the better solution.

Types of Damage

The type of damage is directly related to the treatment remedy and can often mean the difference between a complete refinish and a spot repair. White water marks or rings left by glasses are the easiest to fix and should always be addressed first. They lie on top of and in the very first layer of clear finish.

Minor surface scratches that do not include a dent or loss of color are contained to the clear finish, while chips and dents will require filling. They may not need the addition of staining unless the raw wood is exposed underneath. Finally, wear on corners or well-used surface areas will include some combination of all of these and will also require a more time-intensive repair.

Before attempting any repair, clean the wood surface with a lint-free rag and a solution of soap and water. Murphy's soap oil was designed for this purpose but mild dishwashing soap will work just as well. If the project requires any sanding, the surface will need to be cleaned again before any repairs are made.

White Water Marks/Rings

Please note, this type of repair will not work if the watermark is discolored and/or black. The discoloration is a sign of mold growth within the raw wood and should be taken to a furniture repair specialist. There are several remedies available online that include a heat application to "draw" the moisture out of the wood. This technique is not recommended since it is likely to cause more harm than good.

This repair requires patience and a gentle hand. Dampen a lint-free rag with denatured alcohol and lightly dab the mark, but do not soak it. If the mark is soaked to the point that the finish becomes dulled it will need to air dry.

Alternatively, an oily substance such as petroleum jelly or mayonnaise can be left on the marks overnight. The oils will displace any trapped moisture causing the opaque white mark to disappear.

Once the mark is gone, lightly rub the finish with steel wool and paste wax until the desired shine is achieved. This will bring back a satin sheen. For a gloss finish use an auto polishing compound and swirl it into the surrounding areas to blend in the repair.

Chips and Shallow Scratches

For shallow chips in the clear finish, the solution lies in a manicure kit. Apply a small drip of clear nail polish to the chip and allow it to penetrate the surrounding finish. Let the drop completely air dry before sanding it flush to the old finish using 600 grit sandpaper.

For a scratch, inspect it closely first, looking for any denting of the scratch. If there is a dent it may require filling before a finish repair can be attempted. Also, look for flaking of the varnish. This will present itself as small chips and loose pieces around the edges.

Any flaking will need to be sanded away for the new finish to properly adhere to the adjacent area. Use steel wool and a swirling motion until the damaged area is flake-free. Using an artist's brush or cotton swap, lightly fill in the scratch with a wipe-on clear oil finish until the scratch is filled and allow it to air dry. This may take several coats over time to fully conceal the damaged area.

This technique will not work on hard clear coat finishes such as polyurethane that are used on tabletops. Oil finishes may even magnify the scratch rather than disguise it on this type of surface. Instead, carefully sand out the scratch with 600 grit sandpaper and water or lemon oil. If the scratch is not too deep it should polish out.

Top off any of the above methods by polishing the repaired area after allowing it to dry completely. For a satin sheen use steel wool and polish with paste wax. When seeking a gloss finish use an auto polishing compound. Use a lint-free rag and a swirling motion to blend the polish across the repaired and adjacent areas.

Stain Penetrating Scratches

Woodworking supply stores carry stain markers and pens in a variety of brands and colors. Choose an option with a color slightly lighter than the current finish. Apply the marker to the scratch in sweeping motions.

Be careful not to let the marker rest at any point or to bleed stain onto any of the undamaged surfaces. If this occurs, wipe it away with a lint-free cloth as quickly as possible. Apply several coats of the marker until the desired color is achieved.

Newly damaged and exposed wood will absorb the stain more quickly and will become darker more quickly. If the wood becomes too dark, soak a rag in mineral spirits and dab at the area until the color lightens. Next, polish in paste wax to help conceal the site of the repair.

This same technique can be used on worn edges and other wear pattern marks as well, but will not help rebuild the shaping of the wood. It will, however, hide the damage and make it appear less noticeable.

Gouges, Nicks, and Dings

Gouges, nicks, and dings will require a light sanding with a 600 grit sandpaper to remove any burr edges before attempting a repair. This will make the repair less noticeable by removing a seam where the repair and adjacent wood join.

Wax sticks can be matched to the finish or mixed to find the best match. Either way, rub the wax stick into the gouge filling in the missing depth, filling it until it is slightly overfull. Scrape the wax smooth with the flat edge of a credit card until only the gouge is filled. Remove any excess wax left on the wood by rubbing over it with a wood block covered in a paper bag.

Use paste wax to polish the repaired area and any adjoining wood. This type of repair is more easily attempted on vertical surfaces and may not be long-lasting or as inconspicuous on horizontal surface areas.