Repair White Water Stains, Rings or Heat Burns on Wood Finishes




There is nothing worse than to see a stain on your prized wood surface.

This can be created by heat or moisture, or from both heat and moisture. Most commonly from a hot coffee cup or from water left on the surface for a long time.

There are two types of finishes that are used on wood. They are either polyurethane based (water) or oil based. I'm not sure what the type of finish is on my surface, but the softened hardness of the finish, smoother finish, and cloudy nature of the stain leads to the probability that it is water based.

This unfortunate little blurb on the internet recommended the following:

Q: One of my relatives placed a hot cup of tea on our wood dining room table and it left a huge white ring? How do I remove the ring from the table?

A: The white ring is moisture that has been absorbed by the finish. When you do get white rings appearing, this is a sign that the finish is wearing out and losing its ability to repel moisture. The heat from this cup of tea softened the finish and allowed the moisture to get into the top layer of finish. In this case, since it is a new white ring, sometimes you can be successful using a hairdryer on the low/warm setting to evaporate that moisture back out. However, if you have a piece of furniture with a white ring that has been in there for some time, we need a little bit of abrasiveness to remove it. I usually get a pad of 4-0 steel wool - the finest steel wool they make. The steel wool by itself is going to leave scratches, so I first pour onto the white ring a finishing product, usually Minwax® Antique Oil or Minwax® Wipe-On Poly, and then use the 4-0 steel wool on top of the oil to lightly abrade the surface. Take a rag, wipe it off, check it, and gradually you'll see that white ring disappearing. Then take Minwax® Wipe-On Poly or Minwax® Antique Oil and go over the entire surface of the table, because that white ring indicates the finish is worn out. It needs another coat of finish to prevent that from happening again.

This recommendation is pretty bad because the stain has probably penetrated the full thickness of the finish which would require the removal of all the finish and probably a pretty ugly refinish if you can't find the exact stain or finish used. Also, I don't have the patience to sit around with a hair dryer to see if that would work.

Try this method which requires next to no skill and with tools you probably have around your house already! This instructable will work with fresh or even really old stains!

Step 1: Tools You Will Need:

Quite simple.

  One iron, and some clean fabric, preferably 100% cotton, clean and dry.  I'm using a pillow case and some scrap pieces of fabric.

Step 2: Prep the Iron

It's important that the iron be drained of all water if it is a steam based iron.

Lock off any steam function and set the temperature at the absolute lowest setting.

The temperature should be low enough so that you would be able to put your hand on the surface comfortably.  

This will be your starting setting.

Step 3: Prep the Fabric

Fold the fabric so that there are layers of fabric that still has a surface area greater than the surface area of the iron.

Step 4: Place Fabric and Iron Over the Stain.

Place the fabric and the barely warm iron over the stain.

The fabric disperses the heat evenly and gently over a large surface reducing hotspots.

At the lowest setting, you can leave the iron on the surface for hours. *AT YOUR OWN RISK*

Your two controls are the thickness of the fabric and the temperature control of the iron.

As the heat moves from the iron through the fabric, it will be absorbed by the wood over a large area. As long as the temperature remains low and the fabric thick enough, you will not damage the surrounding surface of the finish. If you use this instructable properly, you will be using NO MORE THAN 10% of the heat range of the iron.

On occasion, you can test the heat transfer by sliding off the fabric and placing your hand on the surface. The temperature you are trying to approximate is a warm cup of coffee. (hands on mug for 20 seconds). Not a cup of freshly boiled water. (Hands on mug for 3 seconds)

If you cannot touch the surface, YOU HAVE STARTED THE SETTING ON THE IRON TOO HIGH!

Always start at a lower setting and slowly move up. If you check repeatedly, you will not damage the finish.

If you want to transfer more heat to the stain, remove layers of fabric between the iron and the surface, or increase the setting on the iron (incrementally). Remember 'warm cup of coffee' temperature.

The slower and gentler the process, the safer you will be to the surrounding finish of the stain. If you keep to the warm cup of coffee temperature, you can take as long as you need to 'lift' the stain.

Depending on the stain, I've taken as long as ~~an hour~~ three days (an hour is waaayyy too short of a time, if you see changes in the stain in less than an hour, the iron is waaaaaayyyyyyy to hot) to remove a stain from surface. If you have the temperature at a safe even level, you can leave the iron on the surface almost indefinitely (at your own risk).

If you are doing it properly and the finish is the right type for this instructable, then you will see the stain will change from cloudy the opaque to smaller to clear. If you see changes, then you are at the right temperature. The heat will cause the stain to slowly release the moisture back into the fabric. If the fabric started off a completely dry, the fabric will absorb whatever little moisture that is in the stain.

As the stain releases most of it's moisture, the last remnants will take the longest as it's the deepest part of the stain. Do not increase the temperature. You are at the right temperature. It will just take a long time. DO NOT FORCE IT BY INCREASING THE TEMPERATURE.

Step 5: And You're Done!

Expecting a picture?  

 Well it's not ready yet.  I did say that it would take more than an hour.  Besides, it would be the picture of a normal coffee table.  Pretty boring.

While I was typing this out, I went to check the temperature and it turned out to be too low.  It was the temperature of lukewarm coffee!

So going back to my own instructable, I raised the temperature on the iron leaving the thickness of the fabric as is.

  Start low and slowly move up.  The slower you transfer heat from the iron through the fabric to the surface, the less likely you will raise the temperature so fast that you will scorch the surface.  The older the stain, the lower the heat.

Good Luck!



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    14 Discussions


    2 years ago

    had a bunch of white rings on my dining room table caused by hot dishes. I used a hot iron on a clean damp washcloth on the table top (always moving the iron) and within about 20 seconds the rings were gone - thanks for the idea!

    1 reply

    Reply 2 months ago

    DAMP!? You meant DRY cloth, right?


    8 months ago

    I did this patiently on very low heat for more than two days and was about to give up, when instead, I re-read the whole article, including all the comments. So I bravely turned up the heat on the iron just a bit (how heat can repair heat damage still baffles me) and within an hour the stain was gone! THANK YOU!


    7 years ago on Introduction

    "There are two types of finishes that are used on wood. They are either polyurethane based (water) or oil based. "
    Not quite. polyurethane is a type of resin (the stuff that forms the film finish). It (like all other resins) is suspended in a liquid solution. Water-based finishes suspend the resin in water. Solvent-based finishes use an evaporative solvent, which can be alcohol (in the case of shellac), lacquer-thinner (in the case of lacquer), etc.
    Polyurethane varnish used to be only available in a solvent-based version, but are now also available in a waterbase.

    Oil finishes use some type of polymerizing oil (linseed and tung are the two most common) which react with oxygen to create cross-linked polymers. They are typically mixed with an oil-derived solvent (mineral spirits) or turpentine to thin them, and allow for slightly faster drying times.

    1 reply

    Reply 1 year ago

    Thanks bookmatch. You saved me from taking time to make same response


    1 year ago

    My boyfriend put a fresh pizza on our coffee table and left a huge white heat stain on the wood.....So stoked that this worked! Thank you thank you thank you!!!


    1 year ago

    I had a house warming party and awoke this morning to find a light coloured large ring on my brand new wood\laminate(?) dining table. I have no idea if what caused it. Needless to say I was bit sad. Luckily google got me here and your simple iron and cloth tricked worked! One happy reader thank you!


    2 years ago

    I know this is a really old post, but I have to say how well this just worked for me! I am astounded! I had two white spots maybe 1-1/2 inches across that were the result of a hot plate set on the dark brown wood coffee table. Yesterday, I started with my iron on Low over a pillowcase folded in quarters, but the iron bottom felt hotter than described as appropriate in the post (I couldn't put my hand on it at all). So I turned it to halfway between Low and Off. Of course, the iron kept shutting itself off due to the safety mechanism, but I just kept turning it back on when I remembered to check it :) I'm not sure how much actual heating time the table received yesterday but the white spot reduced a tiny bit. This morning I turned it back on and moved it back up to Low, figuring I'd keep an eye on the heat. I checked it about 15 minutes later and THE SPOTS WERE GONE! I was stunned! Thanks for this informative post!


    2 years ago

    My mother has stoneware dishes that hold heat very well; they become incredibly hot if you heat food in the microwave on them. Before I realized this, I heated up my dinner on one of them one night and then went to eat it and watch a movie in the living room. To my horror when Ipicked up the plate, there was this enormous white ring that wouldn't go away. That was months ago and I've been looking for a way to fix it since then (as she was understandably upset). I've been using your instructions here using a dish towel and the lowest setting on the iron.Slowly but surely, it's lifting that awful months-old stain out of the table's finish! She wanted to refinish the table to get rid of the stain, and she's going to be so happy when she sees that it's finally gone. Science is amazing. Thank you so much.

    1 reply

    Reply 2 years ago

    The satisfaction you are experiencing right now is reward for the patience you put in for not destroying your table trying to fix it with bad advice, and spending time researching and finding a solution that I would assume, once fixed will give no evidence that it was ever damaged in the first place.

    I'd suggest that you don't tell your mom that you ever fixed it, and instead, when she is surprised that it's gone, feign ignorance and ask her what she's talking about. There was never a stain there in the first place.


    2 years ago

    Wow! It worked perfectly! Thank you!


    3 years ago

    Can't believe it - it worked! I have tried everything - 3 different products - on a horrendous heat ring I caused the other day on my 30 yr old polished dining table then came across this tip. It took a few hours and when I increased the heat of the iron a little the next day the mark soon disappeared. I am now tackling some minor, older stains and so far so good! Thank you so much. Why didn't I know this before?


    6 years ago on Introduction

    I have a few white stains on the furniture and walls of my vein center. I was wondering, if visiting my website you would guess the type of finish used. I would also appreciate if you could guess if the cleaning method on this page would work on the stains. Thanks.

    1 reply

    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    Don't know, but you can try. On the lowest heat you can leave it on the furniture for hours and not cause any damage.