Burning Off Water Damage

Wipe the white discoloration with alcohol, touch it with a lit match, and Bob's your uncle. January 7, 2010

Finished a kitchen at the end of last year. Used clear satin high build pre-cat on walnut, 3 coats. The lady is a slob and splashes water everywhere and doesn't wipe it off the cabs when she is done! Luckily it's only two doors and two drawer fronts. What are your thoughts on sanding off as much pre-cat as I can without changing the color of the wood and applying a thin coat of poly over the pre-cat (a little scary)?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor B:
If the damage is superficial, just white marks, you might be able to remove them by burning them out. Wipe the marks with alcohol, set fire to them with a match, leave it to burn off, and the marks will disappear without affecting the lacquer. I've done this many times, and it works a treat. Can you post a photo?

From the original questioner:
Thanks. That's a hot tip and I'm going to use it. But on the bottom of one door the finish has peeled away slightly, just enough to warrant respraying. Fixing it really isn't the problem - I just don't want it to happen again and I know poly will stand up to the water. The kitchen was really big and it just wasn't necessary to do the whole thing in poly.

From contributor U:
Water marks should be an easy fix. I would buff out with 0000 steel wool and would try a light coat of no blush. If that didn't do it, then a light coat of the original finish. Not sure about the burning deal.

From contributor B:
Burning out a water mark is an old tried and tested method. I've done it dozens of times. Even on those few occasions when it doesn't work, it doesn't do any harm. When it does work, it leaves a perfect surface with no need for any further treatment.

From contributor U:
Would you go into someone's home and use the burn method to remove a white ring in their dinning room table?

From contributor J:
You can use a hair dryer to "burn" out the water marks as well. Just don't heat to the point of it blistering.

From contributor B:
The first time I saw the burn method was in someone's dining room. My dad did it on her table while she stood and watched. I thought her jaw would hit the floor. It's a great trick, and a lot of fun. My dad did his apprenticeship as a French polisher before the Second World War, so he knew a thing or two about the job. A couple of years ago I spent a day in the best hotel in Southport. I went from room to room armed only with a bottle of alcohol, a rag and a box of matches and I treated all the headboards and bedside cabinets. They were perfect when I left.

I should say this only works on white water or heat marks. If the timber has gone grey, it won't work. White marks are caused by water trapped in the lacquer; heat from burning alcohol evaporates the water. Simple.

From contributor U:
Thanks for the tip. I've been doing this type of work for 25 years and never heard of burning. It's nice you had a Dad to show you some tricks of the trade.

From contributor B:
I must admit you have to be careful. When I was working in the hotel, the rag in my hand caught fire and I dropped it on the carpet, but I had some water handy, so I was okay. It makes life interesting.

From contributor M:
Was that Southport CT? If so, do you drive a white Sprinter van?

From contributor B:
I drive a white Citroen van, but it is in Southport, England, so I doubt if you can see it from where you live.

From the original questioner:
Tried the alcohol burn trick on Thursday and it worked like a charm. Everyone was amazed and I looked like a hero.

The next time you get the opportunity to try this, don't forget the alcohol; it doesn't change the sheen either.

From contributor B:
I'm glad it worked. It really is a good trick. You just need a bit of confidence, and nerves of steel. As you say, I always find that customers are amazed, and happy that they don't have to pay for stripping and repolishing.

From contributor U:
I had an opportunity to try it yesterday. I was in a customer's house on another issue and she asked me about getting water marks out of the kitchen table. So I tried my usual, super no blush, but it didn't touch it. I chickened out on the burning technique; maybe next time.

From contributor B:
Next time, take a deep breath and give it a go. Take a clean rag, wet it with alcohol, wipe across the mark so it leaves a wet patch, not a big puddle. Strike a match and slowly lower it towards the alcohol, and the fumes will catch fire. Leave it to burn off, and bob's your uncle. You can carry a fire extinguisher with you, but that would probably make your customer a bit nervous. Once you've tried it, there'll be no stopping you. This time next year, every polisher in America will be setting fire to their customer's furniture.

This method really is safe; it's the fumes which burn, not the alcohol itself, or the lacquer, or the table. As soon as the alcohol has gone, the flames go out. If you are really stupid, you might set fire to your hand, but perhaps that's just me.

From contributor F:
I was just wondering, how was this method discovered? Someone maybe trying to rub out some water spots with alcohol while smoking?

From contributor B:
I don't know how this method was invented, but it has been around for a long time. Today I was talking to a retired French polisher who used to work at Cunard shipyards in Liverpool. One of his colleagues there, who perhaps was a bit crazy, had a party trick where he would coat his hands in alcohol and set fire to them. The spirit burned off without touching his hands. This bloke also used to sneak up to people while they were eating their dinner, and soak their boots in alcohol and set fire to them. In the days before television was invented people had to make their own entertainment.

From contributor S:
In the good old days, finishers actually learned their chemistry and thought their way through problems. WOODWEB and other sites have changed how finishers become finishers. Now they just ask questions from a broad panel and don't bother to figure things out for themselves. I guess it's a wonderful thing. With all the knowledge so readily available now, a finisher can go very far very fast and if they just learn to think also, they will be able to become Masters in the trade in a percentage of the time. Beyond that, all they need is the work so that they can experience. It is the work itself that teaches best.

From contributor A:
Burning it out in front of a customer might not be your best bet, bud. I've done it and it works great, but if you're doing it in someone's home, you might want to make sure they are okay with it first. No Blush works great with 0000 steel wool. It has a strong odor but might be a little safer than lighting it on fire.

From contributor T:
I have got to try it! Do you use rubbing or denatured alcohol?

From contributor B:
In England we call it methylated spirits; I think in America it is denatured alcohol. It is ethanol, the same as you find in alcoholic drinks, but over here some purple dye is added to stop people drinking it.