September 29, 2022
  • You can remove water stains from wood with household products like distilled white vinegar, toothpaste, and even mayonnaise. 
  • Light stains are newer and can be removed using surface treatments like polish.
  • Dark stains are older and have mildew growth; you’ll need to sand the piece to get rid of them.
  • Visit Insider’s Home & Kitchen Reference library for more stories.

Wood furniture and floors are timeless and elegant. Unfortunately, they’re also prone to watermarks.

“Water stains on wood furniture can be a real eyesore,” says James Walton, woodworker and author of the Wood Router Guru. “They can make your beautiful wood furniture look old and dirty.”

Water stains happen when moisture penetrates into the wood and becomes trapped beneath the surface, which occurs most commonly from the condensation from a cup, bottle, or mug, or when a spill is left uncleaned. 

No matter what the cause of your water stain, there are options for clearing it and getting your wood furniture, floors or counters looking as good as new. 

Determine the color of the stain

Photo of light water stains.

Light water stains appear cloudy or light compared to the wood, whereas dark ones appear almost black.

Paul Maguire/Shutterstock


No two water stains are the same. But generally, you can get a sense how to approach removal by determining whether you have a light or dark water stain.

“The difference between light and dark stains is the length of time the water has been on the wood and therefore how far it has penetrated,” says Laurence Mann, director of Wood Finishes Direct

  • Light water stains: Light water stains appear white or light-colored, and may have a cloudy appearance. These are newer stains, where the water has only affected the finish of the wood or the surface layer, says Mann.
  • Dark water stains: If light stains aren’t treated, they’ll eventually develop into dark water stains on wood. These stains, which appear deep brown or black, happen when water seeps into the wood, then begins to grow mold. Since these are deeper within the wood, they’re more difficult to remove, says Mann. 

5 ways to remove light water stains

Close up of a lemon halves on wood.

The simplest way to remove light stains is with lemon or vinegar.

Géza Bálint Ujvárosi/EyeEm/Getty Images


According to Mann, the best way to get rid of water stains is to use a combination of methods.

Begin with the least invasive method, which you’ll find at the top of this list. Check back the next day. If the wood is still stained, move on to more invasive options for removing the stain.

1. Lemon or vinegar

The simplest way to remove a water stain is by rubbing it with lemon water or vinegar. Mix equal parts vinegar and water; or squeeze one lemon into a cup of water. Then, lightly scrub the solution over the stain, moving in the direction of the wood grain. For added grit and cleaning power, add a teaspoon of salt or baking soda to the mix. This method works best on very new stains that have only affected the top layer of the wood’s finish.

2. Toothpaste

If a light scrub doesn’t work, grab a tube of toothpaste. You’ll want a white paste, not the gel variety. The abrasiveness of the toothpaste can help remove water stains on the top-most surface of the wood. 

Squeeze the paste onto a cloth and rub it in a circle on the stain. Don’t press too hard, and only do this for 1 minute — more than that, and you risk damaging the wood.

3. Petroleum jelly or mayonnaise 

One of the best ways to remove a water stain is by covering it in petroleum jelly, or even mayonnaise. The oil from these substances can seep into the wood, displacing the water and removing the stain. 

To try it, put a dollop of petroleum or mayonnaise on a paper towel. Gently rub it over the stain. Leave it on for at least 15 minutes, and as long as overnight, checking back periodically to evaluate the appearance of the stain. When it has disappeared, wipe down the wood with a cleaning solution and clean cloth.

4. Hair dryer or iron

New stains can sometimes be removed by applying heat, which causes the water to evaporate. However, heat can also warp wood, so proceed with caution when trying these methods, says Mann. Start by using a hair dryer on a hot setting. Point it at the stain until the water evaporates. If that doesn’t work, lay a kitchen towel over the stain. Then, go over the towel with an iron, making sure the iron never comes into direct contact with the wood.

5. Commercial wood cleaners and polish

If home remedies haven’t worked, it’s time to reach for wood-specific products, says Mann. Start by applying wood polish or wax. Leave it on for 6 to 8 hours, and then wipe away to see if the stain is gone. If it’s still there, try a ring remover solution. Odorless mineral spirits or acetone can also be used to thin the top layer of varnish and remove the stain, but since they’re not specifically designed for this purpose they may leave blemishes, says Mann.

How to remove dark water stains

Dark water stains on old wood.

Dark water stains occur over time and take sanding to remove.

Milanares/Getty Images


Dark water stains are more difficult to remove because there are two steps: you must remove the water, and also clear away mold that has grown within the wood. The only way to properly do that is by sanding back the surface of the wood, says Mann. 

Whether this is a big or small project will depend on where your water stain is. A small stain on furniture or countertop can be sanded out by hand using 150-grit sandpaper. Press the paper lightly into the wood, moving in the same direction as the grain of the wood.

After you’ve sanded down to the stain, use a mold and mildew cleaner to kill the mold and ensure the stain does not come back. Once the stained area has dried, you’ll be able to refinish the wood with the same stain or varnish as the rest of the piece. 

For larger dark water stains, like those on flooring after a plumbing leak, you may need to rent a sanding machine to remove the heavy varnish. 

Insider’s takeaway 

When it comes to treating water stains on wood, time is of the essence. Newer stains can be treated simply by wiping the area with vinegar or lemon water, or by scrubbing lightly with toothpaste. Using wood polish or wood stain remover can also help. 

As the stain permeates deeper into the wood it will become darker and harder to remove. To remove these stains you’ll need to sand and refinish the stained area.