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Mike McClintock: Home Sense

Wood Damage: Refinish or Repair

By Mike McClintock
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 2, 2004; Page H02

Whether it's a dent on the maple table or a pet accident on the oak floor, when wood is damaged there are only two options: repair or refinish.

Repairs are often difficult, but even dealing with deep stains and burns can be easier than starting from scratch and working an entire table or floor through the laborious stages of stripping, sanding, sealing and finishing.

These tips can make the timesaving difference, particularly when the damage is in a prominent place (isn't it always), and even a cleanly filled scratch or dent can stand out like a sore thumb.

General guidelines

You can remove many surface-only blemishes with cleaners such as Pledge, Murphy's Oil Soap, and others scented to suit. But whenever you have to get below the surface finish and deal with exposed wood grain, two things happen.

First, as you apply any liquid -- a mild cleanser or even straight household bleach -- the wood fibers swell and then dry to a somewhat furry texture. When the last treatment finally dries you need to sand lightly, or use fine steel wool, to smooth out the furriness. If you skip this step, even the most skillfully blended repair will stand out as a slightly rough patch.

Second, when stains are stubborn, it's tempting to try several different and increasingly potent cleaners, and even to concoct a home brew from that collection of cleaners under the sink.

Experimenting is not a bad idea, particularly if you can try the mix on a table leg or some other place to see what happens. But be sure not to combine household bleach with any cleanser containing ammonia. That mix produces dangerous fumes.

Repairing dents

The wood used on counters, floors and furniture may be relatively dense, but not hard enough to withstand a dropped tool or who-knows-what that's even harder. The resulting dent is actually compressed wood fibers.

One repair approach is to fill the depression with wood putty, and then stain and wax to match the surrounding area. In this case, the choice of filler is critical. While epoxy makes the strongest repair, it can be difficult to control during application and even harder to shape once it hardens. Some glues do level out on their own. But glue can't be stained.

You'll probably get better results using a more malleable filler -- a porous, sandable material such as Durham's Rock Hard Water Putty. By altering the amount of water in the mix you can make the filler stiff if you have to shape an area of molding, or soupy if you have to spread the filler over a larger area. And if you add it unevenly, it's easy to sand. It also accepts stain.

Matching any filler to surrounding wood can be difficult and call attention to the repair if you don't get it right. So before you fill, try an iron held an inch or so above the dent. Its steam can raise and straighten damaged wood fibers the way it presses out wrinkles in the fibers of fabrics.

If steam doesn't work, try soaking the dent with water and applying heat with a paint-removal gun or hair dryer. Repeated treatments may not raise the dent completely but can often reduce the concave shape enough to make the depression unnoticeable.

Repairing burns

Starting with the least invasive treatment, try to remove surface burns with a polish or nonabrasive cleanser. If that doesn't work, use a razor-sharp scraper to remove some finish and expose the burned fibers.

At this point there are two options: bleach out the burned color and leave the fibers in place, or shave off the bad fibers. On a shallow burn, shaving may do the job without creating a noticeable depression, though that can depend on the wood, the finish and how picky you are.

On a deep burn, you could scrape or sand down past the discoloration. But filling the resulting depression is difficult without painstaking grain-matching, and often creates even more of an eyesore than the original scar.

So before you dig in, try several treatments of straight household bleach. Eventually, the wood should take on a neutral, generally grayish hue that you can sand, stain and refinish.

Use a stain that matches the surrounding area, but apply only a thin coat and quickly wipe off any excess. Let each coat dry and add more tone in stages. When you have the best match, blend in the repair by applying coats of paste wax, rubbing over the damaged area and onto surrounding wood.

Repairing pet and water stains

Drying, bleaching and following the repair steps above will help with most water and pet stains. With long-term problems that cause rot (under that over-watered plant, for instance), you may need to replace a board.

With pet stains, scraping and sanding will improve the appearance. But if you don't eradicate the odor, pets are likely to use the spot again.

Once the surface is cleaned and sanded, you can flood the wood with bleach, try a proprietary mix sold in pet stores, or a citrus-based cleaner. When the treatment dries, smooth the raised grain, add stain, and finish with wax or feathered coats of polyurethane to better suppress any lingering odor.

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