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Eliminating Scratches and Blemishes From Wooden Cabinets and Furniture

No matter how well we care for the wooden cabinets and furniture in our homes, wear and tear will always take its toll. We spill on them, drop things on and against them, and use their surfaces in ways that are less than desirable.

Cabinets in our kitchens and bathrooms generally take the biggest beating, with scratches, burn and water marks, and even shallow dents, all producing challenges to those of us who would prefer not to have items in our homes with what many might call “character.”

The good news is that minor scratches and many other blemishes are very easy to “fix.”
Getting rid of, or even just camouflaging scratches and blemishes that build up on wood depend largely on how bad the blemishes are. For instance, minor surface scratches are must easier to hide than deep gouges, and water and even heat marks are a lot easier to get rid of than burn marks. It really depends on how deep the damage is as well as the type of wood affected.

Woods with a strong grain like oak, cherry, hickory, and walnut are the most difficult to treat, particularly when scratches are deep and need to be filled. If cabinets are made from medium density fiberboard (MDF) the primary challenge is to fix the defect and then match the existing finish so that the repairs don’t show.

Shallow Scratches

Over time just about every surface gets scratched. Superficial scratches can often be covered up using special touch-up markers, but if there is even the slightest indentation, it won’t be 100 percent successful. Also, it is important to ensure that the color used matches the cabinet or furniture surface.

Minor scratches can usually be removed by rubbing them softly with very fine silicone carbide (wet-and-dry) paper. Try using a little furniture oil for lubrication and to color the wood.

Slightly deeper scratches can be filled with a polyurethane sealer that matches the color of the wood – either pre-mixed or tinted. This can be quite tedious though, as you need to build up the scratch gradually; you can’t just fill it in. Additionally, each layer needs to dry before the next is painted. It is best to use an artist’s brush and to ensure the filler doesn’t spill over onto the surface of the wood. When it is completely dry, smooth using fine wet-and-dry paper. Note that this method is not viable for MDF unless the board has been given a wood grain effect, and you don’t want to sand adjacent areas. Rather:
  • Fill the scratch
  • Allow to dry
  • Sand any residue off the surface
  • Repaint or finish in a way that will match the existing surface

If the repaired surface was sealed previously, you will need to reseal. Otherwise, you may be able to get away with using furniture oil or polish to buff it back to the way it was before. 
Deep Scratches and Gouges

Kitchen cabinets are more likely to be scratched and gouged over time since this is where we work with knives and other sharp implements. If they are more than just surface scratches, it’s usually best to use wood filler intended for filling holes, cracks and other surface defects on wood. While these are identified according to wood types (oak, beech, mahogany and so on), it is the color rather than species that is important, particularly when the wood is sealed rather than painted. MDF and wood that is to be painted can be filled with a colored wood filler, or with white wood filler. So, for instance, mahogany might work for walnut, and beech could be a good match for maple cabinets. Just don't use filler intended for filling holes in masonry.

When it comes to sealing the surface, you might need to remove the existing sealer first, or at least give it all a light sanding, to ensure that the repairs don’t stand out.
Use fine grit paper with a sanding block to smooth the surface of the wood.  
Use a scraping tool to scoop out a little of the filler and push firmly into the gouge or deep scratch.
Smooth the surface of the wood with the scraper. Allow the filler to dry and harden.  
Seal the repaired surface to match the existing surface.
However deep or shallow, any scratches and gouges in MDF can also be disguised with wood filler. Allow the filler to dry and harden, and then sand the surface to achieve a smooth finish. Match the existing finish as best you can by painting manually or by spray painting.


Furniture it more likely to suffer from dents than fitted cabinets, but accidents do happen.

Shallow dents are relatively easy to get rid of, but you will need to remove the finish first by sanding the area that is dented. Then all you do it place a damp cloth on the dented area and run a hot iron over it for a few minutes to swell the wood. If a vertical surface has been damaged, you will need someone to hold the cloth against the wood for you. Just take care not to scorch the wood. It will take a few hours for the wood fibers to rise naturally. Sand lightly by hand and reseal the surface to match the rest of the unit or item of furniture.

Deep dents will need to be treated the same way as deep scratches and gouges.

Water Marks

Water marks show up as white marks or stains on the surface of the wood. These ugly marks may be caused by either cold or hot liquids, for instance, wet wine glasses or coffee mugs or tea cups containing hot beverages.

There is loads of advice on the Internet that suggests using edible oils and vinegar or lemon juice, even mayonnaise. But the effectiveness of these is questionable. If you take action early enough, a good quality furniture polish or even a homemade cleaning mixture (methylated spirits, raw linseed oil, paraffin, turpentine oil, white vinegar in equal parts) can get rid of these marks. Some people suggest rubbing the mark with metal polish or even with cigarette ash and spittle!

However, one solution that can work is to use methylated spirits (meths) and a very fine steel wool to gently rub into the surface of the wood. This also gets rid of quite deep-seated dirt. 
Clean using fine steel wool and methylated spirits.  
Meths dries quickly, so wipe it as you work and then clean with a tiny bit of washing up liquid and water. Wipe clean. Since meths can be quite harsh and drying, oil the surface once it has dried.


Burn marks can be very difficult to get rid of, especially if the burn has penetrated the surface of the wood. MDF can be lightly sanded and (providing the surface was painted) repainted. But wood that was sealed to maintain the grain is going to need more intense treatment.

Start by scraping the burnt wood with a very sharp blade. This is likely to leave a depression on the surface that you may be able to treat as for a shallow dent, using an iron to make the wood fibers rise. Alternatively, you will have to fill the indentation, possibly with a few layers of wood filler.

If you don’t want to put in the hard work, there are people who specialize in removing scratches and other blemishes. Otherwise just live with them and call your kitchen cabinets characterful! 

To see more: http://www.cabinetnow.com/

  • Wendy
    on Jun 1, 2017

    Thank you for the tips!

  • Sirkku
    Sirkku Finland
    on Jun 7, 2017

    Thank you so much for sharing the tip

  • Patricia
    Patricia Lebanon, OH
    on Jun 7, 2017

    Great information. Thanks for sharing.

  • Buck
    Buck Tafton, PA
    on Jun 7, 2017

    If I am going to refinish a piece of furniture I remove the finish and steam the top with a wet cloth and steam iron, this removes a lot of scratches then sand.

    • Kasey
      Kasey San Francisco, CA
      on Jun 7, 2017

      Thanks for sharing Buck!

  • Bill
    Bill Fort Lauderdale, FL
    on Jun 7, 2017

    Try Hydrogen Peroxide (from your medicine cabinet)on your water rings. A few drops on the circle might make them disappear.(We refinish wood antiques)

    • Bill
      Bill Fort Lauderdale, FL
      on Jun 8, 2017

      BTW I had another thought on the problem. The paper paperplate may not have been paper and possibly styrofoam. It also may have been a wax paper covering. If it is wax or styrofoam you may be able to gently scratch the residue off using something like a toothpick or tongue depressor or even your fingernail. But all just guesses since I cannot see the actual problem. - Bill

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