How to restore a cosmetically damaged wood finish

before and after wood scratches

Today I wanted to run through a list of tips and tricks we’ve found to work well when restoring cosmetic damage to furniture.  This content does contain affiliate links.–please see our privacy and disclosure page for more details.  I picked up this secretary desk which was actually in incredible condition except for the desk inside.

Secretary desk

When we went to pick it up Blake took a look at the inside and said “did they lock a cat in there?” ….sometimes you do wonder how some scratches happen….

Inside scratches on secretary desk

scratches on wooden desk

Anyways, along with fine scratches there was also nail polish smears all over and something that looked like a gold sharpie mark. I can just see a girl painting her nails here. It’s kind of fabulous really!

nail polish on wood

paint smear on wood
So the first thing I do is clean the furniture (and I mean put some muscle into) with Murphy’s oil. This is going to remove oils and grime that just build up over time. Especially if you’re cleaning up a table or something used in the kitchen!

Murphys Oil

Next I go after scratches with steel wool. The FINEST steel wool you can buy…anything coarse will do way too much damage. I go lightly over the scratches just to get things smooth. Now for the nail polish (or paint splatters too)… If it’s a big glob sometimes you can pick it off with your nail carefully. If it’s a smear that’s been there for who knows how long I use a citrus based cleaner (per lots of googling) and I let it sit for a few minutes. I come back and wipe it off and then immediately go behind with my steel wool. This takes some dedication and patience and some grit but it will slowly start to come loose. It shouldn’t take any of the color away but it will leave the spot looking a little dull & cloudy compared to the rest of the finish. Don’t fret! Polish will take care of that.

citrus based cleaner

nail polish removed from wood

I wipe down the piece again to get the dust the steel wool leaves behind. Then I use Old English for the shade of wood I’m working with (dark here). I first put it directly on my problem spots and let it sit for a few seconds. I use a clean rag and rub it in in a circular motion going out from the spots blending over the whole surface. I’ll apply this again to the whole piece until I’m satisfied with the color and cover up of the scratches.

after using old english

after wood scratch repair

After it dries for several hours I go over with a white rag just to see if I’ve left any residue. I complete things with a coat of furniture wax applied with a clean rag. This will help seal in my work and also protect the surface going forward.

I would of course recommend using a professional if you’re needing to rehab a several thousand dollar antique but for a quick makeover at home where you’re thinking paint may be your only option–it’s not!