How to Fix Nail-Polish Remover on a Wood Table

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If you've spilled or spattered nail polish remover on a wood table, you have several repair choices, but only one is a sure thing. For a valuable antique or cherished table, a professional restorer is the safest, surest way to restore the table to its former beauty. A pro may be able to identify the finish on the antique wood and replicate it -- or strip a table with visible damage and refinish it completely. Home repair might work when the stakes are lower. Depending on the spill, you may be able to blend the damaged area into the existing finish on the table.

Why It's Called "Remover"

Nail polish remover is an organic acetone liquid that acts like a varnish and paint remover. It strips the finish off your wood table as efficiently as it strips the old polish off your nails. If the spill is severe enough or the table is protected with a very thin or fragile finish, the polish remover can soak into the wood, bleaching any wood stain and raising and roughening the grain. Big mess. Delicate job. There are a few things you can try -- but proceed cautiously to avoid compounding the damage.

Immediate Aftermath

If you catch the spill as it happens, move fast. Blot it up instantly with a clean paper towel or lint-free cloth. The less acetone or ethyl acetate on the finish, the less it can eat through to the wood itself. Once you've blotted, not rubbed, all the liquid and the table is dry, go over the spill area lightly with plain water on a clean, soft cloth and then dry it immediately. Give the table a rest and then polish it -- the entire table -- with your usual protective finish to even out any slight visible differences and restore the moisture barrier.

Superficial Stain

When polish remover eats away the finish but hasn't discolored the wood, very fine sandpaper is your friend. 0000-grade fine stainless-steel wool, gently applied, will smooth off the "melted" finish and acetone residue to prevent further deterioration. A reapplication of a protective finish in the area of the spill might be enough to disguise any discoloration. When the wood is a bit discolored by the polish remover, try a touch-up marker such as a wood finish stain marker in the same color as the stain on the table. Try this only on a table with no particular provenance or sentimental value -- it may be difficult to match the existing wood color exactly.

The Serious Spill

A large spill or one that sits for a while leaves you a few choices and may involve a complete refinishing. The acetone will dissolve any protective coating, remove stain color and alter the color of the bare wood as well as raising the grain. Do your angry war dance, despair and then get to work, if you want to save the piece.

  • The Cover-up: Put a coffee table book or a decorative bowl over the damaged area. Pretend it never happened. Problem solved.

  • The Camouflage: Cover the tabletop with decorative tile. Be sure to seal the grout against future spills.

  • The Handyman Special: Strip the entire table and sand away any rough spots or old stain that has seeped into the grain. Stain and refinish it.

  • The Chicken Fix: Give up and paint the table. Only do this for a piece of no real value that wasn't very attractive to begin with. A shabby-chic-style distressed finish might be an improvement on an old, inexpensive table.

  • The Safest Solution: Hire a professional restorer to repair and refinish a valued table. Then ban nail polish remover from the immediate vicinity for all time. 

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