Menushopping cart
Tools for Working Wood
Invest in your craft. Invest in yourself.

JOEL Joel's Blog

How to Repair Dents in Wood


The basic setup: an iron and a piece of paper
The basic setup: an iron and a piece of paper

Periodically I do something dumb. By "periodically," I mean "fairly regularly." And I could enumerate the details, but frankly we don't have all day. So I just want to focus on one common problem that happens and how to fix it.

It's not unusual that by the time I'm done with the project and doing the finishing to discover dents and dings in the wood. Sometimes I've dropped a tool on the wood and it hits the wrong way, or sometimes I just had a thick chip get sandwiched between two boards and pressed into the wood. Scratching and cutting the fibers of the wood causes a more serious kind of damage, one that is much harder to repair than any dent. But for dings and compression marks, the following technique is awesome. I don't remember where I learned this, but I've taught it to enough people to get the sense that it's not as widely known as it should be. With it you can make dents in all kinds of wood, even pretty deep dents, disappear. In the example I'm showing I'm using unfinished poplar, which is pretty easy to dent. However I've successfully used this technique with great success on all sorts of hardwoods. The technique also works on varnished and other finished woods, but there's an excellent chance you're going to damage the finish in the area. That is annoying, but it's better than having a dent.

The executive summary is that I use a wet paper towel and hot iron to create steam which will force itself into the pores of the wood that were compressed in the dent, and expand them back out, getting rid of the dent. It's pretty straightforward how to do this. Use hot household iron, and take a wet paper towel or paper bag and put it over the dent. Then iron that area of the wood with fairly strong pressure. The paper towel will generate steam and dry out, but the dent should become less and less apparent.

The screwdriver mark is clearly visible
The screwdriver mark is clearly visible

I have two examples here, both in poplar. In the first, a very clear dent from my Swiss army knife screwdriver, was made invisible with one quick application of the iron and wet towel.
Gone! There is a very
Gone! There is a very, very slight ghost if you look closely but I didn't see it when I looked at the wood. It is just barely visible in the photo. The final light finishing sanding will take care of it.

The screwdriver tip is pretty deep.
The screwdriver tip is pretty deep.

In the second case, a Phillips head screwdriver was dropped the wrong way on the wood and made a fairly deep but very small indentation. I applied an iron and wet towel multiple times. Eventually there are diminishing returns, and you can still see a glimmer of the dent. I think with a sanding and finishing it'll go away entirely. The reason it didn't go away 100% is that in the process of getting dented, some of the fibers of the wood were also cut. Still I'm pretty happy with the result.

After the first round it is mostly gone but still noticeable.
After the first round it is mostly gone but still noticeable.

Repeating the process makes the dent ready to disappear after a very light sanding.
Repeating the process makes the dent ready to disappear after a very light sanding.

So there it is. A very simple technique that is easy to do and has been a lifesaver for me for years.

How to Repair Dents in Wood 7
Join the conversation
04/05/2023 Kevin L Schroeder
Joel, excellent help and advice! I would add, and it may or may not help that much, that I place a small patch of tin foil on top of the wet paper when adding the heat with an Iron. For me, this is always an enjoyable process, but that may be because the Iron was given to me by my dear Mother when I was first moving away from home and starting my life. It's much the same way when using some of the tools my father handed down to me...
04/05/2023 Steve Carey
Hey Joel. I was talking about this with a friend of mine who is not a wood worker and he didn't believe me. So I pulled out my wife's iron and I used a moistened ( I just wanted to say moistened) kitchen towel. It works great! I love this fix. Thanks for all you do!
04/05/2023 CT Engineer
I did know about this technique, but your careful description made me wonder if there were other liquids that alone or in combination with water might aid this process. So I googled for an answer and found that there are people studying the swelling of wood with addition of ionic organic liquids:

The interesting thing about this work is not only might this aid aid us in more fully eliminating the vestiges of the dents you made, as it can raise the surface beyond its original level, but might also help swell wood to facilitate strong joints without changing the color of the wood.

And then I thought, there is a product used for securing chair joints via permanent swelling, sold under a number of trade names like "chair lock". It also uses organic chemicals to swell the wood. The versions I recall using were dark in color gut I am not sure if this is necessary to its function.
04/05/2023 Eric R Kuehne
Last year I built a Greene and Greene style hall table that is, to date, my finest piece. At on point I dropped the top on the concrete floor of my shop denting the corner. It looked pretty bad. I felt sick. I knew about the steam technique but had never tried. Having nothing to lose I gave it a try and not only did it work, it worked quickly and easily.
04/05/2023 George
I heard about this technique for years but never got the chance to try it until recently. Pressed for time on a recent job we hired a new painter, who, let's say, was less than careful. When he was done we discovered he had left quarter sized half moon impressions all over a recently installed raised floor of clear fir -- probably a ladder foot without a rubber guard on it, indenting through the dropcloth. Shame on us for not putting down better protection, but out of desperation we tried the iron, and with that and some sanding we were back in business.
04/05/2023 Jay Simmons
I heartily endorse this technique as I also periodically do dumb things in the shop. Important to avoid scorching the wood, so I have found multiple short applications of the iron is better than a single extended applications. Moisten the towel between each application
04/06/2023 Joe Leonetti
Thanks. I've been using this for a while now and it really works well. I have used wet rags rather than paper towels. Is there an advantage of using one vs. the other? I am sure I will have a reason to test it within a few weeks given how often I need to remove dents.
04/09/2023 Kevin Drevik
Going to use this today. I've got a "nick" in one of my panels and I'm hoping to get it to swell back up. Thanks for the info
Comments are closed.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.