I have a lovely oak table; most of its surface looks as pristine as the day I got it, e.g.:

enter image description here

Parts of the table surface are getting damaged -- the finish is wearing off and the pores of the grain are exposed and feel pitted to the touch, e.g.:

enter image description here

Any ideas why this is? It looks like the areas where this is happening are the areas that get the most sun (through a skylight, not directly overhead), but I haven't seen sun damage like this. Perhaps somebody else has?

I can rule out water damage or heavy use -- the table is lightly used and wear doesn't seem to be a factor as some of the most used parts look the most pristine.

Any suggestions for an intervention, short of or including refinishing?

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    It's hard to be sure from photos but this could be UV degradation. All finishes break down over time and light exposure is one of the primary causes. As you might have noticed yourself the damage looks a little like the finish has bubbled from below in the low points in the wood (in the pore structure of the oak) which could be indirect damage from the light, causing water to migrate out of the wood. Not sure if you'll get Comments in a migrated post but there is a possible easy fix but I have to get you to check something first. – Graphus Jan 2 '17 at 8:46
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    If you could wet the surface somewhere the problem shows with a bit of water and see if that has any effect (just a bit of spit on a fingertip will do). Then wet a different patch with oil. If neither has an effect then you are looking at removing the existing finish and a revarnish. Good news is the revarnishing is a snap to do and it's easy to get a very nice surface with no experience. Less-good news....OK bad news, is that removing the existing varnish (even using stripper) is a messy and sometimes smelly job that nobody enjoys and will probably take 2-3 times longer than you anticipate. – Graphus Jan 6 '17 at 8:20
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    Thanks @Graphus, I tried your water + oil tests. Since the varnish is removed in the areas where raw oak is exposed (see photo above), water and oil both temporarily darken the color of that untreated surface, with the oil being a more pronounced effect. Of course, rubbing oil only imperfectly matches the stained and varnished surface, and it does nothing to change the surface roughness. If I would have scraped the surface up over time, this would all make sense -- the mystery (to me) is how sunlight can have the same effect over time! – Kevin Cain Jan 26 '17 at 18:58
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    Those tests are pretty conclusive that varnish is indeed gone, rather than just damaged. The starting cause is a mystery to me too, but these sorts of things often have no clear cause. Use, cleaning (esp. with water) and light exposure can all take their toll on a varnish but normally it wouldn't fail in little spots like here, or just in one area and not in another that seems to be equally exposed, but both things do occur. – Graphus Jan 27 '17 at 8:32
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    This looks very much like our old kitchen table. The table got limited direct sunlight but the finish wore off from daily (or more) cleanings (even though we always used a mild, organic cleaner). – FreeMan Sep 14 '18 at 15:52

To me it looks like damage to the finish from sunlight. Red oak seems to do this more often. Not sure why. Maybe sunlight interacts with the tannin's or the pits don't let the finish cure evenly across the surface.

Either way, I've seen lots of old red oak furniture that has that wear pattern, and it's much faster to appear on items that have sunlight able to beat on them. It is possible that using a grain filler before putting on a finishing coat could help prevent this from happening.

  • Season's greetings! This is an interesting observation, if this is broadly the case it would appear something unique to red oak makes it more prone to this. Other than their innate colour the different oaks don't appear to be that different in terms of grain structure, but we know that under the surface red oak is far more absorbent than other subspecies of oak and maybe that's the reason. – Graphus Dec 26 '19 at 23:27
  • I just did a quick bit of internet research, and there is some discussion of all oak species being more prone to oxidation colour change as a result of exposure to sunlight, which supports this Answer. When this Question was posted I knew I'd seen similar wear in the past under similar circumstances. Well, most wood changes colour when exposed to moderate UV light, but it seems that oaks do so in a very easy to recognize way. – jdv Dec 27 '19 at 14:06

I would refinish with a couple light coats of oil and/or wiping oil-varnish blend, making sure to wipe away the surface residue completely. The oil should help with the discoloration some, as it looks like the current finish has some tint to it. Oil will not be nearly as protective as what's currently on there. If you use a wiping blend, it will provide a modicum of protection, but you have to be a little more careful in applying it to blend it in with the surrounding area... and again, very light coats.

  • Thanks for posting, but this does not address the question. – rob Aug 28 '17 at 5:11
  • @rob: incorrect. the final line of the OP is "Any suggestions for an intervention, short of or including refinishing?" my answer provides info on how to refinish in an easy an unobtrusive way that will renew the surface appearance. – aaron Aug 28 '17 at 12:34
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    I suppose that part of the question should not be there in the first place. The question really was "What is happening to the surface". You answered the secondary question correctly but it should be part of another question altogether assuming that is not a dupe. – Matt Aug 28 '17 at 14:07
  • if this is a big enough problem for you guys (and it was big enough to downvote my answer!) I implore you to add to the discussion i started here: woodworking.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/364/… – aaron Aug 29 '17 at 11:40
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    @aaron you say "I suppose that part of the question should not be there in the first place. The question really was "What is happening to the surface". " Surely a relevant sub-question that supports the OP in getting a piece of furniture into a state they are happy with is allowed? Knowing the cause is prime concern but how to fix the situation is tightly linked. – Fatherjack Jul 15 '18 at 12:44

This is an old question, but when I saw this I immediately thought of silicone contamination. Silicone is in a lot of modern products such as caulk and even furniture polishes to make the shiny look last longer. The problem is silicone interferes with wood finishes and a spill of it could cause the spotting shown here. The silicone usually has to be on the wood before the finish so without knowing more of the story, it's hard to say for sure if this was the issue.

If it is silicone it's hard to remove. There are silicone removers, but it takes careful use of clean rags wiping each spot while turning the rag as you wipe to avoid just moving the silicone to other spots. Ammonia can work, but it can darken oak by reacting with the wood. Another option for keeping the silicone from interfering with the new finish is to spray it with several very light coats of shellac to seal it in.

What seems clear is that this is contamination or damage from a spill of some kind. Without more information it's hard to tell what from exactly. You say you can rule out water damage, but alcohol or other things can spill and be wiped up without obvious immediate damage. The finish does look slightly compromised all over, so a spill could get through then be compounded by UV rays.


The light discoloration resembles that caused by an infestation of some sort. In my case it was in douglas fir and the inspector would not pass my house because of it. Perhaps an exterminator would examine you photo and comment.

  • Does the douglas fir dimension lumber holding up your house have a stain or varnish-like finish on it? :) – jdv Nov 13 '18 at 19:46
  • It has a stain. The defects had a whitish color in spite of that. – Carl Carlson Nov 13 '18 at 23:18
  • I'm making a joke because I can't imagine a scenario where an inspector would not pass a house because of a problem with furniture. Framing members, sure, but not furniture. So I was asking if your framing lumber was varnished or stained. Which is unlikely, though I suppose you could have a post & beam house with exposed members. – jdv Nov 14 '18 at 16:28

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