Telltale Water Stains

Removing, fading them can be a DIY project

By Laura Kourajian, Certified NDSU Extension Master Gardener,

I doubt I am the only plant lover with water-stained woodwork – dark stains that perfectly mimic the round bottom of a plant pot, the wedges of a plastic protective tray and the white-rimmed spatters of ancient dried water droplets. Not only are these stains unslightly, but they taunt me about my penchant for overwatering plants. 

Fig. 1 This area in front of the window shows evidence of black water stains from potted plants. The stain on the left shows the wedge outlines of a plastic protective tray.

Hunkering down during the pandemic gave me the opportunity to figure out if I could remedy this situation, get rid of the stains and live happily ever after in our family room. There is an oak ledge that rims three outside walls, marking the top of the foundation, in this garden-level room. There are two windows, one east-facing and one north-facing, and the oak ledge makes a perfect spot to set plants where they’ll get natural light. 

Google, Pinterest, the local hardware store and lots of elbow (and shoulder) grease gave me the resources I needed to get rid of or fade these stains. 

Fig. 2 The materials needed to remove or diminish the water stains included a stainless steel scrubber, Bar Keepers Friend cleanser, and oxalic acid.

To start, I sanded the finish from the ledge, all the way around the room. Sanding at near-shoulder height was physically taxing, but the results were encouraging. I wasn’t concerned about removing the stain, only the finish, exposing the water stains so the oxalic acid would be able to go to work doing its bleaching work. 

Oxalic acid is very strong chemical available in granular form at most hardware stores. It is mixed with hot water and spread over the stained area. In my case, I mixed only a small amount and used a foam brush to apply it liberally to the stained area. The instructions on the oxalic acid are adamant about wearing gloves, safety goggles and protective clothing to avoid skin burns. 

Fig. 3 Oxalic acid solution was applied to the stain with a foam brush.  The solution was applied twice and resulted in lighter, but still visible, stains.

After wiping and rinsing three times, per instructions, the acid had lightened the stains but they were still noticeable and ugly. The instructions indicated a second application might be necessary, so I went with Round 2. Again, the stains were lightened, but except for the light droplet stains, they didn’t disappear. 

So, I did more reading. On Pinterest, I found several champions of using Bar Keepers Friend,  that gritty cleaning powder kept on standby in the dark recesses under many kitchen sinks. Apparently Bar Keepers Friend contains a small amount of oxalic acid, so works to lighten and remove stains. 

I bought a can of Bar Keepers Friend (found it at my nearby Runnings after striking out at the grocery store), mixed up a paste and used a wooden craft stick to spread it on the darkest parts of the stains. Once it had dried, which took several hours, I used a plastic putty knife to scrape it from the wood.

Fig. 4 In a second attempt to remove the stains, a paste of water and Bar Keepers Friend was spread over the stains and left to dry.

There were traces of the white paste embedded in the grain of the woodwork. Pinterest offered several suggestions for getting rid of these, including sanding with ordinary sand paper, scrubbing with steel wool and scrubbing with a stainless steel scrubber. (One site warned of using steel wool, noting the shavings from the steel wool are hard to clean away and if left on the surface and sealed into the wood, they would eventually oxidize and create the black stains like the ones I am trying to remove.) 

I used the stainless steel scrubber, and it worked beautifully. It quite literally scrubbed the embedded paste from the wood grain and, in a wonderfully surprising bonus, it scrubbed much of the remaining dark stains from the woodwork. (I threw away the scrubber when I was finished; it should not be used for cleaning pots and pans after being used for removing stains from wood.)

Once I had removed as much of the stains as I felt I was going to get, I restained the wood and coated it with three coats of water-based polycrylic, following the instructions on the cans. Polyurethane also would have worked well as a finishing coat, but it is oil based and has a much stronger odor, which I was trying to avoid in the closed house in the winter. 

Fig. 5 The finished results show the wedge stains from the plastic tray are almost invisible, while the adjacent black stain has been diminished significantly.

The pictures tell the story. The stained wedges shaped to the bottom of the plastic protective tray are nearly unnoticeable. If you didn’t know they were there, you’d never be able to tell. The round pot-shaped dark stain next to it proved a little more formidable and while the traces of the stain are still visible, I’m happy with how much of the stain disappeared. 

I’ve removed all the potted plants from the ledge, and while I anticipate I’ll have to use the ledge again in the future, since the window is a good source of natural light, I will place them on a small rack on top of the ledge to keep them from sitting directly on my newly refinished woodwork. 


Classical Chinese Scholar Gardens

Ancient gardens designed to reflect a balanced life

by Anne Blankenship, NDSU Extension Master Gardener Intern,

The New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden, part of the Staten Island Botanical Garden, shows intricate stone mosaic pathways, stones and architecture, with trees and plants playing a secondary role. PC:

Chinese gardens intended for leisure first appeared alongside emperors’ palaces but were soon replicated within the courtyards of merchants, civic leaders, and scholars.

These scholar gardens gained popularity during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Sophisticated gardens became a point of pride for the elite classes as a place where one could write or read poetry, practice calligraphy, paint, play a musical instrument, converse with friends, or sit alone in meditation. A balanced garden was thought to reflect a balanced life.

While small compared to English landscape gardens, the individual elements of a Chinese garden combine to represent grand scenic views that continually change as a person walks along circuitous paths, steps through interior gates, climbs over bridges, or simply sits within a pavilion and watches others interact with the environment. 

Chinese gardens are defined by four elements: architecture, water, stone, and flora. Whether in grand and minute settings, these features replicate larger formations like rivers, lakes, mountains, and forests. Ancient traditions suggested the essence of the larger formation could be contained in these miniature forms and allow viewers to immerse themselves in nature, leaving civilization behind.

“A man is known by his garden.” -A Chinese saying

High walls surround the gardens to block out the conflicts, stress, and tedium of daily life. This experience fosters a central tenet of Daoism that teaches people to separate themselves from society and connect with nature in order to follow the dao or the natural flow of the universe. This communion with nature allows a person to balance and refine their inner energy (chi).

The balance between the complementary forces of yin and yang is visually depicted within the garden when the architect harmonizes the placement of spiraling rocks (yang) and flowing water (yin). Uniform elements like relief patterns on a low wall or mosaic patterns of paving stones complement the garden’s cavalcade of abstract forms created by unusual rocks, undulating shorelines, and various flora and fauna.

Architectural elements range from large wooden tea houses, moon-viewing pavilions, and bridges to intricate stone mosaics decorating pathways. Walls separate sections of the garden and complement the beauty they surround, often undulating like a long Chinese dragon.

Each doorway and window frames deliberately designed, picturesque scenes, while latticework casts intricate shadows in the morning and afternoon sun. These views must work equally well in all four seasons and often use distant landmarks to give the impression of being in a larger space. Architects orient a long hall according to the dictates of feng shui, Chinese geomancy.

YuYuan, the Garden of Happiness, Shanghai. PC:

Tai hu, large rocks riddled with abstract hollows made by the erosion of limestone in Lake Tai, are highly prized and prominently displayed in the gardens. Larger gardens like YuYuan, a 5-acre garden in Shanghai, also contain accessible rockeries in which visitors walk through narrow valleys, climb steep paths, explore caves, and view the garden from atop a cliff. These rockeries do a remarkable job replicating the sense of being in the mountains, as you don’t know what to expect around each turn.

When constructing the garden, laborers used dirt from what would become the pond to build earthen mounds on which to place the stones to augment the vertical space. 

While flora plays a marginal role as compared to its counterparts in European and American gardens, each plant holds symbolic meaning. Gardeners chose peonies for wealth and aristocracy; bamboo for resilience and integrity; pine trees for longevity; and lotus plants for purity and perfection.

A Chinese garden is not grown so much as it is constructed.

The city of Suzhou boasts the most famous scholar gardens, many built by retired government bureaucrats. Civil service examinations in China included sections on music, literature, and poetry, so all government workers were educated in classical arts. The finest gardens in Suzhou, some one thousand years old, are honored as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

However, you need not cross the Pacific to immerse yourself in a Chinese garden. Teams of several dozen artisans from Suzhou helped build the first Chinese garden abroad in Vancouver, B.C., followed by gardens in Montreal, Staten Island, Portland, Ore., and St. Louis, Mo. The Huntington in San Marino, Ca., is the largest outside of China. These gardens follow the style of classical scholar gardens, but Seattle and its sister city Chongqing are building a Sichuan-style garden in which flora plays a more dominant role.

Associate Professor Anne Blankenship led tours of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s international gardens and teaches about them in her NDSU World Religions course.

Lion Grove Garden, Suzhou. PC: