While it can seriously damage some surfaces, the good news is, that permanent marker can be removed from most wooden surfaces with a little bit of patience and elbow grease. How do you get that sharpie mark off wood? You probably already have most of these do-it-yourself treatments in your pantry or medicine cabinet.
If you're removing permanent marker stains from a wood surface, be prepared to go through several rounds of very gentle cleaning with a clean, dry, cotton cloth. Avoid rubbing or scrubbing the stain, especially with an abrasive sponge, brush, or cloth—this may remove the wood's finish or damage its surface. Always be sure to test your solution in a hidden spot—like the inside of a table leg or bottom, back corner of a desk—in case it damages your item's finish or surface.
It is possible to save wood surfaces from marker stains, but if you're dealing with a particularly tough permanent marker stain and the above techniques just don't cut it, leave it to the professionals and contact a woodworker or furniture restoration service in your area.
Ready to get removing? Try one of these at-home cleaning solutions to remove permanent marker stains from most wood surfaces.
Regular old rubbing alcohol is an extremely effective—and extremely affordable—solution for permanent marker stains in wood. Grab some isopropyl alcohol from your medicine cabinet and pour it onto a clean, dry, cotton cloth. Dab, don't rub, the spot with the cloth until the marker stain begins to lift. Then, wipe away the residue with a slightly damp cloth and pat dry. It may take a few rounds to completely remove the stain, but stop applying the alcohol if you notice stain or discoloration on your cotton cloth. Be mindful that isopropyl dissolves varnish, so too many repeated rounds will most likely damage the finish.
Hand Sanitizer Gel
Hand sanitizer gels are based mostly on alcohol, so when lightly rubbed in with a soft cloth they will do the same job as rubbing alcohol to remove permanent marker stains from finished wood. But avoid using gels on bare, unfinished wood as they contain glycerine as an emollient, which can stain and darken unfinished bare wood.
Yup, this classic spirit can be a highly effective cleaner for permanent marker stains. Opt for plain vodka, making sure to avoid flavored variations—the sugars in flavored vodkas can actually make your stain worse. Like the rubbing alcohol method, soak a clean, dry, cotton cloth in vodka, and lightly dab the marker stain. You should start to notice the marker lifting from the wood surface onto your cloth.
Nail Polish Remover
The acetone in nail polish remover can remove permanent marker stains from wood by dissolving them. Use a clean, dry cloth to lightly dab your stain with an acetone-based remover. Avoid rubbing the stain, as nail polish remover can damage wood finishes. We highly recommend testing this method in an inconspicuous spot before really getting to work. This should not be used on painted wood furniture, since acetone dissolves paint.
Another staple from your medicine cabinet, hairspray can do a lot more than keep your coif in place. In fact, hairspray is known to remove all kinds of stains—from permanent marker stains on wood, to stains from pen ink in fabrics. Hairspray works on permanent marker because it contains alcohol; however, alcohol dissolves varnish and lacquer, so this solution should be reserved for painted wood. Simply spray the stain with a little bit of hairspray and wipe the residue away with a cloth. You should see the stain begin to lift immediately.
Baking soda is a must-have ingredient in tons of homemade householder cleaners, but it can be an effective stain remover, too. Create a paste with baking soda and water, and gently rub it into your marker stain using circular motions.
If you're feeling extra bold—and your wood surface is painted or stained with opaque stain—try drawing over the permanent marker with a dry-eraser marker. There are also wood stain markers designed for this purpose sold at many retailers. Then, wipe the markings away. It seems counterintuitive but often works on finished surfaces. Don't try this trick on unfinished surfaces.
Baking Soda Toothpaste
Baking soda toothpaste contains a small amount of actual baking soda powder, which is very fine and serves as a gentle abrasive. Apply some of this toothpaste to a cotton swap or makeup removal pad, and rub the stain lightly, moving in the direction as the wood grain. Wipe the residue away with a damp cloth, then repeat, if necessary, until the marker stain is eradicated.
So-called magic erasers work by means of the melamine foam they contain. Whatever the product brand, melamine foam can be used to remove spots from finished wood surfaces. Stick to very gentle spot treatments, as rubbing the surface too hard can lift the finish and damage the wood.
Heads up: This technique should only be used on unfinished wood. Using a fine-grit sandpaper on finished or stained wood will—with certainty—remove the finish, stain, or paint. However, if you need to remove permanent marker stains from unfinished wood or lumber, fine-grit sandpaper is your best bet. Why? Marker can permeate unfinished wood and lumber. Sanding the area with a fine-grit paper will gently remove a few (minor) layers of the wood's surface, and lighten the stain. Avoid sanding too aggressively in one area, though—you risk wearing a spot into the wood's surface. Use larger, broader strokes instead.
What to Avoid When Cleaning Wood
There are several often-tried methods for removing indelible marker stains that should be avoided:
- Don't use sandpaper on varnished wood. A light sanding can sometimes work with unfinished wood, but you will damage painted, varnished, or lacquered surfaces with abrasive sandpaper. But there is a remedy if you make this mistake: Areas worn down by sandpaper can usually be repainted or revarnished to restore the smooth surface coat.
- Don't use gel toothpaste. Standard toothpaste contains a very fine abrasive that helps remove marker stains, but gel toothpaste lacks this advantage and will do nothing but smear the wood.
- Don't scrub. with a traditional cleanser and a brush, abrasive pad, or even a sponge. Indelible, permanent markers won't be touched by this treatment, but you might well damage the surface or create even worse water stains.
- Don't use mineral spirits or paint thinner. Many home workshops have a can of mineral spirits or paint thinner (which is mostly mineral spirits) on the shelf for cleaning paintbrushes and oily stains, but this liquid is not very useful for cleaning alcohol-based stains such as those caused by permanent markers. Worse, mineral spirits can dissolve oil-based varnishes and paints, leaving you with a sticky mess when all you hoped for was stain removal.
Can you ruin the finish when removing permanent marker from wood?
Do not rub or scrub hard when removing permanent marker spots on wood furniture, as it can ruin the finish on the wood. Use gentle motions and soft cloths or sponges.
How do you remove permanent marker from painted wood furniture?
If the wood furniture has a painted finish, try using rubbing alcohol, the dry erase marker technique, or nail polish remover to remove the permanent marker. Always test whatever method you're going to use first on a small inconspicuous area.
Should a professional remove permanent marker on wood pieces?
If the piece of furniture is an antique or has been in the family for generations, it might be best to let a professional remove permanent marker marks.
Kanegsberg, Barbara and Kanegsberg, Edward. Handbook for Critical Cleaning: Applications, processes, and controls. CRC Press, 2011.
Stain Removal. Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute.