Natural wood products are beautiful. Who doesn’t like the warmth and intrigue of how the wood’s grain appears, whether straight, swirly or burls. Contrasting grain has a visual appeal that doesn’t show up in other materials. But that beautiful piece of wood can easily become damaged by the wrong adhesive.
People use various adhesive products, including double-sided tape, to hold all sorts of things in place; even some rather unlikely ones. foam mounting tape can be even more of a problem, as the adhesive is usually stronger than that found on masking tape of cellophane tape. Frustrations in removing tape and tape residue has relegated many a beautiful piece of wood to the scrap pile; or worse, to cover that grain up by painting it.
Yet there are ways of removing pretty much any adhesive. Of course, how it is removed depends a lot on the adhesive itself, as well as how long it has been attached and the finish on the wood. The longer the adhesive has been in place, the harder it is to remove, especially if it has been exposed to heat. Removing adhesives from unfinished wood is harder than removing it from finished wood, as the adhesive can soak into the wood’s pores. Removing it can stain the wood.
Regardless of the challenges, there are many times when we are likely to face this problem. A family member might assume that we can remove it, knowing that we’re a woodworker, we find something at a great bargain that we want to refurbish and refinish, or we accidentally leave tape on something for longer than we intended to.
Fortunately, there are ways of removing the tape and the adhesive, regardless of what kind it is. Basically the same procedure will work with all tapes and all adhesives, although it may be necessary to try different solvents to remove the adhesive residue.
Patience is a necessary ingredient, no matter what is used to remove the tape. While it can be helpful to rip tape off quickly, like taking a bandage off; that may not be possible. If it can’t be removed quickly, then it’s going to be necessary to take the time to avoid damaging the underlying wood and its finish.
First Stage – Remove the Tape
Assuming that the tape is going to be hard to remove, the first part of the process is always removing the tape itself. Then we can go back and remove the adhesive residue. With the tape backer in place, it acts as a protective covering for the adhesive, preventing solvents from getting to it.
The first step is always to try and grasp hold of the tape and just pull it off. Take care to not scratch the finish in the process. If a lot of tape needs to be removed, it might be a good idea to round the corner of the putty knife on a grinder, so that they won’t cause scratches. A putty knife alone doesn’t always work, but we can always hope. If it doesn’t, then try using a putty knife to remove it. Sometimes, the putty knife will at least lift an edge, allowing the tape to be pulled off. Other times, it is possible to scrape the tape or at least the tape backer off with the putty knife.
A putty knife is pretty much required in the case of foam mounting adhesive. It’s not unusual to have to make several passes, first to remove the foam, then to remove the tape backer; finally to remove the adhesive.
The next thing to try, if the putty knife doesn’t do the job alone, is to add heat. Heat has long been used as a means of softening and removing adhesives. In the automotive paint and body industry, for example, heat is used to soften the adhesive on die cut vinyl decals, so that they can be removed without damaging the paint. Heat is also used in the construction industry to soften the adhesive used for installing linoleum and linoleum tile, so that they can be removed.
Not a lot of heat is needed, just about the amount a hair dryer can provide, on its high setting. Once the tape is heated, try scraping it again with the putty knife. Peel off the tape, and then continue using the heat and putty knife to remove the adhesive.
Second Stage – Removing Adhesive Residue
Sometimes the adhesive is too well stuck to remove it by scraping it, even with heat applied. In that case, it’s likely that some sort of solvent is going to be needed. But before trying a solvent, it’s a good idea to try scrubbing the adhesive with a warm, soapy rag. Sometimes that’s enough.
If that doesn’t work, some sort of adhesive solvent will be needed. There are a wide variety of common household products which can be used, as well as some specific adhesive removers. One potential problem is that they may stain the underlying wood, especially if it is unfinished wood.
Always try a solvent on a hidden portion of the piece before using it on any visible surfaces. Some solvents can stain the woodwork, especially if it is unfinished. This is especially true of oil-based solvents or products that contain oil. Trying it out on a small hidden area can prevent causing difficult to repair damage to the piece.
Solvents to Try:
All of these solvents have been used successfully to remove glue residue. But they will not all work in all situations. A lot depends on the specific type of adhesive that was used on the tape.
- Rubbing alcohol (one of the best)
- Goo gone (can cause staining on unfinished wood)
- Nail polish remover (this is a strong solvent, which might soften the finish on the wood as well; it definitely will soften lacquer)
- Vinegar (may need to leave it to soak)
- Lighter fluid
- Vegetable oil
- Peanut butter
- Baby oil
- Mineral spirits (paint thinner)
- Baking soda & water paste (works as an abrasive to clean off hardened residue)
- Rubber cement thinner
- Furniture polish
- Tea Tree Oil
- Eucalyptus Oil
- PVC pipe cleaner
- Duct tape (press firmly onto the existing adhesive, then pull off quickly)
Leaving any of these sitting on the adhesives will give them the opportunity to soften it. These solvents may also be more effective when used in conjunction with heat, applying the hair dryer to the adhesive, while the solvent is soaking in. Experiment with different combinations to see what works in that particular situation.
Another Option – Leave the Residue
While not a popular option, if the adhesive residue is someplace it won’t be seen, it can be left there. Granted, this is not the best idea there is, because it will probably need to be dealt with sometime in the future and it will probably be harder to deal with after sitting longer. Nevertheless, it is an option.
In this case, if baby powder is put on the adhesive, it will be absorbed by the adhesive and stop the surface from being sticky, eliminating that potential problem, without the hassles of removing the adhesive residue.
Dealing with Damaged Wood
There’s always a chance that the wood the adhesive tape was stuck on will become damaged in the process of removing the tape and adhesive residue. Obviously, care should be taken to avoid this, but even the most careful of us may end up with a scratch, stain or place where the finish has been partially dissolved by the solvent. In those cases, the job’s not done till the damage is repaired.
To start with, it’s essential to figure out what sort of finish the wood has on it, so that the same can be used to repair it. In most cases, the problem is going to be that we didn’t make the project ourselves, so we might not know. But most wood furniture is covered in urethane varnish, so that’s probably what we’re going to be dealing with. However, furniture with a very smooth high gloss shine might be finished with lacquer, instead of varnish.
If only the finish is scratched, it can usually be repaired by putting another coat of the same sort of clear finish (varnish or lacquer) over the existing. Avoid using spray cans for this, as there will be a dull ring of finish at the edge of the spray pattern. Better to brush it on.
If the scratching goes through the finish and into the wood, it might also be possible to repair the damage by applying another coat of clear finish. But if the wood has been stained, this can leave an obvious scratch.
Staining a scratch can be dangerous, as the stain will pool in the scratch, making them darker than the surrounding wood. If stain is going to be used in this manner, then it should be thinned with the appropriate solvent (mineral spirits or water) and then applied. That will effectively make the stain lighter, without changing its color. If it ends up being too light, then additional coats of thinned out stain can be applied.
If the scratch is deep enough to make it possible, using tinted wood putty can be preferable to staining the scratch, as there are no issues with coloration. Once the putty dries, an additional coat of varnish can be applied to seal it in.
But what if the Finish Becomes Damaged?
It is possible that a solvent used to clean off the adhesive will damage the existing finish, without damaging the wood underneath. In that case, the finish should be sanded, to smooth it back out, and then refinished with the same sort of finish that was originally used. Care should be taken when sanding, to avoid sanding off the surface of the wood, especially if it has been stained.
In cases where the finish has become lumpy from being partially dissolved by the solvent, it’s better to use a scraper to bring the level of that lumpy finish down to the same level as the rest of it. Trying to sand the high points of the finish down flush with the rest of it is likely to result in sanding down spots which are bare. If stain was used on the wood, that will result in a light spot.
Dealing with Staining on Unfinished wood
When tape is removed from unfinished wood and solvents are used to remove the adhesive residue, there’s always a chance that the solvent and/or the adhesive will stain the wood. Even if it doesn’t stain it, there’s a good chance that it will fill the pores in the wood, making it appear as if there’s a stain in the wood when the wood is finished. How can this be prevented?
To start with, if the adhesive can be scraped off, even with the use of heat, there’s less of a chance of staining the wood or the adhesive filling the pores. So it’s best to start there with unfinished wood. But assuming that scraping didn’t work and the solvents were needed, there are things that can be done to return the wood to like-new condition, where there won’t be any problem finishing it.
The first, and most obvious thing to do is not use that part of the wood. There are times when I’ve brought home lumber that had stickers on it, which didn’t come off; giving me the same problem. In some cases, my cut list worked out so that I could just avoid the area with the adhesive stuck on it.
If that can’t be avoided and that part can’t be put on the inside of the project, then sanding off the adhesive usually works. If the adhesive is really dry, it might be good to try a scraper, before sanding, as that is less likely to push the residue down into the wood pores. Sanding works great with dry, hard glue, but doesn’t work well with glue that is still pliable.
The other option, if things are really desperate, is to run the board through a planer, skimming off about 1/64” of the surface. It is extremely doubtful that the effects of the adhesive or solvent will have soaked in any more than that; so planning it will remove the problem, leaving the board in excellent condition. It’s not uncommon to plane boards for projects anyway, especially for finer furniture projects. If for no other reason, it’s planed so as to ensure that the thickness of the boards is equal.