You know the drill. You glue up your project, and of course you go a little overboard with the glue and it spills out the seams. Once the glue has dried, there’s a nice little blob marring your project. What should you do?
The best way to remove dried wood glue from unfinished wood is by sanding off the glue. Using 150 grit sandpaper, rub the sandpaper along the dried glue until the glue is gone. When working with finished wood, soften the glue with a hairdryer, and scrape it off with a putty knife.
But there are a ton of methods out there, and there’s a reason these are the two you should use, so lets go into a bit more detail.
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Why Sanding is the Best Method For Removing Wood Glue
Sanding gets a bad rap. Honestly, I understand why if you’re hand sanding. It’s kind of miserable. But if you’re planning to go into woodworking with any depth, invest in an orbital sander. A 10 minute sanding job suddenly takes 30 seconds.
This is is one of those times. Sanding off glue with an orbital sander takes mere seconds, while hand sanding is a pain. I have this orbital sander, and it is the literal MVP of my shop.
Regardless, there’s a reason that if you’re working with unfinished wood, you should always sand. That reason? Wood glue isn’t just something that sits on top of the wood.
It soaks into the wood. That’s what makes it so strong.
And because of that, if you drip glue on your piece, or some soaks out from a joint, it’s not just sitting there. The wood glue has soaked into the pores of the wood, and is now clogging them up a bit.
Now, when you apply wood stain or finish, it’s going to look different in those spots because the glue has clogged the pores, so the stain/finish won’t soak in as deeply.
Sanding fixes this, but none of the other methods below actually do. When you sand, you remove the top layer of wood from the piece. Therefore, you’re removing the clogged pores, which is exactly what you need to do to get a flawless finishing job.
How to Sand Off Dried Glue
Step 1: Pick Your Sandpaper
I usually go with 150 or 180 grit sandpaper for a job like this. I can almost hear someone in the world screaming “WHAT?”
Yes, glue clogs up higher grit sandpapers quickly. But most of the time, I don’t actually need to remove that much glue. Given you haven’t painted your piece in wood glue, a quick sand with 180 grit sandpaper should be fine.
And if you start with something like 60 grit, then you also have to sand with 80, 100, 120, 150 and 180. That’s a lot of work, and I’d rather skip it, especially if I’ve already done that process before gluing up the pieces.
(If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, check out my guide on how and why I always sand my pieces before assembly here.)
Step 2: Sand the Dried Glue
Turn on your orbital sander, and rub the sandpaper along the dried glue.
Alternatively, vigorously rub your sandpaper along the glue with your hand. That works too, it’s just a little more time consuming.
Keep sanding until the glue is gone, and there’s no more visible stain on the wood.
Step 3: Double Check You’ve Removed All the Glue
The glue might look gone, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’ve removed all the glue that soaked into the wood.
However, when the wood gets wet, those clogged pores stand right out.
So grab either some mineral spirits or water; try to make your choice match your stain/finish. If you’re using an oil-based stain, use mineral spirits. Water-based stain, use water.
Then rub some of liquid on the wood around the glued areas. If it appears discolored, keep sanding. Otherwise, you can move on!
Allow the wood to dry before applying stain or finish.
The Best Method For Removing Wood Glue From Finished Wood
I love the sanding method above. But admittedly, it’s not great if you’ve already finished your piece (or, alternatively, you drip wood glue on something finished.)
Sanding would remove some of that finish, and then you’d have to either refinish the whole thing, or spot-finish the parts you removed. That’s a hassle.
Plus, the big advantage of sanding is that it removes a layer of clogged wood pores. If your piece is already finished, A) the wood glue didn’t reach the pores, because the finish blocked it, and B) it doesn’t matter anyway, since the stain and finish is already applied.
So sanding isn’t ideal for finished wood.
Instead, wood glue softens with heat. We can use that to soften the glue enough to pry it off the wood.
Step 1: Apply Heat with a Hair Dryer or Heat Gun
Be careful with this step. You want to apply enough heat to soften the glue, but not burn the wood.
This shouldn’t be an issue if you’re using a hair dryer, but some of the higher settings on a heat gun can burn wood. If you’re using a heat gun, stick to “low.”
The first time I tried this (which you can see in the photo above) I actually burnt the glue. For what it’s worth, that glue was actually easier to remove than the glue I didn’t burn, but you should still probably try to avoid that.
You might need to apply heat for a couple seconds to soften the glue enough to lift it up with the putty knife (next step.) Be patient.
Step 2: Scrape the Glue Off
Make sure you’re using a plastic putty knife for this, not a metal one. It’s really easy to accidently gouge the wood (ask me how I know.)
Yes, I used a metal one above. I couldn’t find my plastic one, and this was scrap wood. Don’t judge.
Put the putty knife at a 45 degree angle, and scrape along the glue line, working the glue up and away from the wood.
Other Methods I Tested
The internet has a plethora of methods for removing wood glue. I tried them all. (Hopefully. People invent new things everyday, you know.)
Liquids That Didn’t Work
There were a bunch of different suggestions that involved dabbing some type of household liquid onto the wood glue and waiting for it to dissolve. This included:
- Cooking Oil
- Mineral Spirits
- Lemon Juice
- Baking Soda and Hot Water
Here are some nice pictures of my test glue all covered in differently soaked cotton balls:
Most of these did squat. I could scrape the glue away with my (metal) putty knife, but it was exactly as difficult as it was without the various liquids.
Two Liquids that Kind of Did Something
Acetone and Vinegar both had a noticeable reaction with the dried wood glue. After soaking in a a vinegar cotton ball for fifteen minutes, the dried wood glue looked like this:
It’s white now! It didn’t really seem that much easier to remove, though. I definitely still needed the putty knife, but maybe the wood glue was slightly softer if you squint.
Acetone didn’t have a visible reaction, but it definitely softened the wood glue. It was… kind of easier to scrape off?
By “kind of,” I mean it still didn’t come off easily. It reminded me of that really stubborn adhesive on the back of pricing labels that you need goo-gone or peanut butter or something to actually remove.
But it wasn’t hard anymore, so go acetone, I guess?
Chiseling: A Method That Works!
Another method out there that does work is using a chisel to remove the glue. The general idea is to use a chisel to chip away the dried wood glue.
This works. I’ve done it! But, you’re much more likely to accidently gorge the wood this way than with sanding, and gorges are difficult to repair.
If you’re an anti-sander and you’ve got some chisels around, here’s how it works.
Step 1: Place Your Chisel and a 15 Degree Angle to the Glue
That looks something like this:
The bevel side of the chisel should be facing up, so that the chisel can wedge itself underneath the glue.
Step 2: Rock the Chisel
Ideally, you won’t have use a ton of force to maneuver the chisel under the glue. Instead, gently rock the chisel up and down, and try to wiggle it underneath the glue.
If you can manage that, awesome! You’re much less likely to damage the wood with this technique.
Step 3: Tap the Chisel with a Hammer or Mallet
Wiggling the chisel never actually works for me, so I almost always have to graduate to a mallet.
Tap the end of the chisel with the mallet to push it underneath the wood glue.
Try to be gentle – you really don’t want your chisel to dig into the wood itself.
Preventing Wood Glue Messes
Honestly, it’s not that hard to remove dried wood glue from wood. But wouldn’t it be better if you didn’t have to do that in the first place?
There are a couple of easy techniques that will reduce your cleanup.
Cleaning Up Wet Wood Glue
First off, wood glue is water-soluble. That means a wet rag is really all you need to clean up drips before they dry.
Simply wipe the glue drips up with the rag as soon as you notice them.
Unfortunately, though, you probably should still sand a little bit later, because even if the wood glue was only on the wood a couple seconds, that’s still enough time for it to soak in and prevent stain and finish from properly adhering later.
Preventing Wood Glue Spillout
Wood glue splotches tend to happen when you join two pieces of wood together, and the force clamping them pushes the glue out.
This will happen sometimes. Nobody is 100% perfect at applying the exact right amount of glue in the right places.
But it doesn’t need to happen all the time. If you always find yourself cleaning up glue spillout, you’re probably applying too much glue.
There’s an easy answer: apply less glue!
Additionally, it can help to spread the glue out before clamping the wood pieces together, that way there isn’t a big drop of glue in one place waiting to be squeezed out.
Woodworkers have invented specific tools for this that are silicone, so once the glue dries it peels off the tool easy peasy!
I don’t love this technique, but other people talk about it like it’s amazing, so I thought I’d at least mention it.
The idea is that you tape up your joint with masking tape. Then when you clamp the wood, the masking tape blocks the glue from escaping the joint.
Sounds good in theory, right?
Here’s the thing: That glue has to go somewhere. If the technique works, then the wood glue stayed in the joint.
But I don’t know if I want extra glue hanging out in the joint. That’s space between the two pieces of wood that wouldn’t have been there otherwise, because wood glue takes up volume.
You’ll have a stronger joint if you squeeze all the excess wood glue out, because then the wood pieces are in contact with the perfect amount of wood glue.
And if the masking tape doesn’t work, and the wood glue squeezes out anyway… well, what was the point?