Cleaning Up Silicone to Fight Fisheye

Once you have silicone contamination on a cabinet, it's very hard to get rid of. Here's another look at a common and pesky problem. January 2, 2012

Is there a magic trick to getting rid of the evil Pledge and other contaminants on kitchen cabinets? I do a lot of refinishing work in kitchens and I've never come across any kitchen with a contamination problem as bad as the one I'm working on now.

First discovered the problem when doing a sample door, so before we started on our first batch of drawer fronts, we cleaned the surfaces with lacquer thinner twice, then coated with MLC vinyl sealer, then sanded, then another coat of vinyl sealer. I'm still getting fisheyes.

Are there any commercially available solvents better than lacquer thinner for decontaminating/cleaning oils and waxes off of cabinets?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From the original questioner:
Well, I did a bunch of reading in the Knowledge Base, and though there are suggestions ranging from mineral spirit wipes with paper towels to full strength ammonia washes, the one thing consistently mentioned is adding smoothie or fisheye eliminator to your finish. Since I do a lot of refinishing work I suppose that is the answer. If I start adding smoothie to my finishes, is it going to permanently contaminate my spray equipment, or is there a way to flush it out of my lines should I no longer require it?

From contributor M:
I can't verify, but I remember someone here saying that Murphy's soap will do the job.

From contributor L:

Try MEK. But most likely the silicone has been absorbed deeply into the wood and it is a lost cause. Really surprised the double coat of vinyl sealer didn't work. Maybe try some dewaxed shellac - same principal, different product.

From the original questioner:
Yeah, I was surprised too when the two vinyl coats didn't correct the issue. Went out and picked up some MEK today so we'll see if that helps at all tomorrow when I try another sample. If not then I guess it's going to have to be fisheye eliminator.

I'm really surprised at the amount of contamination on these cabinets, as they are only 2 years old. I wonder if maybe the original finisher was using smoothie in their finish and that's why I'm having so many problems. Either that or someone recently Pledged them.

From contributor B:
Toluene is what I've used to remove contamination from a surface. Don't know why it works better than MEK, acetone, alcohol, but it does. Just make sure you are using clean rags, and just to be sure, every time you wipe across your surface, fold your rag in half to keep the contaminants you just wiped off from getting back on your surface.

From contributor J:
Unfortunately trying to wipe away silicone contamination using either solvent based or petroleum based products rarely works, because you tend to loosen up the finish containing the silicone and pushing it deeper eventually into the wood fibers themselves. Stripping down to bare wood, a good solvent wash and thorough sanding is the more advantageous method around this (just be sure you're removing the waxes from your stripper, which also inhibit coating drying and adhesion).

Finally, yes, fighting silicone with silicone is the quick solution, but you will contaminate not only your equipment but also the finish room surroundings. Vinyl sealers and/or shellac barrier coats work sometimes. The problem isn't contamination but more of a surface tension issue.

From the original questioner:
The MEK seems to be working for the most part. Will try using toluene as well and see which works better. Still getting a few small craters but we've found that misting on a few coats of vinyl sealer, then giving it a very light scuff before lacquer coats minimizes the issue to the point where the fisheyes are more or less invisible after the topcoat dries. Thankfully I won't need the fisheye eliminator - that's really the last thing I wanted to do. Thanks for all the advice!

From the original questioner:
Here's an update. We found the source of the contamination - sloppy installation work. Seems the installers used overly generous amounts of silicone caulking and filthy rags, which ended up rubbing against many of the panels (and somehow, doors as well). We noticed that the primary areas where fisheyes were occurring were where/near where caulking was applied (in some cases overlapping up to 1 inch onto cabinet surfaces).

Also tried using toluene - and yes, it works better than MEK. Thanks for the tip. Will be using this as our primary cleaning solvent from now on.

From contributor J:
I'd change the caulking schedule and/or the type of caulk used. Silicone caulk with a solvent type finish over the top is trouble waiting to happen, either as you experienced or not very long after the finish has cured.