Easy DIY Wood Stain Using Vinegar and Steel Wool

How to make gorgeous aged wood stain with simple ingredients from your pantry and without the price tag and hassle of store bought wood stain.

If you are trying to reduce the cost of your home improvement supplies or want to swap harmful chemicals for natural solutions in your home, this DIY wood stain recipe is definitely for you. 

I unlocked the code to finding the best natural wood stain, and it is AWESOMESAUCE! (Do we still say that word?)

If you have ever appreciated the look of aged wood, this recipe will teach you how to recreate the look on new wood by combining strong black tea with a vinegar solution and steel wool mixture for a chemical reaction that naturally darkens unfinished wood.

I conducted a little experiment in my kitchen on our bathroom plank wall project.

If you're looking for an all natural wood stain method, this is the perfect DIY project for you! Just three ingredients are needed to make this inexpensive and all-natural wood stain.

And I discovered that I am never going back to store-bought wood stains for as long as I can help it. This method rocked my world, y’all!

I’d heard about several variations of wood oxidation before to create a color change on different types of wood, so I put them to the test to find that perfect barnwood finish with this tried and true homemade wood stain.

It took all of 30 minutes of “labor”, was really easy clean-up, didn’t require the use of any harsh synthetic chemicals, and only cost me $5 since most of what I needed was already hanging out in my pantry.

Boom, baby! That’s what I’m talkin’ about.

The ingredients you need for this DIY all natural wood stain method are steel wool pads, some black tea, apple cider vinegar and a few paint brushes.

Perfecting the Color of Natural Wood Stain

Going into this little experiment, I knew I was looking for the end result of a rich color wood tone with a little hint of gray blue color.

On a scrap test piece of wood, I tried all kinds of vinegar recipe combinations for a couple days by mixing steel wool grades and types of vinegar, and discovered that 0000 grade steel wool is the best for the impatient DIYer who doesn’t want to wait a couple of weeks to do this.

Homemade Pre-Stain Conditioners

Applying a wood conditioner pulls the natural tannins to the surface of your raw wood. The kind of wood you choose will determine the color. Heavy-tannin woods like oak or walnut will natural show a darker color than lighter-tannin woods like pine or poplar. So it’s a good idea to test your homemade stain on a scrap piece of wood before working in larger areas.

  • Brewed tea
  • Coffee

Vinegar Method

You can attempt this vinegar stain with different types of ingredients on any type of wood to find the best way to achieve the color of the wood you want.

  • White vinegar 
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Balsamic vinegar

In my experiment, apple cider vinegar gave a more gray tint than white distilled vinegar. 

Brushing wood with coffee brings out more of the brown tones of wood while black tea brings out the gray.
In the end, this was the winning method for me.

DIY Natural Wood Stain

Ingredients to Make Natural Wood Stain

  • 2 cups of boiling water
  • 4 family size black tea bags (I used these Luzianne tea bags if you want to be really specific.)
  • 1 real steel wool pad of 0000 grade  (I use these.)
  • 2 cups of vinegar (White House brand apple cider vinegar to be exact.)
  • 2 cheap chip brushes or foam brush
  • glass jar 
  • Medium grit sandpaper
  • Pieces of wood of your choice (pallet wood is great to use for this)

WORK SPACE: Be sure to wear gloves and protect your work area with waterproof drop cloths. 

Step 1 – Sand

Lightly sand the wood surface with medium grit sandpaper and remove any dust so it will take the stain more evenly.

Step 2 – Make Wood Conditioner

To prep the wood conditioner, I let 4 black tea bags steep in the 2 cups of boiling water for 24 hours to make it really strong (I left the tea bags in the entire time).

Step 3 – Mix Vinegar and Steel Wool Stain

For the oxidizing stain, I combined the steel wool pad and vinegar in a large glass jar and let it sit for 24 hours too.

IMPORTANT: Leave the jar uncovered as the homemade stain will release gas that shouldn’t be covered.
Then the fun began!

Here is what plain lumber looks like before our all natural wood stain method.

Step 4 – Apply Conditioner to Wood

After 24 hours, when I was ready to stain, to pull the tannins out of the wood, I brushed it all down with the cold tea mixture and let it sit for an hour.

The first step in this all natural wood stain method is to brush the lumber with the black tea, steeped for over 24 hours.


(Below) The left 3 planks are plain and the right 3 planks are brushed with the tea.

A side by side comparison of what regular lumber looks like compared to black tea stained lumber (on the left).

Step 5 – Apply Stain

After the hour mark, I brushed the wood with the steel wool / apple cider vinegar mixture, and it instantly turned gray. I was nearly jumping up and down with excitement. (I get excited over things that many “normal” people would probably think is crazy.)

The best part is watching the magic happen after this step. 

The next step in this all natural wood stain method is to brush the tea stained lumber with the steel wool and apple cider vinegar stain.


5 minutes later, the color deepened and I knew it was going to be gorgeous!

Here is what the steel wool and apple cider vinegar stain looks like after five minutes - the color has begun to deepen to grey.


After 15 minutes…

After 15 minutes, this all natural wood stain has deepened into an aged grey.


…and 30 minutes…

After 30 minutes, the steel wool and apple cider vinegar stain has deepened even more, now bringing out darker brown tones in the lumber.
After one hour, this all natural wood stain has fully deepened to a beautiful aged grey and looks amazing on the lumber!
natural wood stain using tea, vinegar, and steel wool

…and 1 hour, I had my perfectly aged wood. Insert fan girl squeal!

You will likely get a slightly different result on each wood board since this is a reactive finish that will all depend on how the tannic acid reacts to the solution. A commercial stain will give a more consistent result. This method is great for anyone who appreciates the natural variation of aged wood. 

Considering it only costs about $5 for ingredients from the grocery store, it’s a steal for creating that distressed wood look!

There were a few spots I had to go back over and apply a little more of the oxidizing stain that left a few blotches, but I’ll sand them down a bit to even it out. And I think the imperfections give it a more realistic barn wood look anyway.

You most likely will not need a second coat of stain in order to achieve a dark color. But if you are looking to achieve a darker stain, you can apply an additional coat of the steel wool/vinegar solution.

Step 6 – Seal With a Top Coat

For the final step to seal in the color, apply a clear coat of wax with a lint free cloth or brush on a coat of polycrylic or polyurethane, especially if you are using the wood on a dining table top or coffee table or creating a weathered wood look in a high humidity space like a bathroom. 

It almost reminds me of that glorious wood from my in-laws’ “magic barn” that I’m a bit infatuated with.

I’m so ready to get this plank wall up in our bathroom now! I might have to celebrate with something crazy like a science lab rocket launch. 😉

You can see how our DIY natural wood stained plank wall turned out here!

DIY wood plank wall

Shelf Life: The steel wool/vinegar homemade stain solution works best within 1-2 weeks since it can become less effective after a long time. 

And we used the same staining method on our DIY wood beam doorway!

diy wood beam doorway

More Wood Project Ideas

Best Deck Stain Color for a Neutral Driftwood Look

best deck stain color driftwood

DIY Faux Driftwood Outdoor Dining Table Makeover

How to Refinish Wood Furniture Without Stripping

how to refinish wood furniture without stripping

How to Restore Wood Outdoor Furniture

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219 Comments

  1. Now this is what I was looking for, just didn’t know it. I stained some wood in kitchen at holidays, phewy, what a smell and mess. Not good for me as I have asthma. Sure glad I found your post on”Hit me with your best shot”. Like idea of wood looking more gray. Would love to add some wood planks in bathroom around tub (we rarely use) and around toilet area. You did great tutorial also. Happy New Year

    If you care to reply please do so to email address, thanks

  2. Love it Lauren! I did this method to the frame for my DIY map…loved it! Have a huge tub of it still sitting in my garage for the next project that I can use this with. Looking forward to seeing the plank wall in your bathroom!

    Deb

    1. Hi! I am in the middle of your tutorial and just realized that we only used 4 single serving tea bags (instead of family size) with 2 cups of water and 1 steel wool pad with 16oz apple cider vinegar… after The tea coat- I noticed a slight change in color but once it dried, it basically looked the same as when I started. I just finished applying the ACV/steel wool mixture to the wood and it is starting to turn gray but it doesn’t have that nice rich reddish color your tutorial shows. I really liked the appearance of your wood and I was wondering if it would be okay to apply another tea coat (with a more concentrated tea mixture) or is it too late at this point? I appreciate your help and expertise!

      1. Hi, Mallory! I’m so sorry for my delay. Yes! You can certainly apply another tea coat. It should darken your wood. I’m not sure if you’ll end up with the reddish tone or not. That really depends on how your wood naturally reacts and what species of wood you’re working with.

        1. Hi there, did you finish it with anything else? The shot of the finished product looks a little glossy. New to all this..thanks!

        2. Hi, Michele! I did. I sealed the wood once it was dry 24 hours using marine grade polyurethane since we ended up putting the wood on a wall in our bathroom.