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The Most Natural, Inexpensive Way to “Stain” Wood

How to make gorgeous aged wood stain with natural ingredients from your pantry and without the pricetag and hassle of classic wood stain.

There was one particular type of day in high school that was always the best.
It wasn’t pizza day at lunch or free day in gym or even movie day in English class. (Why in the world did the Demi Moore version of The Scarlet Letter have to have so many bathing scenes in it?)
Nope. The best day of all was science lab day. We built bridges and made a hovercraft and even constructed potato guns…ahem…I mean vegetable accelerators, as my physics teacher had to clarify. (Apparently making potato guns was already a regular pasttime for a lot of boys in the backwoods of our small town.)
Ten years later, I still have my own science lab days, except without the use of tuber artillery. Yesterday, I conducted a little experiment of my own on our upcoming 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 staining wood as long as I can help it. This method rocked my world, y’all!
I’d heard about several variations of wood oxidation before, so I put them to the test to find that perfect barnwood finish.
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 $2 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.
Going into this little experiment, I knew I was looking for a rich wood tone with a little hint of gray.
On a scrap piece of wood, I tried all kinds of combinations of 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 an entire week to do this.
Apple cider vinegar gives a more gray tint than the white distilled kind. 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.
On my 13 1×6 pine boards, I used: ย (Affiliate links are provided below. For more information, see my full disclosure.)
  • 2 cups of boiling water
  • 4 family size tea bags (I used these Luzianne tea bagsย if you want to be really specific.)
  • 1 steel wool pad of 0000 grade ย (I use these.)
  • 16 ounces of apple cider vinegar (White House brand to be exact.)
  • 2 cheap chip brushes
To prep it, I let the 4 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). For the oxidizing stain, I combined the steel wool pad and vinegar in a bowl and let it sit for 24 hours too.
Then the fun began!
 
Here is what plain lumber looks like before our all natural wood stain method.
To pull the tanins out of the wood, I brushed it all down with the tea 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).
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 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.
…and 1 hour, I had my perfectly aged wood. Insert fan girl squeel!
After one hour, this all natural wood stain has fully deepened to a beautiful aged grey and looks amazing on the lumber!
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 barnwood look anyway.
With this all natural wood stain method, you may have to go back and do a second coat on your lumber but it's totally worth it!
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. ๐Ÿ˜‰
You can see other projects I’ve used this stain on here: ย (Just click the links to find the posts.)
I used this all natural wood stain method when I stained this plank wall in our bathroom.
This all natural wood stain method was used to make this DIY Locker Basket Mail Organizer
Our DIY Wood Beam Doorway was made using my favorite all natural wood stain method

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194 Comments

    1. I sealed the wood with marine grade polyurethane for this particular project, but that’s because the wood was going into a bathroom.

      I like to seal everything with a coat of matte poly to be on the safe side usually.

  1. Hi Lauren – I absolutely love it! I have a couple of questions for you –

    1) Did you strain the vinegar/steel wool mixture before brushing it on?
    2) Did you brush on the straight vinegar/steel wool solution or mix it with water?

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Erin! I didn’t strain the vinegar/steel wool, but you certainly could if you wanted to. I brushed on the straight solution, so no need to dilute it. Hope it works out for you!

  2. Lauren-

    I’m having the same issue making the vinegar-steel wool solution. What does it look like after, say, a day or so, then a week or so? I put mine in a mason jar and nothing happened. I’m putting it in an open bowl tonight to see if it changes at all. Can you give us anymore information on the vinegar-steel wool portion of the mix?

    Thank you for your help!!!

    1. Hi Tess! I’m so sorry you’re having problems. I have to let mine sit for a full 24 hours minimum. I use about 8 ounces of apple cider vinegar with 1 0000 steel wool pad. It will only work with the very fine 0000 grade steel wool, so maybe you have a coarser type? I brew mine in a mason jar too with the lid off. At the 24-48 hour mark, the solution won’t be as dark but it should still work and you have more control over how dark you want it. So if you want it darker, you can do a second coat after it sits for an hour. If the solution sits for a week, the steel wool should be mostly dissolved and will be darker. You have to brush your wood with tea or coffee an hour before the steel wool/vinegar solution too so the tannins will be pulled out of the wood. Otherwise, nothing will happen when you brush on the solution. I almost always use pine for the wood, so the species of wood you have could react differently. I hope that helps. If you’re still having problems, please let me know!

      1. hi Lauren
        I have two questions. first I tried just the apple cider and it turned out great! I also tried regular vinegar and that turned out great too.. gave it a hint of red.. the only difference I found by doing the tea preocess first, was that it came out a lot darker.. almost too dark:(
        secondly, these planks of wood are for outdoors, think this “stain” will run or fade away too much with the rain/sun? awesome tutorial by the way:)
        thx

        1. Hi, Kelly! So sorry it came out so dark! That is the downside of this method, you never really know how it’s going to turn out since it’s a natural oxidization process. You might be able to lightly sand it to lighten up the wood some. Are you using it on a hardwood like oak? That generally has more tannins in it that will react more to the tea. For using the planks outdoors, you can just seal them with an exterior polyurethane 24 hours after staining when the wood has dried.

          1. Pine has almost no tannins..it’s the black tea that gives tannins to the wood so that the vinegar solution works. If you have a hardwood you are using it has tannins and will not need the black tea unless you want it very dark.

    2. Beware that there are #0000 Super Fine Synthetic Steel Wood Pads ..the synthetic will not work..they have to be real steel wool.

      1. Some absolutely amazing ideas!! I was thinking of all the additional things you could add to change the tones slightly too.. like a few drops of pickled beet juice to the vinegar or some carrot juice, blueberry juice, grape or even cranberry! I haven’t tried these things, but I think it’s worth a try!?! I usually use a latex paint in a tone I like and add water, apply and wipe off after a few minutes to get my desired results on pine at least… and it dries super fast. But love your suggestions and can’t wait to try! Going to attempt a slat wall with various tones of antique and aged wood, barnboard looks.. so SUPER STOKED!! Thanks!!! โค๏ธ๐Ÿ˜

  3. Love this look and am so excited to try it on a couple of projects! I tried mixing up the vinegar and steel wool in a sealed mason jar but it doesn’t seem to disintegrate like yours did. Does it need open air to make that happen?

    1. It’s SO great! I have to wait 24 hours before it will work, but the steel wool doesn’t usually disintegrate for a week. The solution will get darker the longer it sits. But I sort of like the lighter look so I can still see the wood grain. You can add a second coat if you want to darken it more.

  4. You have just made my day… this is the best thing/stain/idea ever! I’ve been wondering how to get that weathered look for barn doors I will make for between our dining room and lounge. Thanks so much for helping. Blessings

    1. Yay! So glad it helped, Leah! I hardly ever use regular store-bought stain anymore unless I’m wanting a different color than this. The clean up on this one is so much easier. And even though the outcome of this is rather unpredictable, I kind of love the surprise factor of it. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. I love it. I was thinking of this for a replacement top fo a coffee table but I don’t want to worry about stains. Are you able to wax this or put a protective coat on top of it?

    1. Thank you! It’s getting a coat of varnish since it will protect the piece more from people setting their drinks on top of it. Wax is great for dressers and pieces with less wear and tear, but I like to stick to varnish for table tops.

      1. I want to do it for my breakfast table. What kind of varnish should I use after ? And how long should I wait after the vinegar process?
        Love your tutorial, thanks

        1. After the vinegar process, it usually takes about 30 mins to an hour to turn to the final color. I’d wait until the wood is completely dry, possibly until the next day just to be sure. Then, I’d use a marine grade matte polyurethane since it will seal out any moisture in case there are spills or dishes with condensation or anything like that. It should protect the finish. Hope that helps. I’d love to see a photo when it’s finished!

  6. Great tutorial Lauren! How critical is the tea step? Have you experimented with just the vinegar/steel wool mixture? We’re building a house with timbers, and I’ve been looking for an inexpensive method to “age” the wood. One step (skipping the tea) would save a huge amount of time. Thanks – love your blog!

    1. Thanks Terri! The tea step is a must-do for me because it brings the tannins out of the wood to make that dark color. Coffee works too with a slightly less gray tone in it than the tea. There’s a new stain out now called Weatherwood Stains that is a similar concept with a one-step application. It would cost more than the DIY kind I use, but the finishes are beautiful for that weathered look.

  7. Love your way of staining better than any other I’ve seen. Can’t wait
    to give it a try as I was looking for more of the gray’s also. I only have
    the single serving size tea bags as I have never heard that there were family
    size tea bags. How many of the single serving size would I use if you used
    4 of the family size. Hate to go out and buy the bigger size if I don’t need too,.
    Thank you in advance.

    1. Thanks, Christine! I use this method ALL the time and absolutely love it on everything. We live in South Carolina, so it’s common for us here to drink sweet tea by the pitcher and make it with big tea bags. They might be harder to find elsewhere. I used the Luzianne brand if that helps. Maybe try 3-4 of the single serve for 1 family size?

  8. I have been wanting to try this way of staining but been afraid that the vinegar might leave a smell in the wood. I would hate to spend all that time on a project to have it leave a terrible smell, especially if I am giving them as a gift. Can you tell me if here is any after smell, even months after the finished project?

    Thank you so much

    1. I was a bit worried about that too, but after a day there was really no smell at all. And I am always using this method now on everything.

  9. Thank you!!! This is SO helpful! It’s exactly the color I’m looking for and you explained it so clearly and simply!

    1. I have to admit, I didn’t come up with the whole concept on my own. There are multiple tutorials out there that do it a bunch of different ways. This was just my method. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks, Amy! I’m excited to show it off.

  10. 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

  11. 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!

          1. 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.

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