It’s interesting how we can come across a random blog post or article and it sticks with you for years. It could be a funny post about parenting, a recipe that looks delicious, or even a DIY project.
When that 7-foot by 3-foot pallet arrived at our house this spring, I quickly knew what I wanted to do with it. But the finishing touches became a topic of
obsession discussion for days on end.
We had plenty of leftover paint and stain in our garage to cover the pallet, but I didn’t like any of the colors. I envisioned a warm reclaimed wood look to contrast with the corrugated steel front. All our exterior paint colors were white, black and gray.
I experimented with mixing acrylic and latex paints in with the exterior stains, and with dry brushing techniques, but nothing looked quite right. Then I remembered a post I saw a few years back where an outdoor table was stained with a steel wool, tea and vinegar solution. After some searching, I found the post and fell down a rabbit hole of researching steel wool and vinegar stains.
The more research I did, the more anxious I got. There’s a ton of variability with this technique. The type of wood, type of vinegar, amount of steel wool, type and concentration of tea/coffee, and the amount of time the solution sits can all affect the final look. Basically, there was no way to know how the finished project would look until I actually gave it a shot.
How does Vinegar and Steel Wool Stain Work?
When steel wool and vinegar are combined for an appreciable amount of time, the components start to create an iron oxide. When the iron oxide is brushed onto the wood, it reacts with the tannins in the wood to naturally oxidize the wood, creating a stained effect. The concentration of iron oxide in your solution and the concentration of tannins in the wood will both affect the resulting color. Brewed tea or coffee are often painted onto low-tannin wood before applying the steel wool solution in order to add tannins and deepen the final color.
How Do You Stain Wood with Vinegar and Steel Wool?
There are just about as many variations of vinegar and steel wool stain as there are blog posts about it. Basically, you can experiment as much as you want. But here’s the basic idea:
- #0000 Steel Wool
- Vinegar (White, Balsamic, or Apple Cider)
- Leftover Glass or Mason Jar
- Brewed Tea or Coffee
- Inexpensive brushes or rags
- At least 48 hours before you want to stain your wood, break apart a pad of steel wool and put it into a jar. Opinions differ on whether or not the jar should be open or closed during this period. I left my jar closed for a day and then left it open in the garage for another day.
- During that time, prepare your wood by sanding it down well. Every once in a while, give the solution a little stir or shake to help break up the steel wool.
- If you have a low tannin wood, like cedar, paint the wood first with brewed tea or coffee and let dry completely.
- Strain the steel wool out of the solution to remove the particles, and then paint the remaining solution onto the wood.
- Allow the wood 24 hours to fully oxidize and dry. (It’s a lot of fun to see how the color changes over that time!)
- Seal the wood with a polyurethane or other sealer of your choice.
My experience staining wood with vinegar and steel wool:
Once I committed to the project, I was really excited, and still a bit nervous. Forgetting all the proportions I’d read about, I broke apart 1.5 steel wool pads and stuck them in a leftover pasta sauce jar (most recipes use only one pad) and filled the jar with white vinegar.
My impatience got the better of me, and I wanted to get moving barely 24 hours after making the solution. I brewed a VERY strong batch of 5 black chai tea bags in a mason jar and went out to the garage to get started. Unfortunately, we were in the middle of a month long monsoon, so I had no space to take decent pictures of the project. Seriously, I was working in about a 3-foot wide walkway in our garage.
Thank goodness the pallet was large enough to do plenty of testing on the underside. I painted some tea on one area of the pallet and then tested the vinegar solution with and without the tea base. That’s when I started to question my decision. The places with the tea solution were black, the cedar had a strange black and yellow zebra effect, and the tea-free areas were hardly changed at all!
After a few minutes of panic and pouting, I decided to give the solution another day to soak without the lid and came up with a backup plan if it didn’t work out. It took about 30 minutes to paint the entire pallet with tea solution (I was hurrying because the baby woke up from his nap), and then let the pallet dry overnight.
The next day I went out and tested a small area again. This time, I immediately started to see more of a silvery-brown color. Relieved, I moved forward with painting the entire pallet. As I worked, I noticed that the color was continuing to change from the silvery-brown to a rich brown, and each board was slightly different. Needless to say, I was thrilled with the results:
I’m so glad I remembered that old post. There’s something so exciting about seeing transformations take place before your eyes. I plan to use the steel wool and vinegar technique for more projects and look forward to experimenting with added colors and different types of wood and tea. I even used some of the leftover stain on the outside of an unfinished wood tray I found at Target. The combination of the warm wood with the bright blue chalk paint inside is so bright and fun!
More Awesome Resources
There’s so much information available on this subject. I know because I spent hours looking at every single post I could find. Avoid all that time spent and take a look at these great resources:
Have you ever used a natural stain before?
What would you stain using this technique?
Other ORC Posts: