Monday, July 18, 2011

Vinegar & Steel Wool Wood Stain

It is no secret that I like "old" things. My child used to make me pictures at preschool then crunch the paper up into balls and unfold them again before giving them to me because as he said, "Mommy, I know how you like old looking things". Gahhh I love that little boy!

It isn't just about how old things look, though my favorite color is 'chippy blue' because it isn't my favorite unless it's chippy, it's also about the story old things tell. They are so much more interesting than something shiny and new.

I saw the coolest thing on DIY Network last night on This NEW House (Japalachia - Episode DTNH-201H). A man who was building his house in the North Carolina mountains wanted his wood exterior to have an instant weathered wood look. I wish I could show you a picture of that house. It was huge! And each and every board had been treated with a vinegar and steel wool stain.

Vinegar and Steel Wood Stain

Man. I wish I had known about that a month ago! I would certainly have used that technique on Sheila. For now, I'm wracking my brain for a project I can use it on. I think I have one in mind. For now, I thought I'd share with you what I learned about this technique. And I beg you, if you use it, or already have, let me know. I would love to see how it turned out!

Vinegar Steel Wool Stain How - To

Start with unfinished wood. If you'll be refinishing an already stained or painted piece make sure to remove all traces of the previous finish. Wipe the wood down. **NOT INTENDED for antique pieces. The wood may not be able to handle the acidic process. Do not use if your piece is priceless or irreplaceable.

Apparently using different vinegars can produce different stains. For example, an apple cider vinegar (or white vinegar, though apple cider seems to produce quicker results, some say it's the extra acidity of the apple. The DIY guy used Apple Cider Vinegar) makes a slate gray stain (think Restoration Hardware!) and with a nice Balsamic you get a brownish green color. Some folks even mix tea or a Rit dye to vary the color results.

So. Choose your vinegar.

Wash steel wool in warm water to remove oils used to prevent rusting.

Use REAL steel wool. Apparently there are generic versions out there that aren't the real thing and that just won't work.

Choose 00000 steel wool. Completely cover steel wool with vinegar of your choice. Some variations say to use half water, half vinegar but that might water the color of your stain down - again, the DIY guy used just vinegar and steel wool. However, if you find that your stain is too dark, you might decide to add a little water. Keep in mind though that you'll be sanding the final product and that will lighten it up a bit as well.

Soak your steel wool overnight covered tightly in a glass jar. It may take up to 48 hours but if you've used the right steel wool (remember real steel only) and washed any oils from it prior to use, you should see results pretty quickly. The stain is ready for use when the steel wool has completely dissolved.

Test your stain in an inconspicuous spot or on a scrap piece of wood. Just be sure to use the same kind of wood. As with different vinegars, different woods will respond differently giving you different colors.

Brush or wipe stain on in even strokes just as you would any other stain. Wipe off any excess. If you find you want a deeper/richer color tone, try soaking the wood in the stain.

Allow the wood to dry completely then sand lightly with 220-grit sandpaper. Seal the finished product with an oil, such as Tung oil or a natural wax. Be sure to research which of these would work best for your project and the finished look you desire as some of them can change the color or finish when applied.

Oh. And I guess I should tell you, it stinks. Alot.

Finally, and most importantly, send me some pictures or a link! I wanna see!!


  1. Tried this today. Things I discovered are you cannot, repeat... CANNOT put the lid on tight. It will explode. Just cover jar with some aluminum foil, slightly shake it ever so often, maybe when you pass by it sitting on your kitchen cabinet.

    Also, the steel wool will not dissolve for at least a week. If you wait this long you will get a dark brown or black finish. 24 hours is sufficient time to wait.

    Tear wool into small pieces before putting in the jar, cover with vinegar, foil top and it is ready to use in 24 hours. Wait the entire 24 hours. Vinegar will still be clear after 24 hours and you will think it will not do anything but it will. Just brush it on and let it dry. Amazing!

    Going to try Apple Vinegar next and let you know. I am using on Cedar Fence Pickets and White Vinegar came out a very dark grey. Hoping the Apple Vinegar will give me the grey-silver patina look that I'm after.


    Top Board is before, bottom board is after vinegar/steel wool treatment waiting only 24 hours.

  3. Didn't really work on my pine disappointed! Followed all directions exactly. I even let it set another day and tried it again. I put several coats on. There was only a slight change, and it wasn't gray like I was hoping. Guess I'll have to go the more expensive/time consuming faux finish route. :(

    1. If you brush with black tea.. make it strong. It will darken . Soft woods don't have the tannin that reacts to this vinegar and steel method without the help of tea. Its not too late to do it. I usually do tea first then the vinegar mix.. but either way will make it darker.

  4. Apparently pine wood doesn't stain grey. You can check out this site too for more info.

  5. Apparently pine wood doesn't stain grey. You can check out this site too for more info.

  6. I tried it on pine and it worked !! I am going to give it a 2nd coat and see if it gets any darker.

    1. I don't think that the 2nd coat made it much darker. The stain was a brown color definitely not a gray tone on the pine.

      BIG IMPORTANT TIP: Do not let your project get wet. I splashed a little water on the wood before the project dried and it left a water spot!!! I tested a completely dry, stained piece of wood with water and it was fine.

  7. I just tried it -HELP! I made doors out of aspen tongue and groove (very light) and redwood for the frame (reddish) I am trying to find out how to correct this mess. I haven't sanded it yet, and that may help, thanks to this post. My redwood frame is virtually black! I even diluted it with 3/4 water to 1/4 solution. I originally read to leave the steel wool soaking for at least 2 weeks. Due to having to wait for the lumber to be cut, it's been a month so that may be the issue. I used apple cider vinegar and cheap steel wool from the $ store. Any suggestions on how to lighten it up? Also can a satin polyurethane be used to seal it? My husband wants to use that to protect the doors in a steamy bathroom. I see no mention of that being used, only wax or tongue oil. They may just get painted :( The doors were a full 2 days work for me! I don't want to waste them. Wish I could attach a photo for you to see. Thanks. Bobbie

    1. I just had this happen to me! It's an oak door that was nearly black! I am currently wiping it off with hot water and it is coming off and getting lighter. Do not get the wood too wet or it will be ruined. Let it dry between wipe-downs. Also rinse your rag and empty you water bucket often as it will become black pretty quickly.

  8. SUCCESS! I created a rough cedar frame for an old-west painting I'm doing. WOW WOW and DOUBLE WOW. Your instructions did the trick. Looks exactly like the wood wall image you posted. Thanks. I'll be creating a lot more old-west frames and sculptures using this.

  9. Thank you for posting this! We are trying the steel wool stain on a new project. Can't wait to see how it turns out!



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