Color Up: Making Natural Wood Stains

See the results of several natural stains, including (top row) unstained pine, steel wool in vinegar, tea; (middle row) turnip greens, beets, coffee; (bottom row) blueberries, carrots, turmeric.

Staining is a commonly employed method of coloring wood, used to customize the look of DIY wood projects or to bring new life to weathered furniture. Commercial stains are readily available in every color under the sun, but concerns over the use of synthetic chemicals and pesticides and the hazards of working with toxic fumes may leave some hesitant to tackle projects like staining wood furniture at home.

Adding color to wood using natural elements has been a popular practice for thousands of years, long before synthetic stains were available at your local hardware store. Using fruits, vegetables, plants or minerals, you get an endless range of colors with homemade stains without worrying about exposure to unsafe fumes.

Working with natural wood stains, satisfying results can be more challenging when compared to commercially available products. Colors can be inconsistent from batch to batch, but keeping good notes when working up a DIY “recipe” makes it easier to recreate a winning hue. In some cases, especially when using plant matter for the stain, wood may not readily accept color and it may take longer to reach desired shades. Start by staining a piece of scrap wood to see if you’re on the right track. Once you’ve hit the mark, wait several days before applying a sealant.

Trying my hand at a variety of natural wood stains, all produced with materials already at hand, I cut a single plank of pine, applied my homemade stains and compared the results, which you can see above.

Metal Stains

Soaking rusty nails, pennies or steel wool in white vinegar will imbue the vinegar with metallic properties to produce an extremely effective stain. After four days in the brine, a kitchen steel wool pad broke down almost completely and resulted in a nearly clear stain that blossomed into rich brown tones when applied to the wood. Pennies will produce a teal stain, but must be soaked for weeks before use.

Plant Stains

Using the juice of fruits, vegetables or plants, an incredible range of colors both vibrant and muted can be achieved. These stains can use a little help for colors to hold. Alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) is commonly used in pickling and can be found in the spice section of your local supermarket. If necessary, add 1 teaspoon of alum per gallon of juice. I stained using juice from beets, turnip greens, blueberries and carrots to varying satisfaction. I wasn’t thrilled with carrot stain, but the purple-gray tones of the blueberries are lovely and I will head straight for the beet-juice dye the next time Barbie is looking for a craft-built dream house.

Beverage Stains

As your dentist might tell you, coffee and tea are quick to stain. As natural wood stains, a cup of strongly brewed coffee or tea produces beautiful mellow tones that deepen with multiple coats.

Nut and Spice Stains

A popular natural wood stain can be produced by soaking walnut husks in water for a week to yield a rich, dark stain. Walnuts are out of season just now, but I hit the spice rack to produce an incredibly rich stain from the other end of the spectrum. A tablespoon of turmeric added to 2 cups of water resulted in a cheerful yellow stain with only one coat. Turmeric can also be used to dye fabric.

10 Responses

  1. jim says:

    Try painting the wood with red wine and then applying the "steel wool and vinegar" over it in streaks. The effect is immediate and dramatic. Dark Gray right now! Wear rubber gloves or you will have gray fingers too. . . .

  2. Starboxdesigns says:

    I used some rusty old files in a huge mason jar of vinegar, I left soaking in the basement for a couple of weeks. Very dark stain! Accidentally stained my feet and fingers, too.

  3. The Junkateer says:

    I put steel wool in a crock pot ( one from a thrift store ) with vinegar. This idea is ok if you don't cook the product too long. It will produce a dark stain if left to cook too long.

  4. CwithaY says:

    Hi! I am looking to try the penny and vinegar mixture to get a teal color. What is the proportion of pennies to liquid volume vinegar that I should use?

  5. Robert says:

    How about the sediment that is collected in a whole house (well water) filter? It is from the iron in water and is a orange,pumpkin pine shade.

  6. Dan says:

    Trying to get away from chemicals as I've become allergic, and it's fun experimenting with natural shades.

  7. Dan says:

    Yeah, walnut husks are great for dye or woodstain, lots of tannins.
    Onion skins give a nice golden brown colour too so save them.

  8. jayreynolds333 says:

    I've been slowly converting everything in my house to organic based products. First I started off with my food, and then clothes. Now, I want to remodel my house to not only be organic, but to incorporate as much green technology as possible. After researching tons of organic wood finishes, I've decided on a brand, now i just need to learn how to refinish my dining room table myself!

  9. Rebecca says:

    Has anyone tried red wine vinegar? Just curious…

  10. Dan says:

    One note about soaking steel in vingar: the chemical reaction creates hydrogen gas. Not enough to be dangerous. Just don't put it in a sealed container, or you might find the mixture all over the kitchen. #schoolofhardknocks

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About Mick Telkamp 

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A former Midwesterner living in North Carolina, I write about my adventures in backyard chicken-keeping and suburban homesteading over at HGTVGardens, and my exploits in the culture of Southern cooking ...

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