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How to Distress Wood with Tea, Vinegar, and Steel Wool – DIY style

WellnessMama blogger/author and DIY diva, Katie Wells, is back at it with a recipe on how to distress wood, in just 24 hours, with easy household items.

JS2 Partners Healthy Home Builders is excited to share Katie’s recent blog post, with a few notes of our own included. If you’ve tried some DIY staining yourself, let us know how it went in the comments section below. We’re always open to new ideas!

…Courtesy of

How to Make New Wood Look Old With Natural Ingredients

The Problems with Some Wood Furniture

When I learned that most furniture contains some unsavory chemicals and flame retardants, I started looking for more natural options.

[JS2P tip – Solid hardwood furniture that comes raw or unfinished makes for a great option to paint and/or stain yourself. Make sure to verify with the supplier that they do not apply any sealers - some advertise as raw and in fact are not.]

I wanted a certain size coffee bar in our kitchen to fit in a specific space and couldn’t find anything the right size. So I decided to make it. I should disclose at this point that I’m not the most handy with advanced power tools, so I decided to stick to an easy-to-use design.

The goal was a rustic barn lumber and steel pipe construction. My favorite part was figuring out how to make the wood look like aged barn lumber through a simple distressing process. I took $30 worth of wood and made it look like well over $100 in reclaimed lumber. Score!

What Happens When Wood Ages?

In nature, the weather ages the outside of wood without (in most cases) affecting the structure or durability of the wood. In order to distress wood artificially, we must imitate this process.

The strong covalent and H-bonds within the wood's cellulose molecules and fibrils are able to resist high tensile stresses, which is why people have used wood as a building material throughout history.

Over time, wood can age anaerobically (under water or buried) or aerobically (in air). The “reclaimed barn lumber” look I was going for is the result of aerobic aging. To understand how to mimic it, I had to understand how it happens.

A few scientific journals later, I found that wood exposed to sunlight experiences photo degradation. This is when the UV light acts on the lignin in the wood. This affects the color of the wood but not typically the strength or structure. Wind and rain water can also chemically affect wood by acting in the tannins. The more tannins, the darker the wood becomes with oxidation.

Over time, this process of oxidation and photo degradation creates the beautiful grey color of reclaimed, aged wood.

How to Distress Wood (or Make New Wood Look Old)

For this project, my goal was to recreate the color of a piece of beautiful wood we found while on a family camping trip in Yellowstone last summer. That was all well and good … except I didn’t want to wait 10 years for my lumber to turn that color. I also wanted to use inexpensive and untreated pine lumber, which is naturally low in tannins. (Unlike woods like oak and walnut which are very high in tannins.)

After some chemistry research and experimentation, I found a way to replicate the process of wood aging within 24 hours. There are many online tutorials that recommend using vinegar and steel wool. I tried this alone but didn’t get the color I was hoping for.

Make New Wood Look Old and GREY

In order to get the best aging effect, the iron acetate (what happens when you mix vinegar and steel wool) has to interact with the tannins in wood to oxidize and create an aged effect. To intensify this effect, I added a tablespoon of hydrogen peroxide to the vinegar/steel wool mixture. This created instant oxidation and helped get the color I was looking for.

I also brewed a really strong mixture of tea and coffee and even sacrificed a little red wine. This mixture is rich in tannins and was the pre-treatment before the iron acetate stain.

The result was the perfect ashy grey aged look I was looking for. The best part? I used natural ingredients I already had around the house and it cost virtually nothing to do!

How to Age Wood in 24 Hours (for a Beautiful, Weathered Look)

Now for the practical application … here’s how to age wood in 24 hours. I recommend testing this on a small piece of wood to make sure you get the right color before going over all of the wood. Here’s the supplies you’ll need.

Balsamic Vinegar and Apple Cider Vinegar stained wood
Stain colors prior to the aging step

· Superfine steel wool grade 0000

· Vinegar – white / apple cider

· [JS2P note – balsamic works too for a darker look]

· 6 teabags of black tea

· ½ cup coffee (optional)

· ¼ cup red wine (optional)

· 2 mason jars, quart size or larger

· Paintbrushes or old rags

Step 1: Make Two Mixtures

In the first jar, we’ll make the catalyst mixture. Shred one piece of the steel wool and add to one of the mason jars. I used gloves for this so the oils in my hand would not coat the steel wool and prevent the chemical reaction… Heat three cups of vinegar in a saucepan on the stove or in the microwave until hot but not boiling. This concentrates the acetic acid in the vinegar and speeds up the process. Putting the mixture in the sun should also speed the process because the UV helps the oxidation… Note - Do not cover this jar! It is important that the gasses can escape! Stir every hour or so.

The second jar is the colorant: Place the tea bags (and coffee if using). Add 3 cups of boiling water to the jar and set aside.

Step 2: Wait a Few Hours

Mixtures for staining and aging wood DIY
The colorant mixture is on the left with the steel wool catalyst on the right.

During this time, the acetic acid in the vinegar is dissolving the iron oxide on the surface of the steel wool. It may not look like much is happening, but it is. The tea is also steeping and the amount of tannins in the liquid is rising. I left both jars sitting overnight (about 12 hours). You can leave them as little as 3 hours or as much as a few days. The longer you leave it, the more intense the aging effect.

Step 3: Strain

Colorant Jar - After the desired amount of time, strain the tea/coffee out of the liquid and reserve the liquid in the mason jar. Add the 1/4 cup of wine, if using, at this point.

Catalyst Jar - Add 1 tablespoon of hydrogen peroxide to the vinegar/steel wool mixture and stir. This should immediately darken the mixture. I found that this step is also crucial to getting the grey color (at least on the pine wood I used). At this point, you can strain out the steel wool if you want to. I found it was easy enough to apply without removing the steel wool.

Step 4: Paint the Wood with Tannins

Now for the fun part! Using a paintbrush, foam brush, rags or old t-shirts, paint the wood you’re using with the colorant jar with the tea/coffee/wine mixture. Make sure to get all sides and not miss any spots as they will be very noticeable on the finished product. I haven’t tried it, but next time I plan to use a spray bottle to spray the wood for better coverage.

Let dry completely for about an hour. Don’t worry that this won’t darken the wood much! The real magic happens in the next step.

Step 5: Add the Iron Acetate Catalyst Mixture

It’s time to brush on the catalyst with the vinegar/steel wool/hydrogen peroxide mixture. Again, make sure to coat all parts of the wood. Within a few seconds, you’ll see the wood start to darken. The full color develops over the next few hours. Don’t worry if it doesn’t look dark right away! Adding a second coat can further darken the wood, if desired. This is the step that works to actually distress wood.

Let dry completely for at least a few days. The catalyst vinegar mixture can be stored indefinitely. Just put a lid on it and store in a cool, dark place.

Step 6: Seal

Let the wood dry for a week before sealing.

[JS2P tip – To preserve the look and feel of your new aged wooden masterpiece, an easy and natural furniture wax can be made at home out of beeswax -- check out this simple recipe from Crunchy Betty.]

Have you tried getting creative with your household items to make your own wood stains or finishes? Let us know in the comment section below!


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