How To Age Wood

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This article details multiple methods for giving new, ‘green’ wood an aged look. It will give you step by step instructions on how to make ‘rusty vinegar’, and the right techniques for using it to achieve an aged, weathered look. You’ll learn tips and tricks on weathering pine, and how to give wood an aged appearance using paint or the power of the sun.

Techniques to Age Wood

Aged wood has character, acquired through years of use. Unfortunately, the character is often indicative of damage or decay, which makes it a poor choice of building material. It’s also difficult to source pre-aged wood that is consistent in size or structural integrity. 

An excessively patient person might leave wood outside for years to achieve the perfect weathered look, but most people don’t have that kind of time. Luckily, there are several strategies you can use to get the characteristics of aged wood without the wait. 

Aged wood

A steel wool and vinegar mixture is the easiest way to achieve the color of aged wood. The vinegar removes the coating on the steel will, allowing the iron fibers to oxidize (rust). When the rusty vinegar is brushed onto wood, it interacts with the natural tannins present and turns the surface of the wood gray. 

There are also techniques you can use to alter the texture of the wood so that it appears older than it actually is. 

How to Age Wood With Steel Wool and Vinegar

Follow these steps to turn new wood the color of ash. This method will work best on porous woods that easily accept stain, such as oak and cedar. The exception to this rule is untreated pine. To age untreated pine, see the section below on darkening pine with tea.  

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  1. Collect your materials. For this project, you will need: white vinegar, extra-fine steel wool, a glass jar, and a brush. 
  2. Make the mixture. For every one and a half cups of vinegar, add a single pad of steel wool. The extra-fine variety, labeled as 0000 steel wool, works best. Add both ingredients to the jar, replace the lid and shake it vigorously. A glass jar is perfect for this purpose because you can easily see whether the steel wool has dissolved. Tearing the steel wool pad into smaller pieces helps speed the dissolution process. 
  3. Wait. The minimum amount of time you can wait is 30 minutes, and this mixture will produce a subtle gray hue on light-colored woods. You can change the results by waiting longer, up to two days. The longer you wait, the more profound the weathering effect will be. Waiting at least overnight will give you the best results on woods that are darker shades of red or brown. 
  4. Brush on the vinegar. Dip a brush into the iron-laden vinegar and apply it to your wood. There isn’t a good way to predict the outcome of this process without seeing it in action, so it is advisable to make a test board out of a scrap piece of wood. 
  5. Wait (again). Unlike tinted stains, you won’t see the wood immediately change color. Instead, the change happens gradually as the mixture dries. Allow the wood to dry for at least several hours, preferably overnight. 
  6. Add another coat (if desired). If you were hoping for a deep silvery gray but got a pale gray wash, don’t worry – you can apply another coat. Adjust the ratio of steel wool to vinegar and the wait time as desired. 
  7. Remove imperfections. Use a fine-grained sanding block to buff out any splotches caused by drips. 

How to Prepare Pine for Aging with Black Tea 

The interaction between iron acetate (produced by the steel wool and vinegar) and naturally occurring tannins in the wood is what makes the aging process possible. 

Untreated pine wood is low in tannins, which means that if you apply iron acetate to pine wood, you won’t see a big color change. You can add tannins to pine wood by brushing on a coat of strong black tea. 

Two tea cups with a coaster
  1. Thoroughly sand the workpiece. You’ll get more even coverage on a very smooth surface rather than a rough one. Use a tack cloth to remove sawdust, or vacuum the wood. 
  2. Make the tea. Combine tea bags with hot water and allow the tea to steep for five minutes. Remove the tea bags. Use one tea bag for every eight ounces of water. If you want a darker color, you can add more tea bags. The brand or quality of the tea bags is irrelevant, since you won’t be drinking it. It’s fine to get the cheapest tea available. 
  3. Brush the tea onto the pine. Using any kind of brush you like, apply the tea to your pine workpiece. Don’t soak the wood, but make sure to work the tea into every nook and cranny. 
  4. Wait for the tea to dry. The finished pine should be considerably darker, and will have a much higher tannin content than untreated pine. Continue aging the wood using the steel wool and vinegar technique outlined above. 

How To Achieve the Texture of Aged Wood

Aged wood has dings, scratches, scrapes, and sometimes holes. These imperfections are caused naturally through use and termite or worm infestation. Below are four techniques for changing the texture of new wood, giving it an aged appearance. 

1. Use Tools 

If you’re trying to pass a new piece of wood off as old, you will need to get rid of any perfect edges. Use hammers of differing sizes to bang up the wood. Turn the hammer around and use the claw end for variety.

A crowbar is another useful tool for doing intentional physical damage as part of the faux-aging process. 

2. Use Screws and Nails 

To achieve a pockmarked look, place a random assortment of screws and nails in a bag. Put on safety glasses to protect your eyes from wood chips, as this method may release debris. Bang the bag randomly against the wood. 

3. Use Wire or Steel Wool 

To create shallow grooves or channels in new wood, grab a coarse wire brush or the coarsest steel wool you can find. While applying pressure, drag the implement up and down the wood. Move in the direction of the grain. 

4. Use an Awl

When a swarm of termites exits wood, they leave small holes behind. You can mimic these signs of age on green wood using an awl or a small drill bit. Termite tunnel exit holes are smaller than ⅛ of an inch, so any bit smaller than that will do the job. Tap the end of the awl or bit with a hammer to drive it into the board. 

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How to Age Wood With Paint

Another method for making new wood look old is using paint and an orbital sander. 

Brush on top of an opened can of white paint
  1. Rough up the wood. Use the methods described above to alter the texture of the wood, removing perfect edges and adding intentional damage. 
  2. Paint the wood. Choose three or four colors of paint with the same base ingredient (latex, oil, or water). One of them should be white, to provide high contrast. Using a brush, spread the paint in random overlapping stripes. Leave some of the wood unpainted, allowing the natural grain to show through. You can apply subsequent coats before the first coat is completely dry – don’t worry about the paint mixing. 
  3. Sand the wood. When the paint has dried, grab a random orbital sander and attach a medium or fine-grit sanding disc. The heads of these powerful sanders rotate and move randomly. Sanding will further blend the colors. Leave some areas of the workpiece unsanded for an imperfect and rustic look. 
  4. Seal the wood. Use a clear coat wood finish to protect the surface of the wood from further damage. 

How to Age Wood Using the Sun

A baking soda and water paste, applied to wood and allowed to dry in the sunlight, will change the surface of the wood to a light gray color. 

  1. Wait for a sunny day. This method requires six hours of bright sunlight to work. 
  2. Set up your workspace.  Use sawhorses to lay out the wood you want to age. Aim for an area of your yard or driveway that gets full sunlight for a large portion of the day. 
  3. Mix the aging solution. Combine baking powder and water in equal parts, and stir well. You can use any plastic container to hold the mixture. The result should be a thickish white paste. 
  4. Brush on the paste. Using a bristle brush, coat the wood in a thick layer of baking soda paste. Allow the wood to dry in the sun for at least six hours. If you want a darker, more intense weathering, mist the surface with white vinegar from a spray bottle. 
  5. Brush off the paste. Using a stiff-bristled brush, sweep the hardened and caked baking soda off of your workpiece. Brush in the direction of the grain. 
  6. Rinse the wood. Using a wet cloth or a watering can, remove any remaining paste. 
  7. Dry the wood. Use a clean cloth to dry the surface of the wood, and let the sun finish the job. Look into applying a wood finish to protect the wood into the future.

Conclusion 

There are several methods to choose from when aging wood. A mixture of steel wool and vinegar creates iron acetate, which works with the tannins in wood to turn the surface gray. Pre-treat pine with black tea before using this method. For enhanced verisimilitude, use physical implements to change the texture of the wood.

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.