How To Darken Wood Without Stain

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Commercial stain can be expensive, and some varieties emit compounds that decrease indoor air quality. If you’d prefer not to stain the wood on your next project, you have several alternate options to choose from. This article details several different methods for darkening wood without stain, and even teaches you how to darken bleached wood. 

How to Darken Wood Without Stain

There are several different ways to darken wood without going near a can of commercial stain. Iron vinegar washes are a popular DIY solution. Coffee or tea can also be used to change the color of wood. Darkening wood with Danish oil is an easy solution that has the added benefit of protecting and conditioning the wood.

Read through the step-by-step instructions for each method and choose which is right for you. 

Coffee cups

How to Darken Wood With Coffee or Tea

Coffee can be brushed onto wood to give it a darker, deeper hue. This method works best on light-colored woods like oak, chestnut, and ash. Black tea can also be used for a lighter brown darkening effect.

Black tea has tannins in it that help pine accept colorants, making this an effective pre-treatment if you plan to try the iron vinegar method detailed below. 

  1. Brew a pot of coffee or tea. The stronger the beverage, the darker the coloring on the wood will be. If you’re not sure how dark you want your workpiece, start with less coffee grounds/tea bags and more water – you can always re-treat the wood to get a darker hue. You want the liquid to be close to room temperature so you don’t scald yourself. Pour the coffee or tea into a glass jar or mug and stick in the refrigerator to cool. Alternatively, if you have leftovers from the day before, you can repurpose old tea or coffee it for your woodworking project.  
  2. Prepare your workspace. Place a drop cloth, tarp, or plastic sheeting under the workpiece, or take it outside. Change into clothes you wouldn’t mind spilling coffee or tea on. Get a paint brush or roller and a container for the liquid. A large plastic yogurt container works well, as does a glass jar.  If you don’t have a brush, you can also use a sponge, rag, or cloth. 
  3. Prepare your surface. A smooth surface will accept color more evenly and avoid lighter and darker areas. If this is your goal, sand with 220-grit sandpaper. For a rougher, more rustic finish and more variation in colors, you can sand with coarser paper or even leave some areas unsanded. Wipe the wood with a tack cloth to remove all dust.
  4. Brush on the coffee. Dip the brush into the container and hold it above the coffee until the dripping slows. Brush the coffee onto the the wood, moving in the direction of the grain. Aim for even coverage, spreading the coffee evenly over the wood and avoiding allowing it to pool. Should the wood become saturated, use a clean, lint-free cloth to wipe it up. 
  5. Wait. The wood should be dry to the touch within an hour or two. Take the workpiece into natural light if possible and evaluate your results. If you like the color, and the coverage is even, your project is complete. If you want a darker color, add another coat of coffee. If the color is much too light, brew a stronger pot of coffee and use that for the second coat. 
Darkened table

How to Darken Wood With Danish Oil

Danish oil can be used as alternate to stain. Danish oil is used to condition and protect wood. It both penetrates the wood and forms a film on the surface, while naturally darkening the color.

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To darken wood without giving it a protective film, you can use these instructions and replace Danish oil with Dark Tung Oil.

  1. Sand the wood. Use sanding paper, a sanding block, or a power sander to smooth the surface of the wood, working up to 220-grit. Vacuum the surface of the wood or use a tack cloth to remove the sawdust. 
  2. Apply the Danish oil. Use a clean, lint-free rag to work the Danish oil into the wood in the direction of the grain. Do not over saturate the wood. 
  3. Allow to dry. Danish oil takes six to eight hours to dry in ideal conditions. On cold days, it may take longer. Do not apply Danish oil in a space where the temperature is less than 55 degrees Fahrenheit as it will remain tacky and wet. If you must apply Danish oil on a colder day, use heaters to raise the temperature or bring the workpiece inside to dry. 
  4. Apply additional coats. If darkening the color is your only goal, one coat of Danish oil is likely sufficient. Three or four coats of Danish oil are required to build robust protection against impact damage. 

How to Darken Wood With Iron Vinegar

This method should be used when you want to change light-colored woods a deep gray or silver. 

  1. Make the iron vinegar. Start with a glass container filled with white vinegar. Cut up a piece of extra-fine, 0000 steel wool and drop it into the container. Cover, and give it a good shake. The longer you leave the steel in the vinegar, the more of the coating will be eaten away, introducing iron acetate (rust) into the vinegar. The iron acetate reacts with the tannins in wood, leading to a darkened effect. 
  2. Decide how long to wait. Wait at least 12 hours for the coating on the steel wool to dissolve – longer if you want a darker color. You may want to grab a spare board that matches the wood in your project and make test swatches, trying the same finish at 12, 24, 36, and 48 hours. Different woods will respond differently to this method, and it’s not possible to undo your work.
Woman showing off her table that has been darkened without using any wood stain
  1. Apply the iron vinegar. Strain out any shards of metal using cheesecloth or a mesh strainer. Use a foam brush, sponge, rag, or bristle brush to apply the mixture evenly over the surface of the wood. 
  2. Walk away. The interaction between iron acetate and tannins in the wood takes time, and it’s not always pretty to watch. Keep your panic levels in control by doing something else for a few hours, then return to check your progress. 
  3. Evaluate your work. If you like the color, you can leave the wood unsealed or top it with clear coat to provide protection. If you want a darker color, mix up another batch of iron vinegar, adding more steel wool and waiting longer before application. 

Read up on how to remove a dark stain from wood for a future project.

How Do You Darken Bleached Wood?

Different kinds of bleach can be used to lighten wood or remove stains. If you’re in possession of overbleached wood and want to darken it, follow these instructions. 

  1. First, neutralize the bleach with a solution of warm water and vinegar.
  2. Then use water or a clean damp cloth to wipe the surface of the wood clean, and allow it to dry. When bleach comes into contact with wood, it inevitably raises the grain.
  3. Sand with 100-grit sandpaper to remove the raised cut fibers.
  4. Continue to sand the wood, working up to 220-grit sandpaper. Use Dark Tung oil or Danish oil as usual to darken the wood. 

Conclusion

There are several reasonable and easily applied alternatives to darkening wood with commercial stain. Using Danish oil or Dark Tung oil will provide some protection as well as darkening. Coffee or tea add brown tones to wood without the toxicity, stench, or expense of commercial stain.

Iron vinegar is easy to make at home and can have beautiful darkening results.

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.