Lightening The Color Of Wood
by Sal Marino
A frequently asked questions is “ I have a piece of furniture that is too
dark and I want to re-stain it to a lighter color, what color stain
should I use”? Most people expect me to reply by saying, “no problem,
just go out and buy a can of golden oak stain, brush on a couple of
coats over the darker color and slap on a coat of polyurethane over the
stain. However, many people are surprised by my reply, which is usually
“ you need to strip off the existing finish and you may even have to
bleach out the all color and apply a new stain. Their reply is usually,
“oh no, that sounds like too much work, there has to be an easier way”.
Unfortunately, sometimes there is no easy or easier way, and many people
do not believe or want to believe what I have told them. It’s just a
shame that some of these people go through a lot of wasted work and time
just to find out that I was correct and they should have listened to me
in the first place.
There are a number of ways to actually lighten the color of a piece of
furniture, but applying a lighter stain over an existing darker color
usually does not work. You see all stains are somewhat transparent,
the grain of the wood can show through. Some stains, like dyes are so
transparent that if you apply a very light color dye to a dark piece of
wood, it will actually make the wood darker instead of lighter in the
same way a clear lacquer will actually slightly darken a piece of cherry
or walnut when it is applied to the surface.
Staining will sometimes work
if you use a
semi-transparent stain such
as a gel stain.
Success will depend upon
initially how dark the wood
is and how lighter you want to make it. Unlike dyes, pigmented stains are
not as transparent. In fact, a pigmented stain is actually a thinned
down paint. We all know that you can paint over a darker color using a
lighter color paint. This is because there is so much pigment in the
paint that it blocks out the color you are painting over. A pigmented
stain will also block out the color it is being applied over, but not
all of it. In order for the lighter pigmented stain to block out all the
darker color there would have to be so much pigment in the stain that it
would not only block out the darker color but also hide all the grain of
the wood, just like a paint. Now, it may start to make sense.
If you have a project that you wish to make slightly lighter and don’t
mind giving up some of the wood’s grain that is showing, you could apply
a pigmented stain that is slightly lighter than the existing color. When
I say slightly, I mean just that. Remember it’s best to apply multiple
lighter coats than one thick coat. Once you have achieved the color you
desire, let the stain dry very well and then apply a topcoat finish like
varnish, lacquer or polyurethane over it to seal. The application of the
topcoat may change the color slightly, in any case it’s always best to
run a test on a small, inconspicuous spot before attempting to apply it
to the whole piece. REMEMBER TO RUN THE TEST FROM START TO FINISH (STAIN TO
TOPCOAT). THIS WAY YOU WILL KNOW WHAT TO
EXPECT AND IF YOU DO NOT LIKE IT, YOU CAN ALWAYS TOUCH UP THE SMALL TEST
The best, and sometimes only way to lighten the color involves more time
and effort. First, you have to remove (strip off) the existing finish.
Usually the best way to do this is to use a paint and varnish remover.
If the piece has been built within the last 50 years and the original
finish still remains, you may be surprised to find that most or all of
the color will come off when you remove the finish. This is because many
furniture manufactures added the color right into the finish they used.
This was usually lacquer or varnish.
Once the finish has been removed, the next step is to wash the whole
piece down with mineral spirits. This will remove any traces of the
paint and varnish remover that may have been left on the surface. At
this point, if you feel the color is light enough, all you need to do is
apply a clear topcoat. However, if the color is still too dark or if the
wood appears blotchy with lighter and darker spots, your next step is to
Bleaches are highly reactive chemicals that break down the color(s) in
the wood. There are basically three types of chemicals most commonly
used to bleach wood, Oxalic acid, Sodium hypochlorite and a two part A/B
wood bleach. Oxalic acid is a good choice for removing stains in wood,
but is very poisonous. Sodium hypochlorite usually works well on aniline
dye, but once again is dangerous in inexperienced hands. The two part
A/B wood bleach is what I use and the one I suggest you try. It is by
far the most effective all around material to use, however (like any
chemical) you must still take great care when using this or any other
bleach or wood lightener.
NOTE: BLEACH CAN BE VERY DANGEROUS IF NOT HANDLED PROPERLY. FOLLOW THE
MANUFACTURE’S INSTRUCTIONS CAREFULLY. NEVER MIX BLEACH WITH ANOTHER
CHEMICAL AND ALWAYS WORK WITH A FRESH BATCH. WHEN WORKING WITH BLEACH OR
ANY OTHER CHEMICALS, ALWAYS WEAR PROPER SAFETY PROTECTION SUCH AS RUBBER
GLOVES, EYE PROTECTION, A RESPIRATOR, AND PROTECT SKIN FROM CONTACT. REFER TO
THE MANUFACTURE’S INSTRUCTIONS FOR SPECIFICATIONS ON PROPER SAFETY
PROTECTION. REMEMBER, BLEACH WILL MOST LIKELY REMOVE THE WOOD’S NATURAL
COLOR, SO YOU WILL PROBABLY HAVE TO USE SOME TYPE OF STAIN TO GIVE THE
WOOD COLOR AFTER THE BLEACHING PROCESS.
After the finish has been removed and the whole
piece washed down with mineral spirits, let it dry well for a couple
of days. Using a paint brush, apply a generous, even coat of part A of the
two part wood bleach. Let this stand for about 5 or 10 minutes (best to
refer to directions for amount of time). Don’t worry if the wood starts
to look darker, it will lighten up when you apply part B.
part B in the same manner as you applied part A. The color should
gradually start to lighten as the bleach dries. Let the piece sit for at
least 4 hours and then wash it down with a solution of 50 percent white
vinegar and 50 percent water. This will neutralize any chemicals in the
bleach left on the wood. Allow to dry at least overnight. Two part wood
bleach is usually strong enough to lighten the wood sufficiently in one
application, however, if the wood needs to be lightened further, repeat the
Once the piece is dry, you will notice that the grain is very rough. It
has been raised by the water in the bleach and the wash down. The next step
is to sand down the whole piece with 120 grit paper, then finish sand
using 180 or 220 grit paper. Finally, re-stain with color of
your choice and finish in manner any you wish.