Using steel wool and vinegar is an easy way to add a distressed antique look to your wood furniture.
This is an excellent method, especially for those homeowners and DIYers who want an antiqued, patina-distressed look without resorting to harsh chemicals or power tools.
If you have never tried it before, let me walk you through the process by which you can easily make, apply and add an instant deep rich color to any piece of wood furniture using only steel wool and vinegar.
Distressing Wood with Vinegar and Steel Wool
When I first heard of this recipe (years back), the first thing that came to my mind was why use steel wool and vinegar when there are so many other readymade methods to stain the timber. I know some of you might have the same question in mind.
Well, this is generally because of the unique distressed, aged, and antique look that your furniture gets with it, which might not be possible with other wood staining processes.
When vinegar and steel wool are combined, a chemical reaction occurs, which causes the steel wool to oxidize and rust. And that’s what is used to deliver the wood its unique color.
The overall process can be difficult for beginners, but it works stunningly well for DIY enthusiasts who don’t fear to experiment and want to try something different. Therefore, I recommend trying this recipe only if you are willing to invest some time and don’t mind making a few mistakes until you master the process.
What You Will Need
To get started, you will need these supplies:
- 1 gallon of distilled white vinegar
- 3 to 4 steel wool pads
- A glass jar or container
- Wire mesh strainer
- Fine-grit sandpaper
- A chip brush
- Gloves, old rag, or towel
Instructions to Stain Wood with Vinegar
Step 1. Prepare the vinegar and steel wool solution
Cut the steel wool into small pieces and put them into a mason jar. Then pour the vinegar over the pieces of steel wool to fill the jar.
Place this jar with the solution aside for 2-3 days in a well-ventilated area or outdoors. Do not cover it, as a chemical reaction will occur, creating gases that should be escaped from the container.
You will know when the vinegar has turned into murky color (slightly greenish or bluish) – it’s ready to use. If it’s still clear, it needs to age longer. After its prepared and has achieved the desired color, strain the mixture into another clean mason jar using a wire mesh strainer.
TIP: The longer you allow your mixture to sit, the darker the stain will get. So, if you do not want a darker shade, try shorter aging periods of about 24 hours. If, after 24 hours, you feel like you would like it darker, let it sit for another day or two.
Step 2. Prepare your furniture for staining
While your vinegar and steel wool solution is sitting and getting ready for application, you can prep your furniture by sanding it down using fine-grit sandpaper. After ensuring the surface is smooth, wipe off dust with a tack cloth or a damp rag.
If the wood is finished, removing the old finish is essential before you start staining. You can do that by using an at-home paint stripper or sanding the furniture to bare wood with medium-grit sandpaper.
Step 3. Apply the vinegar and steel wool solution
Once you’ve prepared the surface of your wood furniture, it’s time to apply the vinegar and steel wool stain solution using a chip brush (it’s solvent resistant and will cost less than regular paintbrushes).
Wearing gloves, dip your chip brush into the stain mixture and apply it to the wood surface in long, even strokes. Make sure to distribute the wood stain evenly along the direction of the wood grain. And wipe off the excess using a rag or a towel as your work.
After you’ve covered the entire surface, let the wood stain vinegar mixture sit, soak, and dry for 12-24 hours.
Remember that sometimes there might be no instant color change seen on wood. This is because the tannins in the wood need time to react with the vinegar and oxidize (turn color). So, give it a few more days to cure if you don’t see the color change right away – it will eventually develop.
Step 4. Seal with a wax sealant (optional)
Once the vinegar wood stain has dried on the furniture for at least 24 hours, you can apply a beeswax or polyurethane sealant to protect the finish and give it a nice shine.
To apply the beeswax, simply rub it on the surface in long, even strokes using a clean rag. Then buff the wax until it’s evenly distributed and begins to get a nice shine.
If you’re using polyurethane, apply it according to the manufacturer’s instructions using a rag or a brush.
After you’ve applied the sealant, you have a beautiful piece of furniture with a unique, one-of-a-kind finish that you can show off and enjoy.
What Type of Steel Wool to Use for Staining Wood?
When it comes to picking steel wool for distressing wood, you want to ensure you’re using a bag of #0000 grade, which is of the highest quality to give you the best results.
You can find it in the hardware store in the paint aisle – but check the label before you buy it. If you can’t find the 00000 grade, you can also use the 000 grade. The results will, however, be slightly different as the 000 grade is a bit more coarse.
The 00000 grade, on the other hand, will give you a much finer powder to create a smoother and evener finish. So, if you have the choice, go for the 00000-grade steel wool.
What About the Type of Vinegar to Use for Wood Distressing?
It’s important to note that the results you will get with the homemade wood stain recipe might vary depending on the type of timber and the type of vinegar you have used.
While distilled white vinegar is what I have used and recommend most, some DIYers tried red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, and even balsamic vinegar. All of which created a beautiful, weathered look with unique tones. So, if you want to experiment, feel free to use any type of vinegar you like.
How much vinegar do you need to use?
The amount of vinegar you’ll need will depend on the size of the furniture piece you’re working on.
- You’ll only need a cup or two for smaller pieces like a nightstand or an end table.
- But you’ll likely need a quart or more for larger pieces like a dresser or a buffet.
To be safe, I recommend starting with a small amount and adding more as needed. You can always add more of it, but you can’t take it away once it’s been applied.
Also, note that there might be instances you may not see the color change in vinegar even after soaking the steel wool in vinegar for 3-4 days. If that’s the case, consider removing steel wool from the solution and straining the vinegar, which should look darker.
Will vinegar work to age any kind of wood?
As for the types of wood, I’ve personally tried this method on white oak, poplar, and hickory and was happy with the results. However, many woodworkers reported that this method works best on softer woods like pine and cedar as it is more absorbent.
Generally, it should work on every type of wood, including alder, birch, maple, walnut, mahogany, cherry, douglas fir, etc., as long as you follow the process carefully. The only thing is that you will be getting different shades and hues depending on the kind of timber.
For example, white oak tends to create a light grayish stain, while red oak will give you a darker, more brownish hue. Some wood might even give you dark chocolate colors, while others might create a weathered white look.
So, if you’re unsure whether this method will work on your particular type of wood, I recommend testing it out on a very small, hidden area first. Or experiment with a few pieces of scrap wood before you move on with the main project.
What’s the shelf life of vinegar and steel wool stain?
The good news is that this stain solution can be stored for future use for a few months. But the intensity of the color may change over time. So, I recommend straining the mixture and using it within a few months for the best results.
Simply pour the mixture into a glass jar or bottle and seal it tightly to store it. After that, store it in a cool, dark place like a cabinet or a closet. When ready to use it again, strain it through a coffee filter or a cheesecloth to remove debris.
The Bottom Line
Staining, aging, and distressing the wood with vinegar and steel wool is an excellent way to create a beautiful, weathered look on your home furniture without harsh chemicals.
The most important thing is that it’s a straightforward process that anyone can do. The result may vary depending on the type of wood and vinegar you’re using, but the efforts are worth investing in if it’s done correctly.
Jack Luis is a semi-retired painter who loved painting his clients’ ideas on their walls.
He had worked as a painter for over a decade serving customers in areas such as Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Beaufort, and Georgetown, SC (South Carolina). Today in his free time, he likes to read and write about the newer techniques implemented in his profession. You may read more about him here or get in touch with him here.