Lightening The Color Of Wood

Every day I receive e-mail from people asking my advise on everything from how to repair a damaged piece of veneered furniture to “can I apply a finish to my computer keyboard”. One of the most often 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 probably 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.

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 so 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 work once in a while depending upon the initial color of the wood (how dark), how lighter you want to make it and if you use a semi-transparent (pigmented stain). 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 piece 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 do the whole piece. REMEMBER TO RUN THE TEST FROM START TO FINISH (STAIN TO TOPCOAT) BEFORE YOU DO THE WHOLE PIECE, THIS WAY YOU WILL KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT AND IF YOU DO NOT LIKE IT, YOU CAN ALWAYS TOUCH UP THE SMALL TEST SPOT.

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 bleach.

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 and easiest to use, however, (like any chemical) you must still take great care when using this or any other bleach or wood lightner.

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, RESPIRATOR, PROTECT SKIN FROM CONTACT. REFER TO 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.

Applying The Bleach. After the finish has been removed and the whole piece washed down with mineral spirits, let it dry well for a couple 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. Next, apply 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 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 wood needs to be lightened further, repeat the process.

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. Next step is to sand down the whole piece with 120 grit paper, then finish sand using 180 or 220 grit paper. Finally, choose a re-stain with color of your choice and finish in manner you wish.

Two Part Wood Bleach and other finishing materials can be purchased through Constantine's. 1 800 223 8087 See Sources Back On My Homepage.

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Last Updated: Tuesday, August 13, 1996