Learn How To Make Your Own Natural Wood Stains

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Homemade Wood Stain

Homemade Wood Stain

For me, summer always meant long days in the sun, catching fireflies, weekends at the lake, and work. Since we were off school all summer, Mom and Dad mad us do chores before we could have fun. One of those chores was staining the deck. I remember long, hot days with a paint brush in my hand that got heavier by the minute. And the awful smell! I made up my mind to find something better.

Reasons to Stain Wood

Here are several reasons to stain wood. You might want to change the color of the original wood on a deck to match the interior or exterior of your home. You might just want a change. Or you might be looking to protect a piece of wood so it’s more that just raw, unfinished wood. While you could solve this with varnish, you could also stain and then add shine.

The Problem With Most Stains on the Market

Wood stain from hardware stores are chemically derived, and they smell like it. Sometimes for days or even weeks, high concentrations of alcohol, petroleum distillates, and other chemicals can linger in the air. These chemicals often call for application with a mask to prevent breathing the chemicals into our lungs. Staining wood doesn’t have to involve harsh chemicals.

Natural and Homemade Wood Stain

There are many options for naturally derived stains that are long lasting and look great. Some of them are metallic based and some are plant based. Here are some good examples:

Coffee or Tea

Brew some very strong coffee or tea. Allow to cool. Dip a clean rag in the mixture and wipe onto the wood. You might want to use a test piece first to see how dark your wood will turn. You might also need more than one coat to get the desired color.

Water Based Ink

There are many colors of water based inks that will work well for staining (like this black one). Again, test in an inconspicuous spot first.

Onion Skins

Soak onion skins in warm water to get a nice yellow color. Depending on your wood, the resulting color may be anything from pale yellow to warm amber.

Black Walnut Husks

If you’re lucky enough to have a black walnut tree around, you can dry the hulls and soak them in water. They must be dried first to achieve a dark brown color. If they are not dry, the result can be an ugly, murky green. Dilute with water until the right shade is produced.

Steel Wool and Vinegar

Vinegar helps to break down metallic compounds. Place a pad of regular (non-soapy) steel wool in a jar and cover with vinegar. Leave for about 24 hours and then remove the pad.

Different vinegars produce different results. Typically, the higher acidity, the darker the stain. So apple cider or white vinegar will work the best. For a lighter shade try rice wine or sherry vinegar. Some vinegars have a reddish tint that really doesn’t come through in the stain, but it could slightly.

Vinegar also helps to develop the tannins that are present in all woods, producing a darker color after the stain is applied. So apply your first coat, then wait about 20 minutes. You’ll see a big change!

Indigo or Woad

For a bluish tint, try powdered indigo (find it here) or woad. These will turn wood dark and slightly blue, kind of like blue-black hair.

Consider the Age and Type of Wood

The size of the pores in wood varies with each type. Softer woods, like pines, are more porous and can soak up stain quickly. The opposite is true for hardwoods like oak and maple. They have smaller pores and are more dense, so the absorption rate is much slower.

Newer cut wood is more dense, therefore slowing absorption; older woods are drier and will suck up the stain very fast.

Always test stain a small piece of wood to see how both the stain and wood will react.

Have you ever tried a natural stain for wood? If so, what did you use? What were the results?


About Debra Maslowski

Debra is a master gardener, a certified herbalist, a natural living instructor, and more. She taught Matt and Betsy how to make soap so they decided to bring her on as a staff writer! Debra recently started an organic herb farm in the mountains of Western North Carolina. You can even purchase her handmade products on Amazon!

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  1. Echo Grotz says

    was reading some of the comments and came across one where you stated that if it stains clothing, it would probably stain wood. So would that mean I could use Kool-Aid to stain and the paste wax to shine it up? I realize that Kool-Aid won’t give a natural look, but I think it would be great for doll houses, playground type stuff for the kids or just some kooky design options around the house. What do you think?

    • Debra Maslowski says

      I haven’t tried it yet Echo, but it makes sense that it would work. the only problem I see is that it might fade over time. But then, stains do too. You need to reapply them every few years. I say go for it, but try a scrap piece first.

  2. Tee Cee says

    Hi Debra,

    You mentioned adding shine after applying the natural stain. How long after staining would you wait to apply shine, and what material would you use to achieve the shine? Would that help to protect the stain, and if not, is there a natural seal someone could apply? If the process for shining/sealing involves more than one or two steps, I would love to see a follow-up tutorial!

    • Debra Maslowski says

      You would want to wait until it is completely dry, Tee Cee. I’m working on an article right now on wood finishes, but my favorite is paste wax. Rub it on, let it dry and buff it to a shine. Really easy! Watch for the next article.

  3. Maddy says

    I love the idea of staining naturally! My sister and I each want to refinish our second hand bedroom sets, but we’re put off by the expense and the chemicals, especially as she is expecting. These natural ideas seem effective and so worth the cost to get it done without worrying about breathing chemicals. We want to remove the original stain first though. Any suggestions for stripping it naturally without having to sand it all off inch by tedious inch? My set has a lot of little grooves and designs etched in it that wouldn’t take well to being sanded anyway… thanks for all your ideas!

    • Debra Maslowski says

      I use to be a stripper, wood stripper (haha!) Maddy, so I can understand about the fumes and chemicals. I use to use Bix, and while it did the job, it was awful. My Mom, who helped me a lot, still has a burn mark on her arm from it, from back in the 80’s. I use a citrus based gel now. It’s called Citristrip. It’s much safer and has only citrus, mainly orange, scent. I have used orange essential oil for stripping small areas. It’s not expensive and goes a long way. If you get it on you, wash it off and don’t go outside for a while. It can cause phototoxicity, meaning that you can sunburn easier if you go outside with it on your skin. Using gloves should eliminate this.

  4. Cindy Barg says

    The most beautiful wood stain I know is to make a mixture of the oil of your choice and coffee grounds….rub it in well and allow to sit overnight. Be sure to do this in an area where it’s ok that the grounds pop around as they tend to make a real mess…lining the area with drop cloths helps. The following day use a shop vac to remove the paste and rags to finish. You will love how the warmth and depth of this technique that I developed myself…light seems to dance from within.

    • Bobbie Kurreck says

      I like the idea of coffee grounds, but do you use dry unused coffee or used damp grounds.

      • Debra Maslowski says

        I love this idea Cindy! And Bobbie, you can use either. I did some experimenting after reading Cindy’s post and tried it both ways. Used grounds give a more mellow look while unused grounds were darker and bolder. You can adjust it by the amount of water you use. Hope this helps!

  5. Laurie says

    Is there anyway to use a more natural, safer alternative to refinishing a wood floor than polyurethane?

    • Debra Maslowski says

      There sure is, Laurie. I’m actually researching to do an article on just that! One of my favorites is paste wax. You rub it onto the surface of the wood and work it in. Wait a bit then buff it to a shine. It works really well and it’s available in all natural.