Instructions for Staining Wooden Furniture

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How to Whiten Wooden Furniture

© 2006 Publications International To even out blotchy areas and slightly lighten the wood overall, apply full-strength laundry bleach along the grain of the wood across the entire surface.

Bleaching is typically a first-aid measure rather than a regular refinishing process. If the surface of a piece of furniture has stains, black rings, or water spots; if the wood is discolored or blotchy; if the color is uneven; or if an old stain or filler is left after the finish is removed, then the furniture should be bleached. Oak, walnut, and mahogany are frequently affected by old filler. Bleaching can also be used to even out the color of furniture made of two or more woods, as it can lighten the darker wood to match the lighter wood.

Before bleaching any furniture, make sure the wood is appropriate for bleaching. Some woods do not take bleach well, such as cherry and satinwood, and should not be bleached. Some woods, such as bass, cedar, chestnut, elm, redwood, and rosewood, are challenging to bleach, while others, such as pine and poplar, are so light that bleaching makes them appear lifeless. Birch, maple, and walnut can be bleached, but bleaching destroys their unique color. Bleaching is also seldom beneficial for rare woods such as mahogany, teak, and other premium woods. Common woods that are simple to bleach and may benefit from it include ash, beech, gum, and oak.

Choosing a Bleach

Not all bleaching jobs require the same type of bleach. Depending on the issue you want to address, you may need a very strong or relatively mild bleaching agent. Below are some common bleach options to consider.

Laundry Bleach: This mild bleach can solve most refinishing color problems, from stain or filler not removed in stripping to ink stains and water spots. It works well for blotchy areas and for slight overall lightening, but it won’t drastically alter the wood’s color. Before using a stronger bleach on any piece of furniture, try laundry bleach, as it typically works.

Oxalic Acid: Oxalic acid, sold in powder or crystal form, is used to remove black water marks from wood. It is also effective in restoring chemically darkened wood to its natural color. You’re not likely to encounter this problem unless you have a piece of furniture commercially stripped because lye and ammonia, the chemicals that discolor wood, are not recommended for nonprofessional use. Oxalic acid must be used on the entire surface of the wood, because in most cases it also bleaches out old stain. You may have to bleach the entire piece of furniture to get an even color. Oxalic acid is more effective in lightening open-grained wood than close-grained.

Two-Part Bleaches: The two-part commercial wood bleaches are used to lighten or remove the natural color of wood. If you want a dark old piece to fit in with a roomful of blond furniture, this is the bleach to use. Two-part bleach is very strong and must be used carefully; wear rubber gloves and safety goggles. This type of bleach is also expensive. Several brands are available.

Methods for Lightening Wood

It’s important to note that any bleaching process applied to wood will have permanent effects. While you may be able to restain the wood if it becomes too light, uneven bleaching is difficult to correct. Before bleaching, ensure that the wood is completely clean and avoid touching it excessively. It’s crucial that the bleach penetrates the wood evenly.

Prior to applying the bleach, test it on a scrap piece of the same type of wood or on an inconspicuous area of the furniture. Be aware of what the bleach will do and how quickly it will react. Generally, softwoods respond more rapidly to bleaches than hardwoods.

Bleaching wood isn’t complicated, but it does require some precautions since bleaches are potent chemicals. Stronger bleaches can damage skin, eyes, and lungs. Wear rubber gloves and safety goggles when handling bleach and ensure that the area you’re working in is well-ventilated. Follow the bleach manufacturer’s directions precisely. If you come into contact with bleach, wash it off immediately.

Using bleach also involves careful application and removal. When using any bleach, use a synthetic-bristle brush since natural bristles will be damaged by the chemicals. Apply the bleach along the grain of the wood, wetting the surface evenly and completely with no dry spots or puddles. Allow the bleach to work as specified below.

After bleaching, clean the wood with a damp cloth. To remove any residue, thoroughly neutralize the wood using ammonia solution for oxalic acid or borax solution for laundry bleach or two-part bleaches. Thoroughly wash the bleached wood with the appropriate neutralizer, being careful not to saturate it. Next, rinse the wood with clean water and dry it thoroughly using a soft cloth. Allow the furniture to dry for at least 48 hours prior to any further work.

Laundry Bleach

Apply laundry bleach full-strength, brushing it evenly over the entire surface. If you’re removing spots or lightening discolored areas, apply bleach full-strength to those areas. Laundry bleach works quickly. After a minute or two, you should see the stain fading. If you’re bleaching out an old stain, wipe the bleach off with a damp cloth when the stain has lightened.

If you’re spot-bleaching to remove spots or blend color areas, wait until the bleached spots are roughly the same color as the rest of the wood; then apply bleach again over the entire surface. Remove the bleach with a damp cloth when the color is even. Finally, neutralize the treated wood with a solution of 1 cup of borax dissolved in 1 quart of hot water. Neutralize, rinse with clean water, and dry it thoroughly.

Oxalic Acid

Oxalic acid is not caustic, but it is poisonous. Wear rubber gloves and safety goggles, and ensure that ventilation is thorough. To prepare the acid, combine warm water with a saturated solution: 1 ounce of powder or crystals per 1 cup of warm water. Ensure that you make enough bleach to treat the entire surface or piece of furniture.

To bleach wood, apply the acid solution evenly along the grain until the entire surface is covered. Soft wood will bleach quickly, but hard wood will take longer. Let the acid work for 20 minutes before wiping it off with a damp cloth. If the surface is not fully bleached, reapply the acid as necessary. Hard woods may take up to an hour for complete bleaching. After wiping the wood clean, rinse it with clean water and neutralize it with a solution of household ammonia and water. Rinse it again and dry it thoroughly.

Two-part bleach is also available and works quickly. Apply the first solution, let it work, then apply the second solution. If the wood is not light enough, treat it again. Neutralize the bleached wood with a solution of borax dissolved in hot water. Rinse and dry it thoroughly.

After bleaching, let the wood dry for two days before lightly sanding the grain with grade 5/0 or 6/0 sandpaper. Wear a breathing mask and use a vacuum to remove sanding dust. If the wood has a whitish or grayish color, rub it firmly with No. 000 steel wool to even out the color. Sand the wood surface before applying any finish.


1. What is staining and why is it important for wooden furniture?

Staining is a process of coloring wood to enhance its natural beauty or to match it with other furniture pieces. It is important for wooden furniture as it protects the wood from damage caused by water, sunlight, and other environmental factors. Staining also adds depth and richness to the wood’s natural grain and texture, making it more visually appealing.

2. How do I prepare the furniture for staining?

The first step is to remove any existing finish or paint from the furniture using sandpaper or a paint stripper. Once the surface is clean, smooth, and dry, use a pre-stain wood conditioner to prepare the wood for staining. This will help the wood absorb the stain evenly and prevent blotching. Make sure to wear gloves and eye protection and work in a well-ventilated area.

3. What types of stains are available for wooden furniture?

There are two main types of stains: oil-based stains and water-based stains. Oil-based stains are more durable and provide deeper, richer colors, but they take longer to dry and emit strong fumes. Water-based stains are more eco-friendly and dry faster, but they may not penetrate the wood as deeply and may require multiple coats to achieve the desired color.

4. How do I apply the stain to the furniture?

Use a clean brush, cloth, or foam applicator to apply the stain evenly in the direction of the wood grain. Start with a light coat and add more layers as needed to achieve the desired color. Wipe off any excess stain with a clean cloth and let the surface dry completely before applying a protective finish.

5. How do I protect the stained furniture?

Apply a protective finish, such as polyurethane or varnish, to the stained furniture to protect it from scratches, spills, and other damage. Use a brush or spray applicator to apply the finish evenly in thin coats, following the manufacturer’s instructions. Let each coat dry completely before sanding lightly with fine-grit sandpaper and applying the next coat. Repeat until you achieve the desired level of protection.

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