Vinegar Finish on Wood

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Did you know you can “age” or “stain” wood with vinegar? I just found this out so I’ve tried my hand at it with some unexpected results.

I’d been looking for a way to give a new, not so mellow yellow pine board (used on top of a bookcase) a more aged, grey look… like it had been out in the weather for awhile. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to use a stain or a watered down paint, but in researching online, I stumbled across how you can create a solution of apple cider vinegar with steel wool soaked in it to create a sort of non-toxic stain. Since I had both of these things on hand, I thought I’d try it.

Pine board before:

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I poured about 1.5 cups of apple cider vinegar (not white vinegar) into an old plastic container with a lid. To this you’re supposed to add something with a metal content—such as a steel wool pad torn into bits. Then you cover this container and let it sit and ‘stew’ a week or three. (Mine was three).

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After about three weeks, here’s the nasty mixture I got:

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The vinegar basically ate away the steel wool completely leaving a sort of rusty looking/smelling mixture.

For anyone doing this, I’d seriously recommend using a cheap foam craft brush and some disposable rubber gloves. The mix didn’t hurt my skin, (I started without gloves), but it did turn it rust colored around my fingernails! Oh, and go outside.

I’d also really, really recommend doing a test swatch. This was experimental for me, so I tried it on a few wood scraps first, and then on the bottom/back of my board. I wouldn’t just start out with this on a big piece of furniture without testing it in a hidden spot. Apparently, the vinegar + metal mixture reacts with the natural tannins present in wood (some woods have more tannin than others) to create an instant stain. On unsealed pine, it seemed to work almost instantly, but it had slightly different color effects on different pieces of wood, so you won’t really be sure what you get until you try it.

A test swatch:

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I wasn’t really sure the color my board turned was exactly what I was looking for, but I kept going. It seemed kind of promising. Below: the top is where I brushed on the vinegar mixture compared with the original wood after about three coats.

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Outside in the sun, the mixture dried quickly and the vinegar smell evaporated sooner than stain fumes. I had to work quickly to keep the solution from pooling or streaking, but I just smoothed it all over with my sponge brush, let it dry for twenty minutes and re-coated.

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Although I liked the greyish tint the mixture brought to the wood, I was left with a sort of dusty, dull finish it that I didn’t like so much. Kind of like aged wood, but too chalky looking and a bit on the pink side for this particular board. I decided to use something to finish and seal it.

To make this a completely free project, I decided to use some leftover clear Wipe-On Poly that I had on hand.

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This gave me a surprisingly darker effect than I originally wanted, but I decided it was way better than the unfinished look the board had before.

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Depending on what kind of look you wanted, I’m sure there are lots of combinations you could use with this method to achieve a variety of finishes. I kind of got crazy with multiple coats of the vinegar wash.

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I think I’ll try this again with just one coat of vinegar wash and a different sealer, maybe a water based sealer or a furniture wax. Looking around for things to experiment on….

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