Update 8/2/19: After receiving hundreds of questions about this topic over the years, I made an updated version over here: Check it out.
When it comes to home decor, vintage is definitely in. But if you have ever done some DIY woodworking projects, you’ll know it can be hard to obtain that aged wood look. You can either buy pricey “barn wood” from a boutique lumber supplier or let your new lumber from Home Depot sit in the backyard, exposed to the elements for a couple of midwest winters – or perhaps you may want to use this easy, inexpensive method for aging your wood in just under a week.
What You’ll Need
For this project you’ll need a few household items from your pantry and garage:
- unfinished, untreated, and sanded wood
- white vinegar
- 0000 grade steel wool
- 24 oz. mason jar
- Black tea, approx 10 bags for the solution
- disposable paint brushes
- 400 grit sandpaper
- some type of finish to seal and protect the wood
Step 1: Make Your Oxidation Solution
Creating your oxidation solution is straightforward. Take a roll of steel wool and tear off bits into your glass jar. Pour in the vinegar until your jar is full and cap the jar with the lid. Oxidation of the steel wool will take about 4-5 days in my experience. In general, the longer your solution can oxidize, the darker your wood color will be. I tested my solution on some pale pine wood after 3 days and it had a nice dark yellow hue to it. After about 6 days of sitting, the solution produced a dark gray. Because every wood will react differently, I would recommend testing your solution on scrap wood to see what kind of hue you’ll get.
Step 2: Give Your Wood Some Tannins
To help give your wood more definition and properly prep it, you’ll want to brush it with some strong black tea. I brewed some rather strong tea with 10 bags in 2 cups of boiling water. As you can imagine, the tea will slightly stain your wood, but it will also give your wood grain more of a pop. I also discovered that the black tea gives the wood a nicer finisher when you finally apply your oxidation solution. If you skip the tea step, and just use oxidation solution, the wood will end up looking dirty and not aged. There’s just something about that tea that gives the wood a more refined look – sort of how British accents make things seems more sophisticated.
Step 3: Oxidize Your Wood
When your wood is dry from high tea, and after the oxidation solution has sat for 4-5 days, your wood will be ready to get “the look”. When you crack open (not literally) your jar, there will probably still be steel wool floating in the solution – that’s ok. If you leave the solution sitting long enough, eventually all steel wool remnants will dissolve. And you can save the solution for future projects. Using a foam brush, paint on the solution. The wood will almost instantly turn gray, and over the next 10 minutes, it will get even darker.
Step 4: Sand & Finish
After the wood has dried, give it a light sanding with 400-grit sandpaper. This will help lighten up the stain and even out the color. The more you sand the wood, the more you’ll remove the stain (obviously), but it can produce some unique variations in the grain – up to you, but again, be sure to experiment on some scrap wood before applying to your final project.
For the finish, I use a clear semi-gloss Poly Whey Furniture Finish from Vermont Natural Coatings. This is a really easy-to-use finish with low odor, quick dry time, and it feels great to the touch. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and you have it shipped right to you from Amazon. I like to lightly sand with 400-grit sandpaper after each coat to keep that super smooth feel, and I would recommend applying 3 coats of this finish. Be aware that the finish will change the color of the wood slightly to give it a warmer, almost tarnished hue.
Below is a side-by-side of how far we’ve come with the unfinished pinewood (left) to wood with the tea-stain and oxidation solution (middle) to the wood with 3 coats of finish.
So what will you build now that you know how easy it is to get this vintage wood look? I’ve got a few projects up my sleeve, and when you think about it, the sky’s the limit. Imagine building your own farm table or a little box for holding those bathroom towels that you’re not suppose to use – whatever! Below is a wall-mount bottle open I made. My goal was to make it look like the plank of wood came from an old crate from the brewery.
Let me know if you have any ideas in the comments below, and I would love to see what you build.
And a special thank to Hillary at Friendly Home for all the inspiration for his post.