DIY Natural Steel Wool and Vinegar Stain for Wood

Weathered wooden wall

This simple wood stain is perfect for those of us who like to keep it cheap, homemade and natural. It gets its color from a simple chemical — ferric oxide, also known as rust. I use it as an all-purpose stain for pieces I make all around the house.

Steel wool and vinegar stain gives wood a beautiful warm, weathered look.

What you need

  • 1-quart Mason jar and lid — 1
  • Extra-fine (0000) steel wool, torn into pieces — 3 pads
  • Distilled white vinegar — 1 quart
  • Fine-meshed sieve — 1
  • Coffee filters — 2
  • Paintbrush — 1

How to make your stain

  1. Put the pieces of torn steel wool into the Mason jar. Press them down into the jar, and add vinegar to cover the pieces by about an inch. Cover loosely with a lid (the mixture will give off gases), and set aside for at least 1 and up to 4 days. The longer it sits, the darker the stain will become.
  2. Stir and then strain the mixture first through a fine-meshed sieve to remove any remaining stainless steel fibers. Then strain through a coffee filter to remove finer particles. Set the mixture aside to rest for another day.
  3. Strain the mixture again by gently pouring it through another coffee filter, taking care to leave any sediment that has settled to the bottom in the jar. Your stain is now ready to use!

How to use your stain

  1. Just stain your pieces as you normally would. You can sand the wood first to get a stronger grained effect. Always do a test piece first before staining your main item. If the stain turns out darker than you like, simply dilute it with a little bit of water.
  2. As the stain dries, it will deepen and darken. Once the stain has fully dried, seal with a wax or polyurethane finish.
  3. The stain will keep for a few months, but it should be transferred to a non-reactive container. The vinegar can cause the metal lids of canning jars to corrode.

Darker, browner stain using black tea

Depending on the type of wood one is staining, steel wool and vinegar stain can produce anywhere from warm reds to calming grey colors in the finished piece. Pine is one wood that doesn’t really darken substantially with plain steel wool and vinegar stain. But there’s a fix for that! You can make a deeper, darker and more warmly brown stain leveraging plain old black tea.

Simply brew some very strong black tea (3 or 4 bags per cup of water). Once the tea has cooled, brush the wood to be stained with the tea. Allow to dry a bit, then follow up with the steel wool stain. The tannins in the tea will react with the stain and provide a deeper, darker color.