How to Make Dark-Stained Wood Lighter

Last Updated on July 9, 2022 by Ernest Godia

Dark wood stains can deepen the color of your wood, giving it a dramatic touch. However, dark stained wood may sometimes not be the look you want. When that happens, you will need to remove the dark pigment on the wood surface to make it lighter. 

But how do you remove a dark pigment that has dried on the wood?

In this article, we’ll show you how to make dark-stained wood lighter by applying various techniques to remove the excess stain or dark pigments and give your wood a lighter tone.

How to Make Dark-Stained Wood Lighter at a Glance

You can make dark-stained wood lighter by applying a chemical stripper on the wood, scraping it off after 15 minutes, then applying bleach. Let the bleach stay for 30 minutes before wiping it off and neutralizing it with vinegar. Next, clean the wood with a damp cloth, sand it, and apply another protective topcoat.

What You’ll Need To Make Dark-Stained Wood Lighter

To make your dark stained wood lighter, you’ll require some or all of the following supplies depending on the method(s) you choose.

  • Chemical stripper/citrus stripper
  • Natural bristle brushes
  • Steel wool
  • Medium grit sandpaper
  • Cotton rags
  • Plastic scraper/putty knife
  • Wood bleach
  • White vinegar/baking soda
  • Wood finish
  • Mineral spirits
  • Drop cloths or old newspapers
  • Safety gear: rubber gloves, safety glasses, mask/respirator

How to Make Dark Stained Wood Lighter: 5 Sure Ways

Making dark-stained wood lighter is hassle-free if you have all the essential materials and know the exact steps to follow.

In this article, we’ll show you the five most effective methods you can use to lighten dark stains on wood and give your wood furniture the elegant lighter color you desire. We will show you how to:

  • Make dark stain lighter by bleaching
  • Rub off the stain using steel wood
  • Lighten wood using a white color tint
  • Sand off any extra coats of stain
  • Make wood stain lighter before applying it

1 – Make Dark-Stained Wood Lighter by Bleaching

One of the most effective ways to make dark stained wood lighter is by bleaching the wood surface. 

Follow this step-by-step guide to help you bleach your wood effectively and make the stain lighter.

Tools and Materials Needed:

  • Chemical stripper/citrus stripper
  • Natural bristle brushes
  • Medium grit sandpaper
  • Cotton rags
  • Plastic scraper/putty knife
  • Wood bleach
  • White vinegar/baking soda
  • Wood finish (Polyurethane or varnish)
  • Drop cloths or old newspapers
  • Safety gear: rubber gloves, safety glasses, mask/respirator

Step 1: Collect the required materials and prepare your workspace

Begin by gathering the required supplies anpreparingre your workspace. 

Before you start working, ensure you have all your materials in your workspace to minimize movement. Since you’ll be working with volatile chemicals like bleach which emit hazardous fumes, ensure there is proper ventilation or set your workspace outdoors. 

Also, protect yourself from these harmful chemicals by having your protective gear on, including long-sleeved shirts, a protective mask or respirator, eye goggles, and rubber gloves.

Use drop cloths or old newspapers to protect surfaces from spillage.

Step 2: Apply a chemical stripper if the stained wood has a topcoat 

Once your workspace is ready, start by applying a layer of chemical stripper or citrus stripper on your stained wood surface with a natural bristle paintbrush. This step is essential if the stained wood has a protective finish.

A stripper helps remove varnish or polyurethane topcoats before you can start bleaching your wood. Apply it evenly on the stained wood surface and let it sit for 15-20 minutes before moving to the next step.

Step 3: Remove the top coat using a plastic scraper

Once the stripper starts forming bubbles, remove the top coat by scraping it off along with the stripper residue. 

Use a plastic scraper to gently scrape off the top coat in straight line movements for the best results. Avoid scrubbing back and forth as it may create a mess on your wood.

You can use a putty knife in place of plastic strippers. However, be careful and gentle enough not to scratch the surface of the wood.

Continue scraping until all the topcoat finish has come off and your wood stain is now exposed for bleaching.

Step 4: Prepare wood bleach solution.

Before you start bleaching the wood stain, prepare the bleach solution by mixing it with water as instructed on the bleach packaging. 

Use a plastic container and mix according to the recommended ratios to avoid creating a solution that’s too concentrated or too diluted.

Bleach solution is irritative so ensure you have all your protective gear on when mixing.

Even though you can use alternatives like oxalic acid for the same purpose, the wood beach is the most effective for lightening dark stained wood.

Step 5: Apply bleach on the wood surface

After preparing your bleach solution, use another paintbrush to apply a thin layer of the solution onto the entire surface of the dark-stained wood.

Leave the bleach to sit on the wood for about 30 minutes until you see it achieve your desired color. If it doesn’t, apply another coat of bleach and let it sit for another 10 minutes.

Step 6: Neutralize bleach using white vinegar

Once the dark-stained wood becomes lighter, mix white vinegar with water in equal parts and stir to make a white vinegar solution. 

Saturate a cotton cloth with the solution and use it to wipe the wood surface. This will neutralize the bleach to prevent it from reacting with wood or bleaching the stain further. You can also use baking soda solution in place of white vinegar (1 tablespoon of baking soda per gallon of water).

Step 7: Clean the wood surface with a damp rag

After neutralizing the bleach, wet another clean cotton rag with warm water and use it to clean the wood surface. Be careful to reach every inch of the surface that comes into contact with the bleach to prevent further uneven bleaching.

Leave the wood in a cool place to dry overnight and check if it achieved your desired color. If not yet, you can apply another coat of bleach and wipe with vinegar as explained in steps 5 and 6 above. 

However, bleaching more than three times will leave your wood looking dull, so you want to limit the bleaching rounds on your dark-stained wood.

Step 8: Sand the wood

Once your wood achieves the desired tone, sand it using medium-grit sandpaper to level the grain and make the surface smooth again. 

Apply medium pressure and keep sanding along the grain until the wood is smooth to the touch.

Step 9: Apply a protective finish

Now that your wood has achieved a lighter tone and smoother feel apply the final topcoat finish to seal the wood stain (you can use polyurethane or varnish).

Apply a thin coat throughout the surface using a natural bristle paint brush in once-over-long strokes to create an even coat. Leave your wood in a cool, dry place to dry up.

2 – Make Dark Stain Lighter Using Steel Wool

Aside from bleaching, you can also make dark stained wood lighter using fine steel wool. 

Follow this step-by-step guide to lighten your dark stained wood in a shorter time than you’d spend bleaching it.

Tools and Materials You Need:

  • Fine steel wool
  • Clean rags
  • Mineral spirits
  • Warm water faucets
  • Safety gear: rubber gloves, safety goggles

Step 1: Scrub the wood surface using damp steel wool

After collecting your materials and putting on your protective gear, damp the ball of fine steel wool in warm water and use it to rub the dark stained wood surface gently.

Keep the pressure even so that you don’t have some parts of the surface getting lighter than others. Also, be careful to rub in the direction of the grain since working against the grain can leave scratches on the wood surface.

Step 2: Wipe the wood with a clean rag dampened with mineral spirits

Once you’ve scrubbed off the dark stain with steel wool, damp a clean rag with mineral spirits and use it to wipe the wood surface. The mineral spirits will lift off layers of wood stain to make your wood lighter. Always wipe in the direction of the grain and observe the color changes as you go. 

Fumes from mineral spirits can irritate the eyes, so ensure you have your eye goggles on when working. 

Even though they can also lighten water-based stains, mineral spirits and steel wool produce the best results with oil-based stains.

Step 3: Rub with damp steel wool again.

After rubbing with mineral spirits, switch back to rubbing with damp steel wool as described in step 1. 

Alternate between mineral spirits and steel wool until your wood stain achieves the desired lighter color. You may need to do multiple rounds of these before you hit your target.

Once you achieve the stain color you want, wipe any traces of mineral spirits off the wood surface using a clean cloth.

3 – Lighten the Wood Stain Before Applying

Another simple trick you can use is to dilute your stain to make it lighter before applying it to your wood.

The Supplies You’ll Need:

  • An empty paint can or sealable metallic container
  • Paint stirrer
  • Natural wood stain
  • Natural bristle brush
  • Standard wood stain of your choice
  • Protective gear (Hand gloves and face mask)

Once you have assembled all the tools and materials you need, pour equal amounts of natural wood stain and standard stain into an empty paint can and mix using a paint stirrer. Stir them thoroughly until they form a homogeneous mixture.

Since the natural stain is transparent, it will make your standard stain thinner and lighter in color. Ensure the natural stain you use has the same base as your standard wood stain, i.e., they are all oil-based or water-based. 

However, if you cannot find a natural stain, dilute the wood stain with mineral spirits if your stain is oil-based or with water if you’re using a water-based stain.

Test the resulting stain on a scrap piece of wood and let it stay overnight to see if it achieves the stain color you want on your furniture. If not yet, add a little more natural stain or the diluent you’re using to lighten the stain further.

4 – Apply whitewash or white stain on the wood

how to make dark-stained wood lighter by whitewashing

Your options are unlimited when it comes to making dark-stained wood lighter.

If you don’t want to bleach your wood or scrub it with steel wool, you can simply apply a whitewash or white color tint onto the wood.

Bleaching may sometimes not lighten the dark stain as required, while steel wool may damage the wood grain or leave scratches if not approached carefully.

Tools and Materials Needed:

  • White paint 
  • Water
  • Antique white stain
  • Empty paint can
  • Natural bristle paint brush

Prepare whitewash by mixing white paint with water. If you want a very light mixture that won’t cover the wood grain, add more water and only a few drops of white stain. Test the wash on a scrap piece of wood to see if it provides the desired coverage before using it on your project. 

You can also apply an antique white stain on the dark-stained wood to make it lighter. Many woodworkers use this stain to neutralize undertones, and it offers a good solution for dark-stained patches.

5 – Sand off a layer of stain, then apply top coat

Perhaps the easiest and most convenient way to make dark stained wood lighter is to sand off a stained layer. 

Wood staining tends to produce a darker final color when you apply multiple overlapping coats of stain. Sanding will help remove the topmost layers of the wood along with the stain pigment, leaving the wood looking lighter.

Tools and Materials Needed:

  • Medium and fine-grit sandpaper
  • Chemical stripper (optional)
  • Polyurethane or varnish 
  • Natural bristle paint brushes
  • Plastic scraper

If the wood had a finish, you might want to begin by applying a chemical stripper to remove the finish and expose the stain.

If you opt for stripping, use a paintbrush to apply an even layer of chemical stripper on the wood and let it stay for 15-20 minutes. Then, gently scrape the top coat off using your plastic scraper. 

Once all the topcoat is out, sand your wood using fine-grit sandpaper, applying even pressure. Occasionally wipe off the powder produced and observe the color changes. When your wood has become light enough, cover it again with polyurethane or varnish topcoat to protect it.

FAQs on how to make dark stained Wood Lighter 

Can you make the dark stain lighter?

Yes. You can make dark stains lighter by bleaching the dark-stained wood with wood bleach. You can also rub the wood surface with steel wool or use sandpaper to remove some of the pigment along with the wood. Additionally, you can cover the surface with a whitewash or white stain to make the wood lighter.

What can I add to the wood stain to make it lighter?

To make wood stain lighter, mix it with water, mineral spirits, or lacquer thinner. If your stain is oil-based or gel stain, dilute it with mineral spirits. If it’s water-based, use water, and if your stain is lacquer-based, dilute it using a lacquer thinner. 

Will vinegar lighten wood?

A white vinegar solution can help lighten wood stained with dye or other mild stains. A 50:50 solution of water and vinegar can bleach your wood and give it a slightly lighter color. However, vinegar solution is mostly used to neutralize bleach after bleaching wood.

Will mineral spirits lighten wood stains?

Yes, mineral spirits will lighten wood stains without entirely removing the stain. It softens the stain and lifts some of it off the wood. Soak a clean cloth with mineral spirits and use it to rub firmly on the wood surface. 

Rub along the grain and watch the color change until the stain achieves the color shade you want.

Can I use household bleach to lighten wood?

Absolutely! You can use household bleach (laundry bleach or chlorine) to lighten the wood. Simply dampen a clean rag with the bleach and use it to wipe the wood surface repeatedly until it achieves your desired color. 

You can also use a spray bottle to spray a 1:1 mixture of bleach and water evenly on the wood, then wipe it off after 10-15 minutes.

How do you make dark-stained wood lighter without sanding?

You can make dark wood lighter without sanding by rubbing it with steel wool or wiping it repeatedly with mineral spirits. You can also apply thin layers of whitewash (dilute white paint solution) or white stain on the dark wood to make it lighter.

Final Thoughts on Lightening Dark-Stained wood

Making dark-stained wood lighter couldn’t be easier with these elaborate steps. 

Depending on your preferences and the materials you have, you can bleach, sand, scrub with steel wool, or whitewash your wood to make it lighter. You can also dilute your stain upfront to make it lighter before applying it to your wood.

If you have the correct materials and follow the steps carefully as described here, you can give your wood the elegant, lighter shade you desire without breaking a sweat.

Did you find this tutorial helpful? Let us know in the comment section. Be sure to leave any questions about making wood stains lighter in the comments as well.

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