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Steel wool vinegar

1065 Views 22 Replies 14 Participants Last post by  ChrisRand
I've been experimenting with various wood dyes instead of using stain, but have been struggling to find the right formulation to make the grey color that my wife wants for the live edge dining table I'm making. I just read about a way to use steel wool vinegar to dye wood grey. Anybody have any experience with this technique? Is it stable? I'd most likely seal it with dewaxed shellac sanding sealer, then use Waterlox. Does anybody see a problem with this approach?
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Hello, I've used steel wool vinegar to ebonize oak.

I've also applied the solution to maple and pine, which turns it a brown.

For those colours, it works very well and is stable with an oil or wipe-on poly finish.

What's the process for turning it gray with steel wool-vinegar? Have you tried aniline dye? Perhaps a very dilute wash coat of milk paint will give you the desired look.
I've been playing with aniline dyes. I got the powder kit from Keda, which comes with black, brown, red, yellow and blue. But for the life of me I can't figure out how to mix a light gray. Apparently dyes are different than paints, as I've tried mixing the three primary colors, which in paints creates a grey, but with the dyes seems to creat a brown. I've also tried a primary color with its secondary color, but again I get a brown. Any guidance would be appreciated. I'm looking for a light grey.
Yes, I have tried that technique on an old door to blend freshly sanded wood with naturally aged wood. It turned out well. I did experiment with the steel wool mixture to get the right amount of concentration. Too much steel wool will overly darken, while too little will hardly change the color. I admit I did not put a top coat over it but I see no reason why you couldn't. However, I would try it on a couple practice boards. Good luck.
What wood are you using for the table? I've used vinegar/steel wool on oak and it gets very black, not sure you will be able to get gray out of it. Lockwood dyes have a few shades of gray available, I get them from Tools For Working Wood.
There IS a colour of oil stain called "Driftwood" by Varathane, I think…
I'm making a live edge dining table out of English Elm. I watched a demonstration of the steel wool vinegar technique, and the guy put it on a variety of woods with dramatically different results. However, English Elm wasn't one of the woods, so I have absolutely no idea what to expect. The results of his test examples varied from dark brown to light grey. One was even more of a blue color.
I've used the method of tea and steel wool in vinegar and like it a lot to age things. Hold up just fine.

Grade #0000 Steel Wool
Mason Jar
Oh yea- a couple of tea bags too!

1.) Tear off some steel wool and put it into a mason jar. Then pour the vinegar in to about 3/4 full or so and screw the top on. Exact measurements aren't important. I'd say I used a very small handful of steel wool.
Then let it sit for at least 24 hours.

2.) The next day, brew tea in a separate jar and "paint" it onto the wood. I used 2 tea bags since I was aging several pieces of wood. It's also okay if the tea becomes cold. Tea has tannic acid, which will react with the steel wool/vinegar mixture.

3.) After the tea has dried, paint the steel wool/ vinegar mixture onto the wood. You'll see the color start to change immediately. I'd say that it takes about 30 minutes to completely change. The wood will smell like vinegar afterwards, but you can wash it off with water once it's dry.
Below you can see the difference between the treated vs. untreated wood~

Different types of wood react differently to this treatment as well. The pine (top) turns a grayish-brown while the redwood (above) eventually turns black. You can see how it turned black on the top right (beside the pine). For some reason the picture above makes the pine look almost grayish blue
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I only have experience using Transtint dye, but for color mixing, I think it should be similar to aniline dye. Just start with black and dilute it little by little until you get the shade of grey you want.
Keep in mind the the color of the wood you are using it on will have an effect on the final color. If the wood has a strong color of it's own, you may need to use a two part beach on it first.
... make the grey color that my wife wants for the live edge dining table… - ChrisRand
Wife has been bitten by the dreaded Grey wood design craze? So sorry for you.

+ Bandit - Varathane offers several different grey colored stains. Minwax and SW also have grey wood stains. These OEM solutions will provide the most consistent results.

Making grey wood artificially is very hard. The challenge is wood has amber tones, and this tone is PITA to remove or cover up. Making grey is so hard due color variations in difference species, the OEM wood stains do not color wood with classic dye/pigment combo, but they put color on top of the wood with heavy pigment levels; just like a paint. Making the challenge even harder, any top coat added to grey must be water white, or the color shifts into a dirty wood look. Which means you must use a WB top coat, and test your entire finishing schedule to avoid surprises.

I spent several weeks and too much money making buying samples of various grey stains for a SWMBO project once. After several months of preponderance, she finally decided against grey; which was fine by me.

IMHO - If you want grey wood, leave it outside for couple of years; or simply buy some weathered barn wood and skip the hassles of faux weathered wood.

Best Luck.
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Heed what CaptainKlutz advised. You will never get the grey that you are completely satisfied with.
Using the vinegar and steel method will be hit or miss. It depends upon the wood you are using. Different species and even different pieces and areas of the same piece may react differently. The color depends upon the amount of tannin in the wood. Some pieces will turn almost immediately jet black and others can turn a greenish or even reddish tone.

Look for one of the driftwood colored stains. General finishes has several different shades of grey colored gel stains. They may have grey in some of their other products too.
When it comes to staining wood, I usually just guess at what it will turn into, then go for it, accepting the results.
Dyes/stains usually are more consistent than reactive type coloring.

For the most consistency with wood that may all be slightly different (different board or even different tree), I'll tend towards a colored topcoat or a toner layer in a sub coat.
Want gray colored wood, it has to come from pigment from paint or opaque stain. Capn Klutz is right anout a wb topcoat as well. I dont do gray.
I recently completed this cabinet for my fishing gear. Material is reclaimed pine from an old barn. All 1X12 stock; some of it was a true 12" wide when I started working it. All boards were weathered on one side.

I used the steel wool/vinegar for stain (aka "iron acetate").


Fixture Wood Door Floor Wall


Fixture Wood Wood stain Floor Hardwood

The exterior of the cabinet is 100% from the weathered side of the boards. The interior was a mix, but was largely fresh surfaces from planing the non-weather side of the boards.

The weathered sides tended to come out much "greyer" while the interior surfaces of fresh wood had more of a brown tint.

I've used iron acetate on many pieces over the years. I use it when I'm looking for a rustic or "country" style finish. I put a poly topcoat over these pieces. Here's a headboard I completed from the same stash of barn boards:

Building Furniture Property Comfort Wood

I've learned a bit over the years about using iron acetate. Most of these experiences mirrored some other mentioned above.

- I put one pad of #000 steel wool into a quart of vinegar. I use regular white distilled vinegar from the grocery store; cheap stuff is good. I let it soak three days. I used #000 because I didn't have any #0000 on hand when I mixed it up. I have let the stuff soak for much longer, but if it goes for a week or more, I think it gets very messy with no improvement in performance.

- After the soak is done, I pull out the remains of the steel wool pad, and then pour the liquid through a coffee filter into a clean container for storage. It can be used immediately, and I have used it successfully several weeks later. However, it needs to have been strained before storing it for any length of time.

- As mentioned by several people above, the coloration of the iron acetate depends on the reaction with tannins in the wood. Different species have different levels of tannins. As Vicki said, I used a strong brew of black tea to coat the pine wood cabinet prior to applying the iron acetate. I didn't use any tea on the headboard. I don't know why the headboard darkened so much, but it did. I think the tea helped even the color on the pine cabinet, both inside and outside. For tea, I use regular Lipton's tea. No need to go all fancy.

- The topcoat on the headboard is Minwax Poly that I diluted to a wiping poly. The headboard continued changing color over time as the poly yellowed a bit and seemed to draw out a rust color onto the old paint around cracks on the bare wood surface. I don't know how the poly will change over time on the fishing cabinet because I just completed it in February.

- If you want a stronger reaction from the tannins, you can use powdered tannins like those used for winemaking. That is available from a fermenter's supply house or online.

- I like iron acetate because it's a relatively safe product. You can use it with your bare hands, but be prepared for staining of the skin. I use nitrile gloves.

- Recommend you try a test piece first before putting the iron acetate on your actual project. As mentioned by others, the actual color may vary board to board. I really do think the use of the tea helped even out these color variations.


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well, the results are in! Did 4 test boards, and did one coat of the steel wool/vinegar mixture on the first board, 2 coats on the second, etc. The first board was too pale, and the 4th was too dark, but the middle 2 both came out great. Nice weathered grey look. However, I was absolutely shocked (pleasantly so) to see that when I added a coat of dewaxxed shellac, the grain popped like crazy. It's like looking at a grey version of curly maple that's been popped, and I didn't expect it at all. I filled the pores with Aqua Clear, did another coat of shellac, and one more of aqua Clear sanded to 400. Topped with a coat of Waterlox and It look fantastic. Wife is thrilled. Now she just needs to decide between the 2 or 3 coat version.

Thanks for everybody's input.
Where are your pictures of the test pieces?
Not the best photo, as it doesn't capture a lot of the chatoyancy, but it does show the general grey color.
Thanks, I wanted to see what you considered grey. It doesnt look grey to me, probably why I couldnt be much help. There is a hint of grey to the right. Great example how words cant really describe color, the same word can mean many different things to different people. Much better when a picture of the color one is after is posted.
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