Revive your vintage, antique, or dated furniture with this raw wood or natural furniture finish. This tutorial shows you how to bleach wood furniture to lighten the natural color and remove stains including black spots. Create a fresh, modern vibe in 3 easy steps!
Recently, I blogged about stripping our table as part of the dining room makeover. After stripping the layers of dark stain away, I unearthed the table’s beautiful wood grain pattern.
It was a capital heart eyes moment!
I knew the organic beauty of this piece of furniture deserved to be highlighted rather than covered with paint or more stain. I’ve done similar furniture in grey or whitewashed wood, cerusing, and even colorful painted furniture. Here, I went for the DIY raw wood style currently gracing the showroom floors of Ashley, Pottery Barn, and other high-end furniture stores I can’t afford to shop in.
Because the table utilizes many species of wood, the wood’s natural color varied significantly after stripping. I decided to DIY lighten the wood to even out the color and remove excess stain residue. Although there were no black stains or iron stains like you find from weathered nails, this process will greatly reduce that as well.
- A piece of furniture, stripped of all finish (you can see how we strip furniture here.)
- Rubber Gloves – Use other safety equipment such as closed toed shoes and goggles as well.
- Plastic Tarps – To protect the floor and other surfaces.
- Lint Free Rags – These work great but clean, cut up men’s T-shirts work just as well.
- Sponge or Brush – I like sponges better as they are much faster.
- A Fume Mask – These chemicals do cause toxic fumes. Please protect your lungs!
- This wood bleach kit – If it is unavailable, I would recommend Savogran Wood Bleach although I have not used it.
- Distilled Vinegar– Neutralizes the wood bleach.
- Topcoat of your choice (recommendations below).
After stripping, but before bleaching:
This particular table is constructed of 3 different types of wood. The tabletop is made of black cherry wood with oak pieces at the ends. The pedestals and side molding are either birch or maple. Full disclosure – I am not a wood identification expert so I am making educated guesses.
Types of Bleach
First things first, bleaching wood is not as simple as pouring common laundry bleach on the table and calling it a day. Please don’t do that! Household bleach will remove dyes or stains but will not affect the wood’s natural color and may damage the wood.
You need to use a 2-step bleaching product meant specifically for wood. This is a powerful peroxide-based bleach and safety precautions should be used. The first step pulls the tannins up to the surface of the wood. The second step lightens the color, which provides an even finish and won’t damage the wood itself the way household bleach can.
Another wood bleaching product is called Oxalic acid. This will remove water and rust stains, plus black iron stains from nails, and can be used to lighten the graying effect of weather-exposed wood. However, I generally use a deck wash for removing gray wood. Oxalic acid is considered quite toxic.
How to Bleach Wood
For this tutorial, I use a 2-part peroxide bleach kit. There is no mixing or hot water involved. It also removes stubborn stain residue left behind from sanding and requires far less coats. I lightened this cherry table in just 2 coats!
The process is super easy too!
- Put on your safety gear and prep the space. These chemicals do have fumes. Make sure your piece of furniture has been stripped and all of the stripper residue is removed.
- First, you wipe on solution A with a sponge. Be generous to keep it wet until the next step. The color may intensify during this step and that’s ok. You can brush it, but I like using a sponge as it is faster.
- Wait 5 minutes for soft woods like pine or poplar or wait up to 10 minutes for hardwoods like cherry or oak.
- Then wipe on the second solution with another clean sponge. leave overnight to dry.
- Lightly sand for evenness of color with 220 grit sandpaper. If a second bleaching is desired, do it after you have left it overnight or several hours.
4. Use distilled vinegar to neutralize the bleach if you use more than 1 application.
Tip: During the first step, the tannins (color) lift to the surface. This took me by surprise because the table turned very dark. So don’t be alarmed if your furniture gets darker or takes on an orange hue while waiting for the second step.
Do I Have to Bleach Wood?
If you are happy with the finish without bleaching, you can skip it. However, if you add a topcoat finish, it may alter the original hue. Keep that in mind when making the decision “to bleach or not to bleach?”
Which Top Coat is Best to Use on Raw Wood?
The million-dollar question. Specifically surfaces with hot plates of food on them- like dining room tables. In fact, I have written several articles about the best topcoats for painted furniture here.
Finding a durable, protective topcoat finish that has NO color shift in raw wood is the holy grail of the woodworking industry. All polyurethanes (even water-based ones), naturally darken or change the wood tone when applied.
Recently, new products have come on the market that have increased durability without ambering or yellowing over time. What you want is a product that is considered “water-white”. However, water-white describes the lack of color in the can, not what it will do to your surface.
For Low Traffic Furniture
Wax: Most beginner friendly. It is easy to apply and can be buffed easily to produce an even low Lustre finish that won’t color the wood hardly at all. The downside is that wax is not durable, waterproof, or heat resistant.
There are two wax options: cerusing wax or paste wax. Cerusing wax is a decorative white wax that is designed to get into crevices and lines and leave bits of excess white. You can see our Cerused Table Makeover here for an example. Cerusing wax will remove some of the orange hue from wood to enhance a piece’s natural look. So feel free to try both to see which one you like best for your project.
For High Traffic Furniture
Grey stain + water-based poly: This is the most beginner friendly durable option, but it’s not perfect. The grey stain helps to fill in the grain and counteracts the darkening from a water-based poly. For our outdoor dining table, I washed it with Varathane Sunbleached stain first. I used two coats and wiped excess away. I highly recommend testing on scrap wood to get the right products and technique.
Sherwood CAB Acrylic Lacquer: A durable, optically clear and non-yellowing lacquer. This is a professional grade lacquer that probably needs to be special ordered from a Sherwin Williams store. This product is meant for professionals, meaning it is more difficult to work with and I suggest doing more research. It is very durable, but more expensive.
Sher-Wood Water White Conversion Varnish or other Catalyzed Varnish: This product is seeing more recommendations lately in woodworking forums. They are the most durable, waterproof, and long-lasting finish. However, these are ultra-expensive products that require much more knowledge, sanding, and dedication than most DIYers or homeowners want.
Weather-Wash Dead Flat Varnish: It comes in quarts and promises to provide a durable, non-yellowing crystal clear dead flat topcoat.
Rachel’s Note: I am currently working on a brand-new post to find the best option for protecting a natural looking table that won’t amber or yellow over time, while sealing the wood and providing a durable, hopefully waterproof surface. To be clear, I have not yet tested all of the above options. Stay tuned… I am waiting on a back order from my local store. (Thanks, virus that shall not be named.) I will update when I am able.
For more information or other techniques to try, you can check out Maison de Pax’s post for her go-to techniques for finishing natural wood.
Our Project Results
This table has been the centerpiece to many celebrations. Plaid Christmas table decorations with the whole family gathered around the table make my heart happy. We share our stories and count our blessings and laugh until our ribs hurt. I couldn’t be more pleased with the new life this special piece has breathed into it.
More Furniture Makeovers and How-Tos
It’s ready for more memories to be shared. Happy transforming!
NO! The poly will not bond at all. Wax must always be the last step. If you have a previously waxed table or furniture, the wax needs to be completely stripped beforehand.
It depends on your desired aesthetic and the quality of your poly. One isn’t necessarily better than the other and there are entire books written on finishes. However, you will want to use a water based acrylic polyurethane or lacquer over painted furniture. Oil tends to amber and yellow over time.
While household bleach or laundry bleach will remove some surface staining, it won’t change the natural tannins and coloring of the wood.
Yes. After neutralizing the wood bleach and allowing to dry completely, the wood will take up stain just fine.
The primary lightening agent in wood bleach is a chemical called oxalic acid or a peroxide-based bleach combination of sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) and hydrogen peroxide
Grab our free series "Weekend Home Projects that will Transform Your Life"
Sign up below to receive updates including free printables, organization tips, home improvement projects, recipes and more!
More Furniture Guides
PS I love seeing your creations! Be sure to take a photo and tag #cravingcreative on Instagram! You can also stay in touch with me through following me on Instagram, Pinterest, and subscribing to the newsletter!
How To Bleach Wood
- 1 Wood Bleach I love this product as it works fast and evenly.
- 1 Safety Gear: Gloves, face mask, protective eyewear
- 1 Plastic Drop Cloths
- 6 Lint Free Rags
- 1 Distilled White Vinegar
- 1 Protective Top Coat Of your choice
- 1 Stain Of your choice
- Put on your safety gear and prep the space. This stuff does have fumes.
- Wet a lint free rag or sponge with solution A. Be generous to keep it wet until the next step. The color may intensify during this step and that’s ok. Wait 5 minutes for soft woods like pine or poplar or wait up to 10 minutes for hardwoods like cherry or oak.
- Wipe on solution B with another clean sponge or lint free rag. Leave overnight to dry and it will lighten.
- Lightly sand for evenness of color. If a second bleaching is desired, do it after you have left it overnight or several hours because it will lighten as it dries.
- Use distilled vinegar to neutralize the bleach if you use more than 1 application. Allow to dry completely for 24 hours before adding any stain or finish.
You made a grey stain wash with 2/3 stain to 1/3 water, using the Varathane sunbleach stain. This is an oil based stain, so how did you do this, or did you use a different one?
Also, what finish did you put on the very top?
I currently have an oak table sanded to raw wood, just waiting to achieve this effect!
What I meant to say was that I used this on our outdoor dining table finish, not the one I bleached. I corrected that and I apologize. Actually, for this table, I think I either used Antique white or Sunbleached, but I wiped it on and off just to fill the grain. I don’t go much into the finish on this particular table because it is waxed, whereas I would generally not recommend it to most people. Wax is not durable like a poly, but we only use this table without a cover during the holidays.
Maggie Janik says
Hi! You’re dining room table and chairs look beautiful! I’m just curious if you know the maker? I have the broyhill nuevelle dinning set in Cherry finish and it looks so much like the set you updated. Just wondering if my table has this much potential! I’m not new to painting furniture but I’ve never stripped and bleached anything so I’m a bit nervous. Thanks for sharing!
We got the table and chairs used from Craigslist a few years ago. I can’t find any markings on them, but the former owners said they purchased it from Basset Furniture. There are better photos in this post where I stripped the wood and chairs. It does look very similar to the set you name, although a few details are different like the backs of chairs. At least that was based off one photo I found.
Hello! Thank you for this article. Do you sand before or after the bleach? (After chemical stripping is done.)
I sand after the stripping is done just to make sure that I have removed all residue. Bleach won’t be effective on that. Then I once I have bleach to the level of overall color I want, I sand a little more for evenness of color.
This is such a cool technique! I would love to do this to our kitchen table. Hopefully, we can do this and some kitchen cabinet painting. It will look like a whole new space! Thanks for sharing!!!
Susan McCalman says
Hello! I love that you are so informative and clear on your directions! Thank you!
I am about to refinish a parquet top dining table and would love for it to be white washed. Maybe with a dark glaze to get inside the crevices. I cannot find any information about how best to tackle this beast. Any help/thoughts/insights would be greatly appreciated! I tried to attach the photo, but could not..
Oh, that sounds gorgeous! There is a lot you can do with it. I am actually about to shoot a video explaining in detail everything I know about whitewashing, but I wouldn’t expect it to be up for maybe a month. I can give you some of the techniques that jump out to me. You can check out our tutorial on Cerusing, which is one method of whitewashing and would bring out that beautiful woodgrain. There is also pickling, which involves a grey or white stain. And there is liming, but I generally discourage wax finishes as a dining tabletop coat, because it’s not waterproof and must be rewaxed and maintained. However, you can use a wax over a water-based polyurethane just fine. It just sits more in the crevices rather than coloring the paint if that makes sense. If you stain or paint the table, the poly won’t darken much which is the only reason I used a wax on this raw table. I hope that gives you some ideas!
I’m undergoing the same project with my own dining table after being inspired by your post. I initially could not find the wood bleach you listed so I tried using “Savogran wood bleach” which is just oxalic acid and not only did it not work (I had my doubts but thought it was worth a try) but after leaving it on overnight, it warped the edges of my table! There is now this ripple effect along the edges. I finally ordered the same wood bleach you used online but I’m afraid if I leave the table top wet overnight again that it will worsen the water damage I’ve already caused. Any ideas?
Hi Rachel, you mentioned you thinned out the verathane sun bleached with water. I know these stains to be oil based so I am just curious how that worked. Did you continuously mix it?
In this particular project, I am using a washing technique rather than a thinning technique. Oil and water don’t mix, but I was trying to achieve a look where the pores of the wood took in the pigment without the color being evenly over the entire the wood. I hope that makes sense. If I were to look very closely, I can see that some parts of the wood took up the pigment more or less than other parts. The Sunbleached color is pigment based and solid even though it is oil based. I list this information in the post not because I would recommend this technique in other applications, but because I often get asked what color I used and such.
Hi, I’m about to attempt this with a new dining table I bought off of Marketplace, and I cannot find the wood bleach kit anywhere in stock and it looks like it might be discontinued. Do you have any recommendations for an alternative? Thanks!
There is an alternative called Savogran Wood Bleach, found here. I have not used it personally, but it is the same oxalic acid that Zinsser uses.
Nicole. Venson says
Hi, I love your table but I need some help with your directions. Did you actually bleach your table and stain with the sun bleached stain then seal?
Yes. I used a specific wood bleach, not household bleach.
You did an amazing job! Table is beautiful. Did you have a before picture to share as well?
Yes, the original table is the one pictured in my post on how to strip furniture.
Melanie Alexander says
Rachel it looks amazing! I have so many customers asking for this look, and I’ve also struggled with what the right topcoat is! Just to add on to what you shared, I think it’s important to choose a paste wax over a cream wax, since cream based waxes often have a high oil-content, which will darken the wood too. I think you made the right topcoat choice and I am drooling over your whole dining room now!
Aww thank you so much! Yes, I definitely agree with you about the paste wax vs cream wax. That’s a great note. Hope things are going great for you and your family. It’s been too long!
I love your finished table Rachel. I am a complete novice but I have a rosewood dining table which I would like to update. The grain is beautiful but the stain is dark and obviously being rosewood there are reddish undertones. Would this technique work with rosewood? I don’t really want to lose the grain with paint but I’m not sure how successful bleaching rosewood is. Any advice would be helpful – thank-you.
Wow, Rosewood is highly admired for it’s graining and beauty, so I can understand your hesitation. Rosewood is tight grained and generally has a lot of natural color, much like cherry or walnut. Bleaching takes not only the stain out, but the natural coloring as well. Bleaching will lighten the grain rather evenly, so I wouldn’t worry about loosing the grain coloring. Depending on how light and how tightly grained, it may take a few coats. I would definitely test in an inconspicuous area first. Another thing to watch for is that Rosewood is usually very expensive and thus mostly used as a veneer. If your dining table pulls apart, you may be able to see how thick the veneer is. The reason I mention this is that you don’t want to sand through that veneer. For example, my own table has a veneer about 1/8 inch thick so I knew that I had room enough to sand without worrying about going through the veneer.
Hi! I so badly want to do this with our kitchen table! However! I have two little bitties and wonder if the wax finish can withstand the spills, paint and food, and beatings that come with raising children. So, really, I guess I’m asking if I should look for a different way to finish the table, even though I am in love with the way your table turned out? Or will several coats of wax be good enough?
Oh my goodness, as a Mom, I can total feel your pain! I always tried to make my furniture makeovers bomb-proof when my son was little, because he was so hard on things. To be direct, I generally don’t recommend wax as a protective finish for daily use or high traffic pieces. It just doesn’t hold up and requires rewaxing. We use this big table only occasionally. But don’t fret! There are a few techniques you can do that have a similar look. First, I have a cerusing technique that is somewhat similar in look. You can find my cerusing technique here. Also, you could also water down a light gray furniture paint and create a wash. That way the wood still shows a bit, but it isn’t as orange. After that I would seal it with a few coats of water-based polyeurethane. Here are some of my personal favorite durable top coats. You may have to experiment with which gray is best for the look you are going for, but it is kind of fun to play with it.
What do you use to buff the wax?
I used a simple lint free cloth like the ones in the supply list. Many times I use soft and clean cut up white men’s t-shirts, but I also use cheesecloth to get into decorative details especially.
Hi! I am getting ready to finish my dining table with paste wax as well. My only concern is, what do you do about wet glasses? Does this leave marks on the finish? Also, is wax finish strong smelling? Do you suggest applying it outside ? Thanks for any help!
I can definitely understand your concerns. First of all, in it’s hardened state, wax is a water repellent. Water will bead on top of it and not soak in leaving water rings. However, I would highly recommend several coats to truly achieve that effect, because you buff a lot of the wax off to get it smooth. Therefore, each layer is very thin. If you don’t have full coverage, or a lot of details like on furniture legs, the water could potentially get down to the table wood or paint itself. Also, the smell honestly depends on which brand and what kind of paste wax you use (Johnson’s paste wax, Fusion Mineral Furniture Wax, Beeswax, etc). I find that the hardware store brands like Johnson’s paste wax have a strong chemical odor, so I don’t use most of them. If you want to seal it indoors, I would recommend either Fusion Mineral or Annie Sloan. I have also heard great things about Miss Mustard Seed’s wax. Those I know have no or very little volatile fumes. I hope that helps!