DIY Nontoxic Wood Stain





Introduction: DIY Nontoxic Wood Stain

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This is going to be fun. Get ready. Have some boring wood lying around your place? Sure its grain is beautiful, but its color is so blah! In this instructable I'll show you how you can stain wood an array of colors with something you probably already have in your pantry. Food coloring!

Let's get started!

Step 1: Prepping Wood

Unfortunately the only wood I had lying around was a solid 2x8 and since painting it wouldn't be all that fun, I decided to make kids' wooden toy blocks. This way, I could play around with a lot of different colors

I used a table saw to hack down my huge piece of wood into more manageable strips. Then with some measuring and the help of a chop saw, I cut up 3 different sizes: 3 inches, 5 inches and 7 inches, for a total of 9 blocks. After sanding all the edges and sides, these guys were ready to get painted!

Step 2: Materials

With my wood thoroughly prepared (stripped of any hardware, and finishes- if you're working with a preexisting piece) I gathered the rest of my materials:

Scrap wood- for testing my stain on. If you don't have any available, first test the stain on an inconspicuous area to see how it sits on your wood type.

Paint brush(es)

Rubbing Alcohol

Disposable cups for mixing the food coloring with the alcohol

Food coloring. I used regular food coloring that can be found in the baking aisle at a supermarket. Luckily, I also found a neon version, which would give me a lot more hues to play around with.


Depending upon how big a surface you have to stain, for every 1 tablespoon of alcohol, you want to use 10 drops of food coloring. For my small blocks, I only needed 1 tablespoon of alcohol.

Step 3: Mixing & Testing

Using one of the disposable cups, I measured out 1 tablespoon of alcohol with 10 drops of food coloring. Feel free to mix up the colors to create new colors. Its fine if you use more than 10 drops:1 tbsp. This is just the minimum amount of coloring you'll want to achieve a good hue.

I tested how the coloring and alcohol would settle on a piece of scrap wood. As you can tell from the picture, and as is usually common among all stains, the more layers you apply, the more saturated the color.

The wonderful thing about this stain is that the alcohol evaporates quickly. Crazy quick. You can apply a second coat within 20 minutes. However, I found that I needed quite a few coats to achieve a healthy color, and so after the last layer, I let the blocks sit overnight to completely absorb the color and become "hard dry."

Step 4: Painting Tips

The alcohol and food coloring mix will be very watery in texture, so drips are very likely. Use a drop cloth to protect any surfaces from getting stained.

With painting or staining any type of wood, you want to go in the direction of the grain, that is, to align your strokes with the darker lines on the wood. This will ensure that the color spreads evenly along the surface.

As you can see from the pictures, the stain becomes much more saturated after just 1 application. However, when the stain dries completely, it will lighten a bit, so keep that in mind when deciding a shade.

The end grain, or the sides of tables, and for my blocks: the bottoms and tops, will "drink" up the stain differently than other parts of the wood. For my blocks, that meant applying more stain to the end grain, but this could be different for different types of wood. Some end grain may soak up stain stronger and appear darker than other parts.

Step 5: Allow to Dry Then Enjoy!

Depending on how dry or humid your climate is, along with how many coats of stain you used, your wood should be completely dry in about 3 hours.

Enjoy your new life hack and colorful wood!

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30 Discussions

You could use vodka or everclear (or similar grain alcohol) if you’re that concerned.

Should be, yep. The alcohol will evaporate, leaving only the food coloring behind (which is, by definition, food safe).

Would Metholated spirits work as well as the Rubbing you know?

1 reply

Using methylated, or denatured, spirits would make it no longer food safe as methylated spirits have toxic additives specifically added to discourage consumption. Isopropyl alcohol evaporates cleanly and quickly and is probably the best alcohol to use for this application.

Great insights. From prepping to applying dyes, each step looks professionally so perfect. It’s all that technique and quality dye which can bring a good result!

I cut shellac with lots of alcohol (10:1) before using it as a sealer on the end grain, This will prevent the end grain from soaking up too much dye (end grain is a sponge!) - if too much is absorbed the end grain will be darker than the side/face grain surfaces.

I use a lot of analine wood dyes - this is a great idea. I wonder if the food colorings are light stable so it doesn't fade in time by exposure to light.

1 reply

Hi Kieth 726...this is an old thread...but am new here...after a long absence..I also wotk with ($$$) analine dyes (and shellac) and was looking for a cheaper alternative.

My original supplier of dyes suspended in metho and...something else compatible with shellac discontinued their product so was left 'high and dry' as we say here.

Wonder would you know or have tried, (since you also work with metholated spirits and shellac) if these food colours will combine equally as well with the metho (and shellac) as with the Rubbing Alcohol? Its probably a silly wuestion...but thought that the medicinal alcohol might have some other additive making it more compatible with the food colours.

Wonder what they colours are suspended in?

I am in Australia so the food colours are a different brand.

I'm using the colours and shellac for don't have any other considerations concerning the grain of wood and absorbency to consider.

:) You haven't worked with the right wood if you think the grain is blah... :)

Great job! Just one question.. Is the color light fast? I've been wanting to try it but I need the color to stay the same over time. I usually use a commercially purchased dye but they are expensive!

1 reply

I'd be very interested to know how these nice blocks look like today, some 9 months later. Have they retained their colour?

The color of the wood will affect the final colour

Will the stain wash off later?

I mean if kids use it and say dirty the blocks can we wash it? or will the color run? Do we have to protect it with a finish?

This is brilliant! I have been trying to find non-toxic stain for my bunny's toys for ages, and had just never thought of this. Thank you.

3 replies

I certainly can't see why it wouldn't be. The general online consensus seems to be that food colouring is fine for bunnies, and the rubbing alcohol should mostly evaporate on drying. I suppose if your rabbit ate an entire block of wood a day, it might be a problem! LOL.

I wish I could get those McCormick food dyes in the UK. The colours are great, and those little pointy bottles make it so easy to measure drop by drop. You can mix just about any color you want and use it for painting or stamping (on paper or on hard icing). Thanks for the instructable!

Apply shellac to end grain to prevent it soaking up so much dye.