Introduction: Tea Staining

Picture of Tea Staining

Think that staining wood means stinky lacquers, rubber gloves, and long drying times? Think again!
I'll show you how to stain wood to look weathered and old, with nothing more than household items, and with results achieved in a fraction of the time.

Naturally aged wood has a great faded look that occurs from oxidization; this is usually achieved by leaving the wood outside, exposed to the elements until it has a faded, aged patina. Depending on the type of wood and weather conditions this can take weeks, even months. Luckily there is a simple method to achieve almost the same results and it can be done in a few days, instead of weeks. Though this Instructable is called tea staining, it's actually the steel that's doing the staining.

This classic woodworking trick uses three common household ingredients: vinegar, steel wool, and tea. The best part about these ingredients is that even close substitutes work well!
Don't have white vinegar? Use any other type of vinegar.
Don't have steel wool? Use any other steel bits (staples, nails, shavings, etc.)
Don't have tea?...what's wrong with you?!

The process is easy:

  • Pull apart steel wool and submerge in container of vinegar for 10 hours or more
  • Steep tea for 1 hour (any temperature water will do)
  • Brush steeped tea onto bare wood, ensure complete saturation - let dry completely
  • Brush vinegar + steel wool solution into tea-saturated wood

Why does it work?
  • Tea has tannin, a bitter astringent that occurs naturally in many plants.
  • Tannin is also found in many other organics, such as wood. Wood with high tannin content does not need the tea solution
  • Brushing wood with tea adds more tannin, allowing the vinegar/steel solution to have a stronger reaction.
  • When steel wool is combined with an acedic acid (vinegar) it causes the steel to oxidize (rust), making iron acetate
  • When iron acetate reacts with the tannins and turns the wood a dark colour.

Making iron acetate produces hydrogen gas, do not seal containers and keep in a ventilated area.
Staining will occur mostly on wood surface, be careful if you need to sand afterwards.
The tannin content of the wood is the predominate factor in the darkness of the stain. Experiment, and have fun!

Looking for more ways to distress wood?
Check out my easy guide for 9 ways to distress wood!

Have you used this technique to stain wood? I want to see it!
Share a picture in the comments below of your tea staining and get a free Pro Membership to Instructables!


Alphageek63 made it! (author)2017-08-14

Before and after boards below, as well as the finished walls. All told, this entire wall cost fewer than $100!

If you really want the boards to look old, weathered, and frankly scruffy, start with fence pickets like I did. I paid $1.25 for each 6" X 72" board, and used 40 of them. The wood character is varied, and some are grey and can be left that way. Just make sure you look at the end grain to make sure they aren't going to curl. One also be sure to either leave them to dry and shrink before putting them on the wall, or paint your wall AND any attachment strips a dark brown before mounting the boards. All told, this entire wall cost fewer than $100!

mikeasaurus (author)Alphageek632017-08-14

Wow! Excellent work. I want a wall like that in my home :)

Thanks for sharing your results, enjoy the Pro Membership!

Alphageek63 (author)mikeasaurus2017-08-14

Thank you sir! There are so many tips and tricks I learned doing this that I plan to write up a proper Instructable on this day.

joettle (author)2017-08-05

Turned a horrid grey stain that stained edges and faces differently... Had to salad the whole lot off again unfortunately :( i used wire and staples as my steel source, any ideas?

mikeasaurus (author)joettle2017-08-07

Any steel source should work, so long as it oxidizes. If the wood stained differently in a few areas then it sounds like there was a coating of something already on the wood.

The coloring is brown-grey, you can see my results from this process on my magnetic bottle opener.

RichardDaisyA (author)2017-01-08

I am working with pine wood. Would it be advisable to use a pre stain before using the tea or coffee staining method? What would you recommend for water resilient finish?

kschaefer2 made it! (author)2016-10-25

Ich habe es auch schon gemacht und das Ergebniss ist super

1. Bild nach ca 15min einwirkzeit

2. Bild nach ca 24 Stunden

3. und 4. Bild mit Dekoration

mikeasaurus (author)kschaefer22016-10-27

Sieht großartig aus! Vielen Dank für Ihre Ergebnisse.

kschaefer2 (author)mikeasaurus2016-10-28

Danke schön

kinivondini (author)2016-08-25


I have a pine floor that I would like to make a more ash/gray colour and this looks like a good option so I am going to try it on a test piece. I cannot find any info on the best way to protect the wood after. Would the vinegar react with varnish or oils etc and what would you recommend for a floor?


mikeasaurus (author)kinivondini2016-08-25

After application, any regular protective coating should be no problem. However, it's always best to test out on a sample piece before committing to the final project.

I'd love to see the results, good luck!

zelko (author)2016-08-20

Oops. Sorry no attachments on my last post

mikeasaurus (author)zelko2016-08-25

It's so neat to watch the transformation of color. Thanks for sharing your pictures, enjoy the Pro Membership!

zelko (author)2016-08-20

This kind of staining has been a great help in situations where you just kind get the right colour stain commercially.
My first attempt on a handrail was awesome. I time lapsed the process and as you can see from the video, it leaves no lap marks.

Gibby816 (author)2016-08-04

This was apple cider vinegar and steel wool. No tea. I got impatient and tested it on knotty pine after only 12 hours of soaking. Holy crap was I impressed. The grain POPS so much. Went on clear (color of the vinegar anyway) and 25 minutes later this was the result. Letting the steel wool soak another 12 hours and I think I'll be good. I'm actually going to use this on a cornhole set I'm building. I'll post pictures of the finished product if anyone's interested

mikeasaurus (author)Gibby8162016-08-04

Looks great! This is still one of my favorite ways to stain wood, it's inexpensive and very effective.

Please share your cornhole results, or make your own Instructable and show everyone how you did it! Thanks for sharing your picture here, enjoy the Pro Membership.

zelko (author)mikeasaurus2016-08-20

Great 'able! Can you tell me is there any problem with putting a spirit based stain over the dried vinegar ebonizing to achieve various custom colours?

JessR23 (author)2016-05-22

Hello, just wondering if this is food safe? I'm making a chopping board with pine but I need it to be darker and I can't find any food safe stains to use...

luizamodel (author)2016-04-30

Wow superb work

eli_avery made it! (author)2016-04-22

My Image is a pair of bent wood rings made from shavings from the same small piece of maple, the darker one I stained with the iron acetate solution alone as after testing on scraps I found the wood had sufficient tannin naturally to achieve the silvery-black look I wanted without the tea.

mikeasaurus (author)eli_avery2016-04-24

That;s awesome! I really like the dark colour of that ring.

Thanks for sharing a picture, enjoy the Pro Membership!

eli_avery (author)mikeasaurus2016-04-24

Thanks, It turned out pretty awesome. I'll definitely be making more with that method.

njnahas. made it! (author)2015-11-08

Perfect instructions! My weathered wood shelves came out EXACTLY like I wanted. I used family size tea bags for the tea and let my steel wool completely dissolve in the vinegar before I used it. It worked perfectly. Will the vinegar smell dissipate?

LevutėZ (author)njnahas.2016-04-23

What is the type of wood you used?

cbroeckx (author)njnahas.2015-11-19

looks really good!!

mikeasaurus (author)njnahas.2015-11-08

Looks great!

The vinegar small will diminish in a few days, best to let off-gas outside if you can. Are you planning on applying more finishes?

Thank for sharing a picture of your results. Enjoy the Pro Membership!

Blueeyescryin5 made it! (author)2016-03-07

My husband uses this stain and it works very well for us. The double doors in the attached pic are one of many products he has hand crafted then used this stain on. We love it.

barbeecol (author)2016-03-07

Best of luck

Spurs59 (author)2016-02-23

will this method work on beech,do I give the beech one coating with the tea and then apply the steel wool liquid has many times has I need to get the colour I need


mikeasaurus (author)Spurs592016-02-23


Spurs59 (author)mikeasaurus2016-02-23

I can only find the white malt vinegar from tesco,will this work with the steel wool,does the jar have to be sealed or does this not matter

mikeasaurus (author)Spurs592016-02-25

I think any vinegar will work. I wouldn't seal the jar though, when steel oxidizes it can build up pressure in a sealed container.

Try it out and share your results!

AmberW30 (author)2016-02-19

How much vinegar was used?

wonderkell (author)2016-02-18

Hi! I'm just wondering, would this method be ok on MDF? I know traditionally staining & MDF don't really go together, but what I'm after is actually the look of staining under a chalk paint or crackle medium distress finish (so not necessarily a wood grain look). Any help is hugely appreciated!!

mikeasaurus (author)wonderkell2016-02-18

MDF is tricky to stain becasue it's so absorptive it's tough to get a uniform look without using a lot of product. Since MDF can be inexpensive (and found in a lot of thrown away furniture) you should do a test piece to dial in your approach.

I'm interested in your results, please share what you find out!

wonderkell (author)mikeasaurus2016-02-18

Thanks Mike! I was going to test it sometime in the next few days. I'm concerned about absorbency too, especially around the edges. I might try priming part of my sample. Think I'm going to use the chalk paint & distress rather than crackle finish because I want to transfer some text onto the piece too. Wish me luck!!

mikeasaurus (author)wonderkell2016-02-18

MDF is tricky to stain becasue it's so absorptive it's tough to get a uniform look without using a lot of product. Since MDF can be inexpensive (and found in a lot of thrown away furniture) you should do a test piece to dial in your approach.

I'm interested in your results, please share what you find out!

JenniferL111 (author)2016-01-24


I have used this method in the past on my dinning room table. I am considering doing this as a siding for the exterior of my home. However, I am unsure of what i would need to seal it with for it to sustain all the different weather conditions in Colorado. Do you have any recommendations? Thanks for any advice!!

mikeasaurus (author)JenniferL1112016-01-24

Try a deck sealant. Remember to do a small sample first and test it out before committing to your finished piece. I'd love to see pictures, good luck!

cbroeckx (author)2015-11-19

I am going to have to try this with my wood pallet projects!! thanks for the tutorial :) will share when done (probably after xmas)

cryan23 (author)2015-09-14

can you apply tea stain on top of the steel wool stain ? with the same outcome

mikeasaurus (author)cryan232015-09-15

Layering stains is the best way to achieve depth. Experiment with a few mixtures to find the desired look.

Good luck!

brianchadorourke (author)2013-05-28

Here's my go at using the tea staining method. I used Lyons Black Tea from Ireland steeped for more than an hour. The steel wool soaked in the distilled white vinegar for days. I think the workbench is really nice looking. After it cures over night, I'm going to give it a couple of coats of polyurethane. I have attached several photographs showing the work. Thanks a bunch.

Here is the tea stained work bench polyurethaned with the lower shelf in place. Project complete. Yay!

Nice! Looks great!

Wow, that looks incredible! I love seeing how light the wood started and how rich and deep the colour is now. It really looks great with a coat of poly applied.

Thanks for sharing, enjoy the patch and the 3-month Pro Membership!

atruong4 (author)2015-06-03

Hi there, could you please tell me if this method is food-safe or not?

lui13 (author)2015-05-28

So it's a type of brown but with a coat of black i don't know though so if you have any thoughts that can help I would appreciate it

mikeasaurus (author)lui132015-05-28

Applying multiple coats will achieve a darker colour. Experimenting with ratios and application time will yield different results, so best to try a few techniques out on some similar scrap wood first.

Good luck!

lui13 (author)2015-05-28

So it's a type of brown but with a coat of black i don't know though so if you have any thoughts that can help I would appreciate it

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Bio: I'm Mike and I make crazy things at Instructables HQ in San Francisco. Follow me and try a few of my projects for yourself!
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