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!

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 I'll award you a 3-month Pro Membership on and a digital patch!.
Good luck!

3-month Pro Memberships remaining: 3/10

Here's my wood so far, testing it out before i use it on my box project!

mikeasaurus (author)  TaZedPhanTom11 days ago

Digging that colour. I want to see the final application on your project!

Thanks for sharing, enjoy the Pro Membership.

Will do, Ill send you a pic when i'm done, im also modelling a prop rifle with wood and pvc and im going to apply this beautiful and cheap tea staining.

bricobart1 month ago

Thanx mike, I'm impressed with the result!

Please give that membership to anyone else - got a stock untill 2089 ;)

mikeasaurus (author)  bricobart1 month ago

Nice application. Too bad the zombies won't appreciate the pleasant earthy tone of the handle as you bash in their heads.

The pizzaboy neither. Made a terrible mistake this evening. Not my fault that the streetlights are down. Let's call it collateral damage. The good news: got some pizza's for free. And a scooter.

builderboyd2 months ago

Just finished the top of my bedside cabinet. We wanted the old wood look and the tea/vinegar stain gave us exactly what we wanted. The top is oak trimmed in pine and now has a great gray black patina to it. Perfect!

mikeasaurus (author)  builderboyd2 months ago

Digging that dark colour. Thanks for sharing!

Enjoy the 3-month Pro Membership

tricky684 months ago
A wonderful husband and wife project making Christmas gifts for family. The tea stained E looks good along with the other wood. Thank you for this instructable.
mikeasaurus (author)  tricky684 months ago
Turned out great. Thanks for sharing, enjoy the patch and the Pro Membership!
gallagad9 months ago
I know I'm late to the party here, but I used this on a pipe I made for a friend. The briar burl has a really swirly grain in some places and a differential stain like this really makes it jump out at you. I rubbed it with olive oil after staining to give it a nice subtle shine.
mikeasaurus (author)  gallagad9 months ago
Looks great, and I love the look of the grain with this dark stain. A pipe for a refined gentleman.

Thanks for sharing, enjoy the patch and the Pro Membership!
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.
workbench project.jpg006.JPG
Here is the tea stained work bench polyurethaned with the lower shelf in place. Project complete. Yay!
mikeasaurus (author)  brianchadorourke10 months ago
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!
wolfgang6411 months ago
Wow! Will this work on hard woods like oak cherry and apple? I have an old armore from the 1700's with one very "modern looking" foot. I was told it was blown off in WW!. it looks like cherry but the one buggs me is the color shift My daughter loves {she's Eleven} it butt I can't help being a perfectionist.
sklew11 months ago
j_man5159011 months ago
AMAZING! simply amazing. thanks for the DIY on a buget assitance. this is a life saver for those of us who like to fix up things on a limited budget. thank you. :)
veruca_salt89011 months ago
I love this! Thank you.
jwilliamsen11 months ago
This is a great technique - I've used it on a few projects - most notably on the spindles for some Mission Style Settles (couches) I built.  However, the idea of adding the tannin to woods that don't have a normally high tannin content is new - I'll definitely have to try it - Thanks!

mikeasaurus (author)  jwilliamsen11 months ago
Wow. I like how dark your stain turned out, it lets the grain on the rest of the frame really pop!

I love those settes, you did a really great job. I want a few for my place!
Thanks :) It took a couple of applications for some of the spindles, but they did come out nice and dark. A lot cheaper than buying Ebony :)
supersoftdrink11 months ago

We had some obnoxious cedar bushes around our house that we finally hacked out. Josh was playing with his knife (no euphemism here) and smoothing out the trunk of the biggest one when he noticed the wood just under the bark was really red. He whittled all those pieces off and soaked them in denatured alcohol. It turned out to make a decent red stain for other wood. I'll try to find some pics to show you one of these days if I remember... the color seemed to soak in a decent amount.
Kiteman11 months ago
How deeply does the stain penetrate? Is it better to sand a shape smooth before or after staining?
mikeasaurus (author)  Kiteman11 months ago
The tea staining is mostly surface, so any sanding after the oxidized solution is applied will remove some of the ebonizing (which can produce some neat results). Much wiser to sand the shape first, then ebonize after.
OK, thanks.
Ninzerbean11 months ago
I have never used the tea, I make my stain with old nails and white vinegar - but what I wanted to add is that the more coats you apply the darker you can make the wood. On white oak the stain is absolutely black - and no streaking. Thanks for letting us know about the tea, I will use that next time, plus the steal wool should be a lot faster than the nails.
jmDCI11 months ago
Here is a "staff" I made with tea stain
Photo on 4-25-13 at 10.33 PM #2.jpg
mikeasaurus (author)  jmDCI11 months ago
Looking good. Is that a glass door knob for your staff pommel? I like it!
For some reason I couldn't reply, is it because I'm on iPad? But,
I looked into this staining because I have a "do it yourself" precut bird feeder that I wanted to do something unique with.
I was more thinking red wine vinegar may have had tannins in it originally which could have reacted before I applied it to the wood, so I am not sure if that changed the results
I wanted to try this a couple of weeks ago, I put the steel wool in the vinegar but ended up forgetting about it so mine sat for 2weeks instead of 10 hours
I used red wine vinegar I don't now if made a difference, but I made a batch with white vinegar so Ill try that soon to compare, I just tried it out on some scrap wood to see how it looked
I like the comparison picture, gives you a clear of what your options are.

Like pudtiny pointed out, it's the tannin of the wood that makes the difference in darkness, but I'm sure if your iron was well rusted that some would transfer to the wood giving it a slightly reddish hue. That might be another experiment.

I like the darkness of "with tea" in your picture. What are you planning on staining?
pudtiny11 months ago
Here is a couple of links with some more information:

depotdevoid11 months ago
I've never seen this technique used before, science is cool!
lmnopeas11 months ago
Awesome Mike! What a cool staining technique!
rimar200012 months ago
Very interesting, Mike. I have some questions:
1) Works coffe too? Another? "Matecocido" is green, maybe it would be nice try it.
2) Can you mix previously the tea, the vinegar and the steel wool?
As to question 2):

It will not work as well if you mix them all before applying. The Reaction will start as soon as the iron acetate is mixed with the tannin. The desired result is for this reaction to take place on the surface of the wood, not in the mixing bottle before hand. I believe mixing them together will result in a dark, almost black, liquid that will stain the wood, but will not penetrate as far. I hope this helps.
mikeasaurus (author)  rimar200011 months ago
Thank you!

Coffee might not work as well as it contains very low amounts of tannins. Yerba maté might work better, but I couldn't find the tannin content. As pudtiny mentioned, some wood has high levels of tannin and may not need the tea application.

Yes, you can totally use old tea bags for this! I saved up a few Earl Grey bags over the week and just steeped them in water for about an hour - worked great!
I'm curious about Rimar's question 2. I think I read it differently and took it to mean, can you mix the tea with the vinegar and steel wool before applying? That might not be what he meant but it makes me wonder if you can.
The Rambler11 months ago
Oh cool! I was thinking about doing this with a piece of furniture I'm about to make and needed to find instructions to know exactly how to do it, so this is perfect timing for me! Thanks. If I get it done any time soon I'll share pictures.

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