Rust and Vinegar Wood Stain




Introduction: Rust and Vinegar Wood Stain

About: I love reusing/ repurposing things that would otherwise go in the trash. Learn a new skill every few months. Pass your skills on. Repurpose or reuse everything you can. I think every person should grow, ga...

This is my first Instructable so please bear with me if it is rough. I was looking through the site for homemade wood stains a while back, and I came across this one: The author has a brief note how to make a stain out of old nails in vinegar and that is just what I was looking for. I believe in reusing or repurposing things that would otherwise be thrown in the trash so using old nails to make a stain for recyled pallet wood projects is perfect. This is a wood stain that I have used since finding the instructable by chiok, and get dramatic results from. It is very simple to make and I love seeing the finish that this stain gives recycled pallet wood. The pic above shows the most recent knife handle and sheath that made from a pallet brace, and then finished with this rusty nail wood stain. The ingredients you need are:

  1. Rusty metal. Any old nails, screws or metal scraps will do as long as they oxidize red; this means iron or tin.
  2. Vinegar. I used the cheapest white vinegar I can find. You may get different results using different vinegar types.
  3. A jar or bottle. I used a cleaned out spaghetti sauce jar. You can use any bottle or jar you have available, even the vinegar bottle itself.
  4. Masking tape
  5. Marker
  6. A magnet (optional)

Step 1: Put the Rusty Metal in the Vinegar

Drop your rusty metal into the jar and then pour in the vinegar. Fill to about 2" from the top to allow for the expansion of the acid-rust chemical reaction. Put a cap or lid on the jar to prevent vinegar evaporation, but do not tighten the lid all the way. Back it off a quarter turn. You need to allow for the expanding gasses to release. Trust me, either you provide a way for the expansion or the expansion will provide its own way. My first batch I ruined the lid because the gasses pushed up and up until it slipped the threads. Let the stain set overnight and swirl it around the next day. I do this for 5-7 days until I see the vinegar turn from clear to a cloudy, light brown. In a pinch I have used the stain the next day and put on multiple coats, but I get best results by letting it sit for a few days. You will probably see a dark brown scum layer form on the top. Don't worry about it, just swirl it in to add to the color.

After you get the desired color, remove the metal from the container. I use two methods for this.

  1. Pour the stain into another container, then shake out the bright and shiny nails. Don't worry, they'll rust up again in a day so you can use them for your next batch.
  2. Use a magnet along the outside to drag the metal up and out of the jar.

Don't worry about the sediment that is floating around. I just wipe it off when I finish the wood work. Often I will leave one small nail in the stain to continue its reaction and further darken the stain. That is how I get a deep black color on oak and a dark brown on cypress.

Step 2: Try Your Stain on Different Types of Wood

This rusty vinegar wood stain has different results on different woods. It is not a consistent color on all woods. Also, the amount of time you allow the rusty nails to sit in the vinegar has an effect. The longer they stay, the darker the stain. Don't leave the corroded metal in there for more than two weeks or you will fill the entire empty space with a scummy growth. If that does happen, don't worry. Just swirl it back down into the liquid. Commonly, I have to let the stain sit on the wood overnight to get the full effect. Here are two sample photos that I took on the different types of wood I have in my shop. the first one is a first coat on the first day, the second one is with two coats after a night of drying. I wrote in pencil on the different woods but they may be hard to see, so from top to bottom here they are:

  1. pressure treated lumber
  2. white oak pallet (or maybe hickory, that is some very hard wood)
  3. raw bamboo
  4. closet pole (unknown wood)
  5. white pine on left, then pallet top plank (unknown wood)on right
  6. yellow pine pallet wood on left, then maple on right
  7. shipping crate (unknown wood)on left, then red oak on right
  8. cypress on right below red oak.

As you can tell from this list, I reuse a lot of pallet wood. I bought one oak 2"x4" to use for my whittling projects, and then decided I needed to find another source of hardwood. Look to your local pallet recycler for their cast-offs is my advice. Also, look for anyone making a log cabin in your area and offer them a piece of your finished work in exchange for a truckload of their castoffs. I know that is not part of this instructable, but I got a lot of pine and cypress log segments from cabin builders in exchange for some whittled cuttlery.

Step 3: Amaze Your Friends With This Awesome Stain.

Now put a tape label on your jar or bottle and use a marker to indicate what the contents are. I just write "Rust in Vinegar". Use this stain on your own wood projects. Apply to wood with a brush along the direction of the grain.

My most common project is that I whittle knife handles and sheathes. This wood stain dramatically changes the natural color of the wood. I use salvaged pallet wood all the time and find that the rusty vinegar reacts well with it. In these photos I show how a light colored hardwood turns black with just one coat. Between the first picture and the second there is only a minute transpired, but you can see how the sheath is already turning black. I let it dry overnight, and then burnished it with a dremel to make it nice and shiny..

Thank you for checking out my first Instructable. I hope you use this to make our own wood stain and crank out some fantastic projects.



    • Tiny Home Contest

      Tiny Home Contest
    • Creative Misuse Contest

      Creative Misuse Contest
    • Metalworking Contest

      Metalworking Contest

    16 Discussions

    Old-time gunmakers used to stain their stocks with a stain made from chewing tobacco and denatured alcohol.--if you're up for further experimentation. I'm going to try you stain first chance I get, so plenty thabnks for this!

    Tried the vinegar/steel wool trick and got absolutely nothing. Used white vinegar from the supermarket and 000 steel wool it sat there all weekend and was still the same colour. Not sure what went wrong I mean its not rocket science .

    Happy for any advice.

    My husband uses fine steel wool with vinegar. Works well also.

    1 reply

    After making this instructable I went back and found one that does exactly that. I bet the steel wool converts fast. I also found a reference that it is the tannins in the wood that make the wood stain to black, so that explains why I get varied results on different woods. I just put some objects with known tannin (squirrels will have to skip a meal) in the jar along with the nails to see if that can make all wood turn that deep black. If it works, I'll have to make another instructable and detail it.


    1 year ago

    What type finish is in the wood behind the knife handle in the first picture? That looks interesting.

    3 replies

    Behind the knife is just wood paneling that our garage is finished in. It looks nice until the plys start to peel away from each other.

    If you want to hasten the process, file some of the iron into fillings and use that in the vinegar. It will rust really fast. JMHO

    Sorry about the late reply. I'm still learning how to see if there are comments. I agree, the key is getting the acid to break down the iron so filings would definitely work faster than whole nails.

    hi do you think this "paint" protect the wood or it's just for look .

    2 replies

    I use it just for look. After it dries I always put down a sealer of some sort. For small projects I use the burnishing compound that came with the dremel or buff in a light coat of coconut oil. When making furniture with this stain I use polyurethane to protect.

    this is not paint, only for stained looks. for protection apply varnish etc above this (after its dried)

    ~ with love from Pakistan ~

    I have tried it and later used in a project. works like charm.

    Back in the '80's, a lot of woodworkers were trying to "fume" oak with ammonia, this looks to be a whole lot safer and easier, thanks for the post.

    1 reply

    I have also used vinegar without the rust to age some projects. It just makes the surface a bit lighter and kind of distressed looking.

    Thank you. It's very easy to make and use. Because it is just household vinegar I never worry about getting it on my hands or strong fumes.