Tea Staining





Introduction: Tea Staining

About: 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!

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!

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95 Discussions

I am looking at western red cedar which isn't very aromatic. I am hoping to use tea and the iron acetate staining which I already tried on pine and poplar with really nice results. Will using tea and the iron acetate stain work on cedar and will this affect cedar's bug repelling properties? Also, does the stain fade over time? Finally, does the stain help with repelling bugs or could this possibly attract some? Thanks!

1 more answer

Try a small test piece of your cedar before committing to your project.
The stain will fade a little over time, like all stains.
It should not effect any bug-repelling properties of cedar, and won't attract any new bugs :)

Happy staining!

I want to try this on a brand new swamp ash guitar body. Could it be possible to use a tung-oil finish after the staining?

1 reply

Loads of finishes can be applied after staining with tea. However, always test the process on scrap or in an incospicuous area before committing to the final piece. Good luck!

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?

1 reply

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.

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?


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?


1 reply

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!


1 year ago

Oops. Sorry no attachments on my last post

1 reply

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


1 year ago

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.

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

2 replies

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.

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?

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...

Wow superb work

Best of luck