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How to Lighten Stained Wood | 7 Options That Work

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Have you ever bought a piece of furniture that wasn’t quite the color you were looking for? When refinishing furniture, the wood color is often the first thing people want to change. That was the case for me when I bought this antique cupboard to use in my kitchen. After much trial and error, I found that there are multiple viable options for how to lighten stained wood!

Read on to decide which option would work best for your situation and learn how to lighten wood.

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Refinishing a Pine Cabinet

If you’re a part of my Instagram or YouTube communities, then you may have watched this process play out in real time. It was quite the journey, full of trial and error, failures, lots of research, and finally…a beautiful finished product.

Pine cabinet before refinishing.
Before

I found this pine cabinet on Facebook Marketplace for $150.

It was heavily lacquered with a dark red-tint stain. I wanted to lighten the wood significantly to give it more of a raw wood look.

However, I didn’t do enough research ahead of time to see how yellow pine would react to my techniques. After many learning opportunities, I’m rounding up all of the ways to lighten stained wood.

If you want to see the full process that I went through, come commiserate with me on YouTube where I show you the entire process I endured on this project! (And keep reading to see what finally worked for me!)

Lightened cabinet after refinishing.

There is more than one way to accomplish this, so I’m laying out all the multiple options available to you. Then, you can decide what will work best with your furniture piece and give it a try!

Perhaps all my failed attempts will help you know what NOT to do to lighten wood, as well as what you should do.

How to Lighten Stained Wood Without Sanding

First, let’s talk about the options for how to lighten wood without sanding. Most people want to avoid this step because sanding is extremely tedious, messy and physically taxing if you’re working on a large piece.

Additionally, you may have just applied a wood stain that turned out darker than you’d hoped and you want to lighten it. There are a couple of options for how to lighten stained wood without sanding.

The first step is to thoroughly clean your piece with mild soap and water if it is older. Let it dry fully before continuing.

TIP: Make sure to let your piece fully dry between each step. Only then will you be able to see the full impact of your actions.

Sarah Symonds- the one who did not do this and regretted it fully

Use Steel Wool to Lighten Stained Wood

Steel wool is a viable option to lighten wood without sanding. Start by dampening your 0000 steel wool in warm water. Run the steel wool along the grain of your wood to avoid scratching it.

This will require some elbow grease. Make several passes, applying light pressure, and see if the wood begins to lighten. If it does, then keep going! My friend Tiffany at My DIY Happy Home has had great success with this method.

If it doesn’t, the next step is to add mineral spirits or turpentine. Repeat this process with steel wool or a clean cloth until you’ve reached the desired lightness in your wood.

If you’re looking for an affordable option for lint free tack cloths, I like to repurpose my husband’s worn out white t-shirts he uses as undershirts for his dress clothes. They are lint free, easy to cut to size, and a great option for repurposing instead of throwing them out!

Use Paint and Varnish Stripper to Remove Stain

If the above option doesn’t work, and you don’t want to sand, then your next step is to remove the stain as much as possible.

Using a paint and varnish stripper is another option to lighten stained wood by removing it to start fresh. Make sure to check out my YouTube video for the VITAL error I made during this stage of the process.

I’ve always used CitriStrip because it is low-odor and gentler than harsh strippers. Another positive is that it can sit on the piece for up to 24 hours so you are less tied to the project, if you can’t apply and remove the stripper in one afternoon.

If you’ve never used furniture stripper before, follow my simple tutorial here, where I show you how I stripped and refinished my dining table top.

Best Way to Lighten Wood

Now that we’ve covered some of the ways to attempt this without sanding, let’s dive in to what I would recommend as the best way to lighten wood.

This involves a combination of sanding, bleaching and applying a top coat.

Remember, every wood species has a different undertone to take into consideration. To learn more about that, check out this post where I shared how to change the color of wood.

For my pine cabinet, I was dealing with significant red undertones with subtle yellow undertones. I wanted a much whiter look, but didn’t want to whitewash it.

Here are the simple steps I (should have) taken from the start on my piece! And, what eventually ended up working in the end!

How to Lighten Stained Wood | Step 1: Sand

You knew it was coming. Start by sanding your piece down to the raw wood.

This is extremely tedious and time consuming on a large piece. However, it will give you the best outcome if you’re looking for a very raw and organic color in the end.

Begin with 60 or 80 grit sandpaper to take off the finish as quickly as possible. Always sand with the grain of your wood, applying light pressure.

The harder you push, the more you risk marring your wood. I used this palm sander which my parents gifted me last Christmas. It worked very well for my piece since the majority of it was flat wood.

For detail sanding, here are a few additional options:

Once you’ve taken off the stain with a low grit sandpaper, the next step is to smooth it out. Go up incrementally in steps with your sandpaper grit.

I used 60, then 150, then 220.

This creates a smooth finish on your wood so that it accepts stain the best.

At this point, you might have achieved your desired wood color! If so, you can seal it with a top coat.

This topcoat has come highly recommended by many wood workers for keeping the original color and not darkening it. I haven’t personally tried it, but it’s on my list for my next project!

Step 2: Add Wood Bleach

If you’ve sanded your furniture down to raw wood and it still isn’t light enough, the next step is to bleach your wood. For this step, you have a few options.

Can I Apply Household Bleach on Wood?

Short answer: yes, household bleach will lighten wood. However, it’s not the only option.

Household bleach will remove leftover dye from wood, but it won’t actually change the wood color itself. For my project, I only had regular bleach on hand.

I applied the bleach with my favorite scrub brush and then let it dry in the sun. It lightened my pine cupboard significantly.

If using this method, you can apply multiple layers of bleach over time until you achieve the desired color of wood.

Once you’ve lightened the wood as much as you want, use a 50/50 vinegar to water solution and wipe down your wood. This neutralizes the bleach.

Let it dry fully between each coat so you can see how much the wood actually lightens. If your wood is damp, it will appear darker than it is when it’s dry.

How to Bleach Wood Using Wood Bleach

Using household bleach on wood is one method, however, if it doesn’t give you the desired look, then the next step to bleach wood is with wood bleach. Of course, you can always start with this in the first place!

As you are figuring out how to lighten stained wood with wood bleach, go in increments.

Start with one application and see what it does to your wood color. Let it dry fully, then decide if you need another coat. It’s all about the baby steps as you don’t want to over-lighten your wood accidentally.

There are a few wood bleach products on the market to choose from.

Savogran Wood Bleach

Savogran wood bleach uses oxalic acid and water to lift color. This bleach is known for removing black spots and stains. It may take a few applications to achieve your desired color, but it’s a viable option for how to bleach furniture that isn’t extremely dark.

Zinsser Wood Bleach

Zinsser wood bleach is another option that is more “heavy duty” for dark tone woods like cherry or mahogany. Wait until you see what it did to my friend Amy’s hope chest over at The Coastal Oak!

The beauty of this bleach is that is actually takes the color out of the wood, without removing the grain.

As with the other methods, start with one application. If it doesn’t remove the color to your liking, you can apply another coat.

Step 3: Lighten Your Wood Further With a Top Coat

At this point you may be happy with the color of your wood.

Again, take these step by step and see how your wood looks before trying the next step. If you’re happy after bleaching your wood, then seal with a top coat.

On the other hand, you might want to take it a step further. With my pine cabinet, I wanted to counteract some of the yellow undertones that came out after bleaching.

Here are some options to continue lightening your wood.

White Wash

My friend Dena, over at Fletcher Creek Cottage, has had great success with white wash after sanding and bleaching wood furniture.

White washing is simply mixing white paint and water to lighten wood.

The more paint you add to your mixture, the less opaque the finished look will be. So, if you’re looking to just lighten your wood without covering the wood grain, then use mostly water with a few drops of paint.

Start with less paint and you can always add more as needed to achieve your look. Test a more hidden area on your piece to make sure you have the right mixture before applying to the whole piece.

White Stain, Pickling or Color Wash

Part of the process I undertook with my cabinet was adding Antique White stain. I’ve used this stain to neutralize undertones in the past and love the way it looks.

As part of my pine cabinet process, I did apply Antique White to the entire cupboard. It looked beautiful and would have done the trick if not for that pesky door. (See YouTube video for details)

Antique white stain on a cabinet for how to lighten stained wood.

Similarly, you can try applying a color wash, which is a similar option. There is also stain that produces a pickling effect and can be applied over existing stain. And of course, you can always try weathered stains!

The sky is really the limit on applying stain to your bleached wood. You just have to be willing to test which option is best for your wood and the final color you’re trying to achieve.

Liming Wax or Cerusing Wax

The next option is to apply a liming wax or cerusing wax.

These are very similar in the final outcome, and both give that vintage worn look with a white grained finish. The main difference is that the cerusing wax finishes out to a more durable topcoat.

Applying liming wax for how to lighten stained wood.

I ended up applying a liming wax to my pine cupboard as the final top coat and am so happy with how it turned out.

It was a simple process.

Buffing liming wax

Simply brush the wax on in a cross hatch motion with a stiff bristle brush. Apply a full coverage coat. Then, wait 30 minutes and come back and buff with a lint free cloth.

This creates a subtle sheen as the wax is worked into the wood.

Cabinet with lime wax added.

Furniture Refinishing Cost

One of the things I love about Facebook Marketplace finds is that you can achieve a really nice piece on a budget with some elbow grease. But realistically, furniture refinishing costs can vary based on what you already have on hand, the size of your piece, and how many failed attempts you have. 😉

Lightened wood cabinet in a kitchen.

For my pine cabinet, I paid $150 to the seller, then had to purchase sand paper, different waxes I was considering, gloves, face masks for sanding, steel wool, putty knife, and wood conditioner. I spent around $100 in supplies, bringing my grand total to $250 for a huge cabinet!

I’d say that’s a good deal.

Of course, everyone’s budget will be different, but the hours and hours of work go a long way to add affordable pieces to my home.

New Pantry Cabinet for $250

Can you believe it’s the same piece?!

Of course, I kept the original hardware. I think it adds so much charm. I didn’t even clean it up as I liked how the character of years of use looks.

Side view of refinished cabinet.

One side is inset because it used to be part of a larger built in. So, I used that space to hang my apron and some artwork for a pretty detail looking into the kitchen from the dining room.

Opening to a dining room.

I also ended up painting the trim on the opening to the dining room. After we took down the wall and removed the indoor hot tub that was in this space, (yep…you read that right), I had stained the trim to match the existing honey oak trim.

Since then, I’ve painted all our trim white and wanted to lessen the amount of wood tones we had in this space.

Kitchen cabinet turned into a pantry.

I love how it all came together! What do you think of how it turned out? I love how much character it adds to our modern kitchen.

Stay Connected

Thanks for joining me here on the blog today! I hope this article on how to lighten stained wood was helpful to you. Make sure to take it step by step and hopefully your project will go much smoother than mine did.

Cabinet looking into kitchen.

Make sure to subscribe to the blog and follow along with me daily on Instagram and weekly on YouTube for more to come!

If you’re looking for more awesome DIYs, check out my huge DIY resource page. And if you’re a beginner DIYer, here are 35 awesome DIYs you can start on in your home.

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19 Comments

  1. It looks amazing! Thanks so much for sharing your process!
    I am in the process of trying to lighten a chest. It is making me crazy!!
    I have tried all of these steps except the liming wax, and that was actually my next thing to try.

  2. It turned out so nice!!!! Thanks for sharing your process. I’m in the middle of refinishing a table top that was made out of pine tongue & grove 25 years ago😳. What will white wash look like without bleaching first? I would bleach the table but is so heavy I don’t want to move it off the screened porch again. I was thinking to do a coat of white wash then stain- do you think it will accept the stain?

    Love that I can watch you across many platforms 😃😃

    1. It depends on what is already on it! Each situation will be different so the only way to know is to test a spot. (Preferably hidden and not a full door like I did.);)

  3. I have 2 lovely red pottery barn wood accent chairs with rattan seats. I’m redecorating and want to change the color of the chairs to a white washed grey while key the wood grain visible if possible. How do you suggest I do this?

    1. White or grey washing would do it! Just mix one part paint to 2 parts water (water down more if needed) and you’ll still be able to see the grain. You will want to lightly sand first so the paint can soak in.

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