How to make Steel Wool and Vinegar Stain

One of the most frequently asked questions that we have gotten is how to make the steel wool and vinegar solution that can be used as a wood stain. For this week’s video we wanted to walk you through this process, in real time, showing exactly what you need to make your own wood stain. This is very simple, doesn’t take long, and only costs a couple of dollars to make. Check it out!

Supplies Needed

0000 Steel Wool Pads
Mason Jars
Distilled White Vinegar
Paper Towels or Coffee Filters
Stirring stick, paint brush, scrap wood

Add Steel Wool and Vinegar to a Mason Jar

The first step in making your DIY Steel Wool and Vinegar Stain is  to add a pad of the 0000 super fine steel wool into a mason jar. Then add distilled white vinegar to the jar. You’ll want to fill it most of the way, do not screw the lid onto the jar. You’ll read why in the next step.

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Let it Sit/React

Let the vinegar dissolve the steel wool for at least two to three days. With the vinegar solution you definitely want to leave the lid off, as it releases a gas that you’ll want to let escape from the jar. The mixture will get darker the longer you let it sit, but you can always dilute that dark concentrate with more vinegar later on.

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Stir Together and Filter it

After it has been sitting and brewing for a couple of days, the steel wool should have risen to the top of the jar. We’ll want to stir everything in the jar together, with a stirring stick of some sort. Then we’ll filter out the bits of steel wool by pouring it through a paper towel or coffee filter into another, empty jar. It will be murky color, but after the next step we’ll achieve the nice amber tone we’re after. See the video for more information regarding filtering the mixture.

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Let it Sit Again

You are so close to having made your very own batch of steel wool and vinegar stain, I can almost see the end result! 🙂 We just need to be a little more patient and let the mixture sit for another few hours. Over the next waiting period, the mixture will continue to react or brew and will eventually become more of an amber color – that’s what we’re going for. Let the filtered steel wool and vinegar solution sit for another 6-24 hours, then move on to staining! Here’s a look at that nice amber color we’re going for.

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Dilute if desired, then Apply to wood!

You can always dilute your mixture if it is too strong. Simply pour a little of the strong mixture or concentrate into a new jar and add distilled white vinegar to the jar. Grab some test scraps of wood to experiment with the staining. Oxidation will occur and the mixture reacts with the tannins in the wood to give it variations in color. The color you see when you initially brush it onto the wood is not the final color, let it react and do its thing for another few hours to see your final stain. It changes Fir wood to dark blues, greys, browns, and black. Pine, however will not darken much at all. After it’s been applied and has set in for a few hours, feel free to seal it all up with polyurethane.

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Thanks for checking out this week’s video on how to make your own DIY wood stain. I hope this video helps answer your questions, if not though, comment below and we’re happy to go into more details! Post your DIY project photos that you’ve used this stain on, we’d love to see. Cheers!

  • Carolyn Williams

    Thank you all for the information. I am a true novice and appreciate all of your knowledge. My question relates to the furniture I want to stain. It is pine fenceboard. I read above that pine doesn’t really change color much and I want some weathered gray/brown color when I finish. Should I add instant coffee or tea to the mix? Thank you so much.

    • Tj Atkin

      Hi Carolyn, I have stained pine with no trouble at all. I don’t think you need to add anything to the basic mixture and you can apply multiple coats if needed. If you aren’t satisfied with the color you get you can always add tea to the mixture and apply again but unless you want really dark staining I don’t think you’ll need it.

      • Carolyn Williams

        Thanks, Tj. I am excited to try this. It is brewing as we type 🙂

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  • Andy

    I had it turn red oak purple!! Any suggestions why?


      Hi Andy! It will react completely different with all different types of wood. It reacts with the tannins in the wood, but I don’t unfortunately know the science behind why it would turn to a purple.

    • Tj Atkin

      I have noticed that almost everything to which I apply the solution stains a grayish pink to purple color at first but as soon as I apply any type of oil over it such as furniture polish or butcher block oil etc the color immediately changes and becomes a warm brown color with no trace of the pink. I’ve even used instant floor polish and had the same result. I usually do this the same day so I don’t know what would happen if I didn’t apply anything after I stained it.

  • alan murphy

    I believe the problem some are experiencing with a clear solution that doesn’t cause staining is that they’re using too much vinegar (1 gal), in proportion to steel wool (1 pad). Too much vinegar acid breaks the iron content down too low to achieve a reaction with the wood tannins. Start off with the instructed amounts of vinegar and steel wool (1 quart per 1 pad), and you should do fine.


      Thanks Alan!

  • Amy Anderson

    Is there any difference between using regular white vinegar vs apple cider vinegar?


      Hi Amy! I haven’t ever tried apple cider vinegar so I am not sure. You could experiment, but I’d recommend picking up the white vinegar when you are out as I know that will work.

  • Nick

    How long does the vinegar solution need to dry before staining?

  • Ragan Bloom

    Help with our red oak stair tread nightmare!! Trying to get these red oak treads a medium grey has been the stress of a lifetime, and we are on a time crunch! I’ve been doing a lot of research and this steel wool/vinegar seems to fit the bill! (Grey/white/brown stains have only brought out the pink in the red oak!). I soaked the wool in vinegar for 3 hours and splotched it on a small part of the underside of the tread and checked on it 90 mins later- voila! Only problem is, huge difference in the depth of the grey per the different natural colors of the oak. (Granted in i think the underside has a lot of variations in color than the other side that will be showing. What’s the fix? I used a cloth and splotch-applied it. Does a paintbrush work better as opposed to cloth like with actual stain? Are you supposed to apply with a paintbrush liberally then wipe excess with cloth to cause a more even outcome? Should I dilute the 3 hr mixture with more vinegar?

    • Ragan Bloom ONE MORE QUESTION! do I use pre stain conditioner on the red oak first? Or just sand it and apply the vinegar stain without conditioner? Here is a pic of the solution I applied last night, but the oak HAD a Pre stain conditioner applied. Is this why the huge difference in color, possibly?

      • Tj Atkin

        My experience has been that the color variation and final color are dependent on the tannins in the wood, not the solution or in any way how the solution is applied. I’m not even convinced that additional coats makes the stain darker if the solution is strong enough since on a test piece where I did half with one coat and the other half with two coats, a few hours later all the wood was the same color and any overlapping brush strokes that were originally darker were all blended beautifully. Personally I think the variation in the grain/stain on this wood is gorgeous and I would embrace it. : ) You might also test what it’s going to look like if/when you apply a top coat of sealer or conditioner as that can make a radical difference in the final color. Mine was almost a pinkish gray after the vinegar and when I rubbed in oil (butcher block conditioner) the color turned to a beautiful golden brown. A pre-conditioner could delay the absorption of the acetate a bit but I think the end result would be the same because the solution isn’t really a conventional stain and the color is proportional to the amount of tannins in your particular piece of wood. The up side of that is that you can’t really mess up the color; you can literally apply it any way you want and it will even itself out without any mess or brush strokes etc. The down side is that you get what you get as far as color is concerned. If you want a different color you have to either add some sort of pigment to your solution or play with adding tannins to the solution in some way to augment the effect. You could try applying a tannin boosted solution to the lighter areas but that might give you inconsistent and unnatural looking results. The “beauty” of the acetate solution is that it enhances the natural grain of the wood or at least does nothing to mask it. If you really don’t like all that gorgeous grain you might be better off with a more conventional product. I would be inclined to go ahead and put the vinegar on all of it and see if you don’t love it. You can always apply an additional stain over the top if you want a less contrasty look. However, if the overall color is already darker than you want regardless of the grain, that won’t work. You could dilute your solution way down as some have mentioned to get a lighter effect but it will still be proportional to the tannin content and show the grain. Please post a picture of the finished product; I can’t wait to see how it turns out!

        • Ragan Bloom

 So! I used an underside of another tread to test the solution that had now been sitting with the steel wool for 12hrs, this tread did not have any pre-stain applied to it. Only a 12 hr vinegar stain and look at the depth! We actually want the depth somewhere in between the 3 hr picture and the 12hr solution, so we will try the 6 hr tonight that I made today mid day. Hopefully it’s exactly what we want, if not, when can always dilute it! Check it out! If I didn’t mention before, this is an unfinished retro red oak tread (the underside of it)

          • Tj Atkin

            Wow, really nice! And I thought you were worried about getting it too dark LOL. Keep up posted!

            • Ragan Bloom

              I’m sanding now, I’m nervous! Do you think I should use a pre-stain conditioner or no??

              • Tj Atkin

                I don’t think I would pre-treat, especially since you’re getting great results without it. HOWEVER, there’s a question that remains about how your particular pre-conditioner is affecting the stain. We don’t know if the light color in the first piece was in part due to the conditioner, or that the dark color in the second was due completely to the extra 12 hours you gave the solution. The conditioner shouldn’t be necessary in a hard wood such as oak, and clearly it seems to be staining nicely. But if you are worried about the stain being too dark you might want to investigate further. The pre-conditioner may help even out the grain effect, which may or may not be desirable, and it may prevent the wood from taking up as much of the stain all together which you may prefer. But that introduces another variable in your equation and another step; so if it were me I would just dilute until I got the depth of color I wanted and go with just the vinegar solution. Just don’t get impatient and extrapolate what you think the end product is going to be. Test, test, and retest until you are completely happy with the solution before you pull the trigger. . . and make sure you have enough solution for the whole job in one batch : )

  • Bob Kahler

    Hello, we have sanded and in the process deciding on what finish we’re going to put down. It’s maple very old and has some gray staining in the wood that didn’t come out with sanding. Looking to go with iron acetate but we want to achieve a gray finish with a polyurethane finish it is a kitchen floor. Help any suggestions?


      I would recommend experimenting with some scrap boards first and seeing what color you get. If that isn’t giving the results you were looking for I would suggest looking into doing a weathered grey stain rather than iron acetate. A stain will be much more predictable than the acetate.

      Hope this helps!

  • Cog53

    Can you cover it when it’s done brewing or not?


      You sure can cover it! You just need to make sure it is in a sealed container so it cannot evaporate at all.

  • Just Passing

    Issues with the steel wool: some steel wool appears to be coated with a substance (wax?) specifically to stop it leaving those nasty, rusty stains that you often get if spending a few hours cleaning, or if you leave the steel wool overnight. The answer? Burn it over the stove to remove the coating. Works just fine after that!

  • Lanissa Johnson

    Awesome hack! Ty! Turned out great. Quick Q: when does the vinegar smell go away?!? Lol. We are going to use our treated boards for our kitchen bar. Concerned about the whole house stinking of vinegar!


      Hi Larissa, for the bar I built with my friend Austin — it took a couple days for it to air out. Cheers

  • Tommy Everhart
  • Tommy Everhart

    I use steel wool and vinegar on barrels i make… Before is in front after is in background… Hmmm cant upload pic.. When i can i will post

  • Sandy

    Hi, Pete. I need to stain cedar boards to match the old cedar on our fence. The boards on the fence are grey. Will your recipe get to grey or just a darker brown color?

    • Hey Sandy! Check out the Montana Gal comment below. She had some new fence posts that she matched up to old grey one pretty well. — As for my knowledge on greying cedar fence boards — as long as you don’t seal it with oil based sealer it should look grey. I’d do a few test boards if I was you. But here are some photos of a bar I built with a friend using brand new cedar fence pickets and they turned a nice shade of grey using the solution.

  • Matthew

    Pete, I love the look this stain gives the wood. I am looking to do your Farmhouse dinning table and would like it to be as light grey as possible. What recommendations do you have to getting it that rustic light grey finish.

    • diypete

      Hey Matthew! You’ll want to use a brush on water-based stain. The oil based will turn it dark. I’d do some experimenting on scrap boards. Minwax does make a weathered grey stain if you’d prefer that over the vinegar solution.

  • Joy

    Hi – how much do you need to make to stain this table. I’ve made two Masson jars full so far, but wondering if I should prepare more. Worried that I need to make it all at the same time to keep the color consistent? Also… Do you dilute the mixture before putting it on? I ask because I can’t imagine how one jar is enough to treat the whole table 🙂

    • diypete

      Hi Joy!

      I generally dilute the mixture. And in my experience 1 jar is typically plenty, but with 2 made you are more then ready. Good luck!

  • devol

    I tried this with one gallon of Great Value brand white distilled vinegar and one pad of RHODES AMERICA brand 0000 grade steel wool. 3 weeks later NOTHING. Clear as water. I tried shredding the steel wool. I tried it in an open container. NOTHING. How stinking hard can this be!

    • diypete

      That’s really odd. I use Rhodes American Steel Wool Fine 0000 with Kroger distilled white vinegar and it works all the time. I wish I could provide an answer but I’m not sure why it wouldn’t be reacting. If you haven’t — stir up the solution. Even test it on wood to see if it does anything. But I’m not sure why this is not working with your solution.

      • devol

        I have now tried it with different steel wool and different vinegar. 4 days later nothing. Clear solution. I’m clueless!

        • Shoot! I don’t know either.. You might check out some other sites and see if there are any other recommendations. Not quite sure what could be different. Thanks!

        • Montana Gal

          I have just used the vinegar/steel wool mix and in my case the solution was clear but still stained the wood in about an hour or so. I had used one gallon white vinegar and three 0000 steel wool pads. I didn’t tear the steel wool apart, just poked it into the vinegar container. I left the steel wool in the vinegar for 3-4 days and didn’t strain it. I just poured the vinegar solution into a plastic tub and generously slathered it onto the fence rails. We replaced just the top rails on this fence and didn’t want it to look so “bright and shiny.” Here are before and after pics.

          • diypete

            Montana gal, that looks fantastic! I can’t believe how well it blends in. Thanks for sharing. Remind me where at in Montana you are based? Cheers!

            • Montana Gal

              I was really happy with how it turned out. I didn’t know if it would hold up with rain and weather but it has! We live in Boyd, between Billings and Red Lodge. Best wishes!

              • diypete

                Always great to hear from fellow Montanan’s 🙂

              • missouri girl

                regarding how it holds up, I was wondering, over time will the color last as well as the store bought stains? I have been testing for the color I want and have found adding peroxide and then diluting with more vinegar gave me the color I was looking for. just concerned about fading over time.

      • Ed Swakon

        I too now have tried twice to make a solution and both jars are clear. I one jar I heated the vinegar before adding the “steel” wood. Is it possible it’s not steel? Any thoughts?

        • DIYPETE

          Hey Ed! I wish I knew the answer as to why some folks are having issues getting a reaction. What brand of steel wool are you using? And white vinegar correct?

          • Ed Swakon

            Rhodes American Steel Wool

            • DIYPETE

              I am unsure why it’s not doing it’s thing. Anyone else have feedback for Ed?

              • Ed Swakon

                OK so I had 2 different batches of vinegar and 0000 steel wool that I had sitting for 2 to 3 weeks and we’re clear. I decided to strain the mixtures and consolidate into one jar. Still clear. After an hour of mixing the 2 the liquid turn very dark. I think I now have a supper strong mixture. FYI I tested both bat have while I was letting then sit and both producedays very dark brown stain on a piece of first.

              • Tj Atkin

                The reaction of acetic acid (vinegar) with iron (steel wool) isn’t really producing a dye as much as it’s producing a mordant which reacts with and intensifies the staining of wood in direct proportion to the amount of tannins in the wood. The reaction of vinegar and steel wool produces variable amounts of both ferrous (iron II) and ferric (iron III) acetate. Ferric acetate has a characteristic red/brown color while ferrous acetate is usually colorless unless it contains some impurities, and occasional light green compounds also occur. Steel wool is incidentally coated with a microscopic layer of oil during manufacturing because cutting machinery is coated with oil to reduce the fire hazard from friction. Coincidentally this prevents the steel wool from rusting when dry but the vinegar quickly dissolves this coating allowing the iron to rust, unless it is completely submerged which is what we are doing here. Once the steel wool surfaces and is exposed to air it will rust and the rust will also stain the wood. But the rust is not what we’re after or we would just soak the steel wool in water and be done with it. It’s the iron acetates that are doing the heavy lifting here and depending on the composition of the steel wool and the temperature and a few other variables the color of that iron acetate fluid could be anything from gray to yellow, to orange, brown or black, and in some cases colorless. Any of them will still react with the tannins in the wood, or tannins added to the mix (for example add tea if you want a darker stain). Now aren’t you sorry you asked? ; )

    • Brett Battishill

      I had the same results. I have not opened the lid at all. Shaken it and nothing.

      • David

        You said you have not taken the lid off. You are not suppose to put the lid on till you have the finished product

    • rlb1130

      Do not seal the container. Even if it clear it will still usually color the wood.

  • Stephanie Hansen

    Does it matter what grade of steel wool you use?

    • diypete

      I use anywhere between 0000 and 00. The finer the better in my experience.

  • Jennifer Peterson

    I have my farmhouse table built yet hesitant to start staining. I used Beetle Kill Pine with lots of variation in color. I like the final color of your table. Would this mixture work for me?

  • Adam Semrich

    Pete, is there any kind of shelf life with this mix? Or does it need to be used once desired color is reached?


      Hey Adam! It will continue to darken. I basically have a jar of it on hand all the time. In fact, I still have the jar from when I made the video and it still works great. I simply pour a little in a new container and dilute it with more vinegar so it’s not so strong.

  • alago

    Thank you Pete good idea

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  • Ryan Bevel

    The steel wool and vinegar trick is great. However, I recently made a new batch the same way I always do but this time it turned my wood a reddish color. Is this normal? I even tried it beforehand on a piece of scrap that was the same type of wood and it turned it grey as usual. Would it have something to do with how much I sanded the wood? The scrap piece was not sanded and my project was. Also, this was only an hour after applying so will it continue to turn more red?

    • Hey Ryan, what type of wood are you working with? Is it a different type then before? All species will react differently, and the tannins will create variations in color. I’ve seen red before, but not on pine / douglas fir. I haven’t had sanding cause different colors. I’m honestly not sure. Let me know what you find out.