Vinegar Steel Wool Stain Is Not Working. What Now?

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We woodworkers make all sorts of things to work within our shop, from jigs to fences, to all sorts of workarounds and such, and it is always satisfying to do that for ourselves.  We always have scrap pieces of this wood and that wood to play with, and the limits of what we can do are only the limits of our imagination.

But what about something like a DIY wood stain?  Have you ever given any thought or done any research on making your own DIY wood stains?  It can be done, and it is surprisingly easy to do, requiring only a few ingredients and a bit of patience.

Key Points:

  • Vinegar, steel wool, a mason jar, and patience are all you need to make your own ebonizing stain.
  • Patience is one of the keys to its success.
  • The types of wood matter for overall success.

One of the more commonly self-made wood stain is the one with vinegar and steel wool.  It’s used in a process known as “ebonizing,” and it does to wood exactly what the name suggests.  It darkens, if not blackens, wood.

Want to know how?

What is Ebonizing Wood?

Ebonizing Wood

Ebonizing wood is causing the darkening or blackening of a light-colored wood so that it will appear more like black ebony wood.  

Black ebony wood is a very dense black or dark brown hardwood that comes from several species of trees that includes persimmon.  By coincidence, I planted a persimmon tree in my Chinese garden, now 4 years old, although I planted it for the fruit, not the wood.

Most woods float in water, but not black ebony wood.  It actually sinks due to its density.  It’s a very finely textured wood that polishes well and mirror-like.  Among the species it comes from are:

Ceylon ebony – native to southern India and Sri Lanka

Gabon ebony – native to western Africa

Queensland ebony – native to Australia

Sulawesi ebony – native to Indonesia

Mauritius ebony – although not much is available anymore since the Dutch exploited it in the 1600s

These woods are the dense black or dark brown color that woodworkers today seek to reproduce in color, at least through the ebonizing process.  In the past, during the 17th and early 18th centuries, ebony was used in the making of fine cabinets, high-end molding, and carvings.

When ebony was used in Paris to make cabinets, the craftsmen who built them came to be known as “ebenistes,” and even today, cabinetmakers in Paris are called by that name.

In modern times, ebony is used to make the main bodies of instruments like clarinets, oboes, and the black keys of pianos and organs.  Black chess pieces are often made of ebony, and even the butt ends of fancy pool cues will include ebony.

The beauty of wood that has been ebonized is not only due to the color you realize but also that this DIY stain will allow the wood’s grain to show through nicely.

You can see, then, why ebonizing wood would be a common process.  Some of ebony’s countries of origin have clamped down on its harvesting to preserve it and prevent its harvesting.  As a consequence, but in light of its popularity in many uses, the ebonizing process is popular to create that black or dark brown color.

It is created in a chemical reaction brought about by soaking steel wood in vinegar (white vinegar will do the job) for a time and then straining the solution to arrive at the DIY wood stain.  This vinegar stain, sometimes also referred to as steel wool stain, is an effective way to darken wood.

What Woods Are Best For Ebonizing?

The type of wood used in this process becomes important because the chemically reactive process in the vinegar solution requires the presence of tannins, and the wood must supply them.  Tannin is a necessary chemical with which the vinegar steel wool stain will react to create the stain.  

Mixed Tannins, powder (Tannic Acid, Dyes, Tanning, Leather, Wood) 500 grams

Among the types of wood that are high in tannin are oak, walnut, cherry, and mahogany, while oak is probably the most common wood used in the ebonizing process. To that list, though, we would also add chestnut.  The wood used to turn the plate in this picture was wormy chestnut, and you can see the effect the steel wool stain had on it.

Woods like maple, birch, and aspen, though, are very low in tannin and, along with pine, are not good choices for the making of vinegar steel wool stain.

How Do You Make Steel Wool Stain, Also Referred To As Ebonizing Stain?

The process of making your own DIY wood stain is simple and straightforward.  Here’s what you will need:

  • A mason jar
  • Steel wool pads
  • White vinegar or balsamic vinegar
  • Coffee filters
  • Patience

Put steel wool pads in the mason jar and cover it with vinegar.  You can leave the lid off or leave it on after poking a few holes at it to allow the release of gasses that will form as the chemical reaction between the vinegar and the steel wool begins.  

If you have chosen to use balsamic vinegar to make your stain, you will want to mix it with water in a 1:1 ratio.  It, too, will react with the steel wood and become a usable stain that will darken over time as it sits.  With the leftover balsamic vinegar, you can make a nice salad for yourself, too, or reduce it in a saucepan for a drizzle over a piece of grilled chicken.  (Sorry, I am hungry as I am writing this piece)

It is very important to let this sit for a couple of weeks, at least, with an occasional shake of the mason jar.  You must be patient and let the reaction play out fully in order to have a proper stain that will darken the wood.

After time has passed, you will want to strain the vinegar mixture through a coffee filter (you probably have them already in your home.  You want to remove the bits of steel wool in the mixture to reach a clean state that will be ready to use.

However, you might also want to consider testing the mixture before you strain it.  Grab a piece of scrap wood and apply the stain with a foam brush and let it sit for 3 – 4 hours.  If the scrap piece of wood darkens and acquires the appearance of aged wood, and that is the color you were hoping for, your stain is ready. 

If the shade is more of a gray color and too light for your intended use, it’s not done yet, and you want to let it sit for another few days or a week. Test the vinegar solution again on another piece of wood just to make sure it has “matured” enough to satisfy the darker color you want.

What If The Ebonizing Doesn’t Work?

You can probably answer this question yourself now.  Troubleshooting your DIY stain is pretty easy:

You weren’t patient enough.  You were anxious to use the stain and didn’t wait long enough for the chemical reaction to play out.  Let it brew a bit longer.  This is where testing along the way can give you a better final result.

You used straight balsamic vinegar.  Instead of diluting it with an equal measure of water, you used straight balsamic vinegar.  Don’t forget the diluting part.

You put the lid on without holes.  Either leave the lid off to release gasses or poke holes in it to release them.  An airtight environment will not produce the best results.

You chose the wrong type of wood.  Tannin is an essential chemical in the process of ebonizing wood.  If you’ve tried the stain on a wood that is low in tannins, you won’t get that reaction that will turn the wood black, or at least dark brown, and it will not look like aged wood.  Refer to the above list of woods that are high in tannin and stay with them.

Poor filtering.  We suggested coffee filters because you probably have them in your kitchen.  Cheesecloth would also work.  But, a sieve is probably not a fine enough filter, and some pieces of steel wool may have made it to the “filtered” stain.  They’ll interfere with a smooth stain coat on your wood and require more work to remove them from the wood surface.  

The wood is too dark for what you wanted.  Maybe you were hoping for something less dark.  No need to worry.  Pour some of the vinegar stain into another jar and add a bit of distilled white vinegar to it to lighten the color a bit.  Test again on a piece of the same wood to make sure it’s what you want before you apply it to your project.  

More patience still.  After you have applied the stain to your test piece or to your project, wait a while before you judge it.  The color you see when applied is not the final color; it needs to react with the tannin in the wood, and then it will evolve into the final color.  Be aware of this when testing it on the scrap wood, and give it time to blossom.

Finish It Up

After you have sanded the workpiece smooth, you can then add your topcoat of choice.  Maybe a polyurethane, maybe a varnish or shellac, your choice.  Just be sure to let the stain sink in, react with the wood’s tannin, and dry fully.  

Video Demo

Want to see how this works?  Here’s a video showing an ebonizing vinegar and steel wool stain on oak.  Notice how it looks when first applied and then how it darkens over time when allowed to react with the wood’s tannins.

It’s a cool process, and it uses materials you already have around the shop and house.  The only cheaper and easier (less ingredients) way to darken wood is to do a controlled burn.  That will be the subject of another article, and it, too, is also very cool.  

This is an easy DIY project that you can have fun with and create something unique.

Don’t hesitate to give it a try!

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