How to Make Dark Stained Wood Lighter? (Before & After)

Some wood stains like gel stains are known to make wood grain dark. But is there a way to make dark stained wood lighter?

You can make dark-stained wood lighter by removing a layer of the wood stain with a fine-grit sandpaper. This will help to lighten the wood stain since the number of wood stain coats will be reduced.

You can also make dark stained wood lighter by applying wood bleach on the stained wood with a rag or paintbrush. Wood bleach is a corrosive substance that will lighten the color of the wood stain.

You should know that the best way to lighten wood stain is to do so before applying it over the wood. This helps to limit the possibility of damages to the wood.

But can you lighten already stained wood? Let’s find out.

Can You Lighten Already Stained Wood?

You can lighten already stained wood by using fine-grit sandpaper or a solvent like bleach. To lighten already stained wood, you have to remove one or more layers of the wood stain from the wood. This will reduce the amount of wood stain on the wood making the finish lighter.

However, you should know that this task is more likely to damage the wood underneath the stain. This is because the methods used to lighten already stained wood can also damage the wood material. For instance, wood bleach commonly used to lighten already stained wood can discolor the wood if used carelessly.

Porous wood especially is at a higher risk of being damaged by wood bleach. So if you are to lighten already stained wood, you are to do so with caution and under supervision.

Your safest bet to lighten already stained wood is to scuff the finish with a fine-grit sandpaper. The sandpaper will remove the top layers of the wood stain revealing a lighter finish.

You should also know that dark wood stains are usually sealed. If the wood appears dark, chances are the wood stain used is a sealing stain. Sealing or topical stains like gel and lacquer are common for darkening wood stains.

To lighten topical stains, you’ll have to remove the top glossy layer of the finish. You can also do this using sandpaper. But can you lighten already stained wood without sanding? Here is the answer to that.

Can You Lighten Wood Stain Without Sanding?

You can lighten wood stain without sanding. Though sanding is usually the first option to try when you want to lighten wood stain, several other options work as well as sanding.

You can use steel wool to lighten the wood stain. You are to use the 0000-grit super fine steel wool to lighten the wood stain. To do this, you should dip the steel wool in warm water and run the wool along the wood grain. This will remove the top layer of the wood stain leading to a lighter finish.

You can also use a chemical-based paint stripper to lighten the wood stain. The chemical stripper will remove a few layers of the wood stain so there are fewer coats on the wood and as such, a lighter finish.

However, you should know that this method is best suited for oil-based and hard stains like gel and lacquer. If you use a chemical-based paint stripper on a regular wood stain, you’ll most likely remove the entire finish.

You can also try white-washing the wood stain to make it lighter. This method includes mixing regular white paint with lots of water and applying it directly over the wood stain. The white paint will give a lighter shade to the wood stain underneath. But you should know that whitewash is commonly used after bleaching or sanding the wood stain.

You can also use solvents to lighten the wood stain. Solvents can help to whiten or fade the wood stain leading to a lighter finish.

How To Lighten Wood Stain Before Applying The Stain?

How To Lighten Wood Stain Before Applying The Stain?

The best way to lighten wood stain before applying the stain over wood is by thinning the wood stain. This means you’ll need to dilute the wood stain by mixing it with a paint thinner.

When you dilute the wood stain, you increase the concentration of paint solvent in the stain. This increases the ratio of the solvent to the paint pigments or color. This will make the wood stain lighter.

For oil-based stains, you are to use mineral spirits or turpentine as the paint thinner. For water-based stains, you are to use water and for sealing stains like gel and lacquer stain, you can also use mineral spirits or lacquer thinner.

Here is a step by step guide on how to make wood stain lighter before applying the stain:

  • Open the wood stain container
  • Pour the wood stain into a clean bucket
  • Measure the right amount of paint thinner. You should know that the more paint thinner, the lighter the stain becomes.
  • Add the paint thinner to the wood stain
  • Stir the wood stain and paint thinner for a few seconds so both products can be properly mixed.
  • Test the woods stain on wood to see if it’s light enough.

Now, let’s check out how to lighten wood stain after applying.

How To Lighten Wood Stain After Applying?

There are many methods to lighten wood stain after applying but the best method is a 3-way strategy that includes sanding, bleaching, and sealing the wood stain.

Don’t sweat though, this guide will reveal how to go about this. But first, you’ll need a few tools and supplies:

  1. Wood bleach
  2. A bristled-paintbrush
  3. Fine-grit sandpaper or sanding block
  4. A top coat
  5. A bucket of water
  6. Baking soda
  7. A drop cloth
  8. Breathing protection (or a respirator mask)
  9. A pair of work gloves
  10. A scrubbing brush
  11. Painter’s tape
  12. Chemical-based paint stripper
  13. An orbital sander (for large wooden surfaces)

Now, let’s get to work.

1. Prep Your Work Area

Prep Your Work Area

When you want to lighten wood stain, it’s usually better to do so outdoors to prevent a build-up of dust and fumes. But if you are to work indoors, you’ll need to prep the work area. Start by opening all doors and windows to allow proper ventilation.

Then use a large drop sheet to cover the floor beneath the wooden item. The drop sheet will help to collect dust and wood stain that comes off the wood so the floor doesn’t get stained.

You should use painter’s tape to demarcate areas of the wood stain that you want to or don’t want to lighten. Also, use the tape to pin the drop sheet to the ground so it doesn’t move out of place while you work. Ensure to put on a pair of gloves and breathing protection to prevent injuries and fumes from entering your lungs.

Now, wipe the wood stain. This is to remove dust nibs and grain that can damage the wood or the sandpaper while you sand.

2. Remove The Top Layer On The Wood Stain

Remove The Top Layer On The Wood Stain

This step is optional. If the wood was sealed with a top coat like polyurethane or varnish, the sandpaper and the bleach wouldn’t work well. You should remove any protective top coat on the wood stain by using a chemical-based paint stripper. Citristrip is a good option and you can apply it with a paintbrush.

After applying the paint stripper, let it sit for at least 15 minutes. The stripper will absorb the top coat and you can scrape the paint stripper and the top coat off the wood stain with a paint scraper or plastic putty knife.

After removing the top layer, wipe the wood stain with a damp rag and inspect the surface. There is a huge chance that the wood stain will be as light as you want it to be. Top coats like gel make wood stain appear darker so after you have removed the top layer, the stain may be now as light as you want. If it’s not, you can go ahead with the task but if it is, stop here.

3. Sand The Wood Stain

Sand The Wood Stain

Start sanding with fine-grit sandpaper. The sandpaper will remove layers of the wood stain revealing a lighter finish. You should sand the wood stain with 320-grit sandpaper.

Then remove dust and inspect the finish. Sanding also helps to lighten wood stain so if you are satisfied with the result after sanding, stop here.

4. Apply Wood Bleach

Apply Wood Bleach

Apply a few layers of wood bleach on the wood stain using a paintbrush. Then leave the wood bleach for about 10-15 minutes. This gives the bleach enough time to fade the wood stain. After 15 minutes, wipe off the bleach and rinse the wood thoroughly with water.

Then mix a tablespoon of baking soda with clean water and use the mixture to rinse the wood again at least twice. This helps to stop the reaction of the bleach on the surface. If you don’t do this, there will be leftover bleach on the wood and this will continue to fade the stain. The baking soda helps to stop the bleach from working.

As usual, inspect the wood stain after using bleach. The wood stain should be lighter now since you have removed the top coat, sanded the stain, and bleached it.

5. Seal The Wood Stain

Seal The Wood Stain

When the wood is dry, you should seal the wood stain with a top coat. You should use a clear top coat. Clear top coats make the wood stain appear lighter. You’ll need 2-3 coats of a clear sealant on the wood stain.

What Can You Use To Lighten Wood Stain?

Speaking of solvents, let’s check out popular solvents and see if you can lighten wood stain with them.

Mineral Spirits

Mineral spirits will lighten wood stain. Mineral spirits are made from petroleum distillation and the content of the solvent helps it to fade or lighten the wood stain.

To use mineral spirits, you’ll need to soak a clean rag in the solvent and wipe the stain with the damp rag. As you wipe, you’ll see part of the stain coming off on the rag.

After a while, the wood stain will look lighter. Mineral spirits work well to lighten both water-based and oil-based wood stains. A close alternative to mineral spirits is turpentine.

Vinegar

Vinegar also helps to lighten wood stain but you should know that the solvent is better suited to lightening water-based wood stains.

Vinegar wouldn’t work well to lighten oil-based wood stain but it can be used to clean grease and oils off the oil-based wood stain.

To use vinegar, pour some of it directly on the wood stain and spread it out on the wood using a paintbrush or a rag. Allow the vinegar to sit for a few minutes and then wipe it off. The finish will look lighter after this.

Acetone

Acetone will lighten wood stain but you should use it on regular water-based or oil-based stains. This is because acetone is a natural paint remover.

If you use acetone to lighten regular wood stains, you’ll end up with a large mess on your hands. Also, the entire wood stain finish will be removed since acetone is a natural paint remover.

You should only use acetone to lighten sealing stains like gel and lacquer. These stains are harder, moisture-resistant, and glossy meaning that it would be very difficult to lighten them with regular solvents. So acetone is a good choice for lightening these solvents. But you shouldn’t use too much of it because it can ruin the finish in large quantities.

Bleach

Bleach will lighten wood stain. Bleach is a top choice amongst DIYers and painters to lighten wood stain. But you shouldn’t use just any type of bleach. The right bleach to use on wood stain is wood bleach. Any other type of bleach will be too strong and can damage not just the stain but the wood as well.

To use wood bleach, you can apply it over the stain using a paintbrush or a clean rag. Let the bleach sit for a few minutes. Then remove it. Also, ensure to rinse the wood thoroughly after using bleach to remove any leftover bleach on the wood.

Steel

Steel wool will lighten wood stain. The best type of steel wool to use is 0000-grit super fine steel wool. Stronger grits will be too harsh on the wood grain.

To use steel wool, soak it in warm water and use the steel wool to remove the top layer of the wood stain by running the steel wool along the wood grain. Steel wool works a lot like sandpaper. So you’ll need to remove dust and clean the wood after lightening the stain with steel wool.

Paint Thinner

Paint thinner will make wood stain lighter but you should only use paint thinner to lighten wood stain before applying the wood stain.

If you use paint thinner on already stained wood, the thinner will most likely remove the wood stain because paint thinners are strong solvents.

Lacquer Thinner?

Lacquer thinner shouldn’t be used to lighten wood stain. Lacquer thinner is a very powerful solvent that can remove tough stains like gel and lacquer so it should never be used to lighten any type of wood stain.

Only use lacquer thinner when you want to thin lacquer or gel stain and when you want to remove stains from wood.

Does Polyurethane Make Stain Lighter?

Polyurethane can help to make wood stain lighter but you should know that this only goes for water-based polyurethane.

Oil-based polyurethane will not make wood stain lighter because the sealant has a high volume of oils that will give the wood stain a yellow tint over time.

Water-based polyurethane however can make wood stain appear lighter. This is because water-based polyurethane is clear and it allows light to pass through the finish. This will make the wood stain underneath appear lighter since it reflects light.

Final Words

Overall, you can lighten wood stain before and after applying the wood stain. To lighten the stain before application, you should use a paint thinner. Use mineral spirits for oil-based stains, water for water-based stains, and lacquer thinner for sealing stains like lacquer and gel.

After the wood stain has been applied, you can still lighten it by sanding and bleaching the finish. Follow the guide above to learn how to do this correctly. When the wood stain is as light as you want, ensure to seal it with a clear sealant like water-based polyurethane.

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