How to Lighten Stained Wood? (5 Steps)

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Reviewed by
Eral Kadrija

Tony Adams

To lighten stained wood refers to altering the color of a previously stained wood to make it less dark. So, how to do it?

To lighten stained wood, remove a layer of wood stain using fine-grit sandpaper, or apply wood bleach, vinegar, acetone, or mineral spirits. The sandpaper will reduce the amount of pigments on the surface and lighten the finish.

While, wood bleach, vinegar, acetone, or mineral spirits will remove a few layers of stain from the surface, making the overall finish look lighter. 

Key Takeaways

  • You can lighten dark wood by removing a layer of stain with fine-grit sandpaper or applying wood bleach. 
  • Thinning the stain before applying it will make the finish lighter.
  • Water-based polyurethane can also make the finish appear lighter. That’s because its glossy finish will reflect light.
  • You can also use mineral spirits, vinegar, steel wool, or acetone to remove a few stain coats and make it appear lighter.

Is It Possible To Make Dark-Stained Wood Lighter?

It is possible to make dark-stained wood lighter. To do so, use fine-grit sandpaper, wood bleach, vinegar, acetone, or mineral spirits.

The sandpaper, an abrasive paper or cloth used to smooth or polish surfaces, will remove one or more coats of wood stain off the surface, making the finish look lighter. Once one coat is removed, the stain will have fewer pigments on the surface, making it appear lighter.

The longer you sand it, the lighter the finish will be. However, if you sand too much, you will remove the entire finish, leaving behind a bare wood surface.

You can also make the finish appear brighter by applying wood bleach over it. Wood bleach, which is mainly used as a cleaning agent, can also be used as a lightening agent for darker finishes. However, wood is a porous material and can get damaged if you apply too much bleach to it. 

Also, it is possible to make sealed stained wood lighter. To do so, remove the sealant layers before sanding. You can remove the sealant using medium-grit sandpaper, mineral spirits, or a paint-stripping compound. Once the sealant (or top layer) is removed, you can change the color of the stained wood. 

How To Lighten Wood Stain Before Applying It?

How To Lighten Wood Stain Before Applying The Stain?

To lighten the wood stain before applying it, thin it using water or thinner. Thinning stain increases the amount of solvent in the formula compared to the pigment (or color), this makes its coatings lighter.

To thin oil-based wood stains (all types), use mineral spirits. To thin water-based stains, use water. The recommended thinning ratio is 1:4 (1 part thinning compound to 4 parts of stain). You can use a higher ratio, such as 2:4 (2 parts thinning compounds to 4 parts stain), to make its color even lighter. 

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Pour the needed amount of wood stain into a clean bucket. 
  2. Based on the amount of wood stain you added, measure the right amount of paint thinner. Use a 1:4 or 2:4 thinning ratio. 
  3. Use a stick to stir for a few minutes. 
  4. Test the mixture to see if it’s light enough. 

Another method is to use a wood or pre-stain conditioner. Wood conditioner, a finish that helps the surface to absorb the stain evenly, results in a more uniform color shade. Use a wood conditioner before applying wood stain if you are working with a porous or uneven wood surface. 

How To Lighten Wood Stain After Applying?

To lighten wood stain after applying, do the following.

  1. Prep Your Work Area
  2. Remove The Top Layer
  3. Sand The Finish
  4. Apply Wood Bleach
  5. Seal The Finish

However, brightening a coating after applying it is harder, as you must either sand, bleach, or seal it to change its color. 

Here are the tools you need:

  • Wood bleach.
  • A bristled-paintbrush.
  • Fine-grit sandpaper or sanding block.
  • A top coat.
  • A bucket of water.
  • Baking soda.
  • A drop cloth.
  • A pair of work gloves.
  • A scrubbing brush.
  • Painter’s tape.
  • Chemical-based paint stripper.
  • An orbital sander (for large wooden surfaces).

Now, let’s get to work:

1. Prep Your Work Area

Prep Your Work Area

It’s better to do this task outdoors to prevent dust build-up. But, if you are doing it indoors, you must prep the work area.

Start by opening all doors and windows to allow proper ventilation. Use a large drop sheet to cover the floor. Use painter’s tape to demarcate areas of the finish that you don’t want to touch. 

Next, clean the finish. This is to remove dust nibs and grain that can damage the surface or the sandpaper while you sand.

2. Remove The Sealer

Remove The Top Layer On The Wood Stain

Remove the sealer, such as polyurethane or varnish, from the wood stain. If you don’t, the sealer will prevent the sandpaper or wood bleach to do affect the overall finish. 

Remove any protective top coat 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, wait 15 minutes for the stripper to absorb the top coat. Then, scrape the stripping compound off the surface, and the top coat will come off too. 

After removing the sealant, wipe the finish with a damp rag and inspect the surface. There is a high chance that the coating will be as light as you want it to be. Top coats make the coating appear darker so after you have removed it, it may be lightened now.

If it’s not, you can go ahead with the task but if it is, stop here.

3. Sand The Finish

Sand The Wood Stain

Start sanding with fine-grit sandpaper (320-grit). The sandpaper will remove a coat or two of the wood stain revealing a lighter finish. After sanding, remove the dust and inspect the coating. If you are satisfied with the color shade, stop here. If not, continue to the next step. 

4. Apply Wood Bleach

Apply Wood Bleach

Apply a few coats of wood bleach over the coating using a brush and wait 15 minutes. This gives the bleach enough time to fade the finish. After 15 minutes, wipe off the bleach and rinse the surface thoroughly with water.

Mix a tablespoon of baking soda with clean water and use the mixture to rinse the finish 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 surface that will continue to fade the finish and damage the wood. The baking soda helps to stop the bleach from working.

Next, inspect the finish to see the color shade. The finish should be lighter now since you removed the top coat, sanded the finish, and bleached it. If you want a brighter finish, you must either do all the steps again (sand & bleach) or remove the entire finish and apply a lighter color shade.

5. Seal The Finish

Seal The Wood Stain

It’s recommended to seal the finish after you lighten it. To seal it, use a clear coat or polyurethane as it will make the finish appear brighter and protect it at the same time. 

Related: How To Darken Stained Wood?

Other Methods To Use:

Here are some other methods you can use to make dark wood lighter:

1. Use Mineral Spirits

Mineral spirits, also known as white spirits, is a petroleum-derived liquid that is used as a solvent for painting. Its content helps to fade or remove a finish. 

To use mineral spirits, soak a clean rag in the solvent and wipe the finish with the dampened rag. As you wipe, the stain coating will start to come off on the rag. Do this a few times until the finish appears lighter.

This works for oil and water-based wood stains. You can use turpentine as an alternative to it.

2. Vinegar

Vinegar is a combination of acetic acid and water that may include flavoring. It’s mostly used as a household product, but you can also use vinegar to remove paint or brighten a finish. 

To brighten a water-based stain finish, pour vinegar directly over it and spread it using a paintbrush or a rag. Wait a few minutes before cleaning it off. The finish will look brighter after this. 

3. Acetone

Acetone is a colorless organic compound with a formula of (CH₃)₂CO. It’s one of the main ingredients of nail polish or paint remover. You can use acetone to fade a darker finish but only use it for glossy wood stains, such as gel or lacquer. 

Glossy wood stains are moisture-resistant and harder, meaning it would be difficult to brighten them with regular solvents. Since acetone is a strong natural paint remover, you can use it. However, don’t use too much of it as it can range the entire coatings. 

Also, don’t use acetone to brighten regular wood stains, such as oil or water-based. That’s because it will remove the entire coating instead of brightening it. 

4. Steel Wool

Steel wood is created by a bundle of interwoven steel fibers, and it’s mainly used for cleaning and polishing. It’s similar to sandpaper — it removes a few layers off the surface and makes it appear lighter. Once the layers are removed, the surface will have fewer pigments on it and the finish will appear lighter.

To use it, soak a 0000-grit super fine steel wool in warm water and use it to remove the top layer of the finish by running it along the grain. After using it, remove the dust, inspect the finish, and re-do the whole process if needed. 

Can You Lighten Stained Wood Without Sanding?

You can lighten stained wood without sanding. To do so, dip a 0000-grit super fine steel wool in warm water and run it along the wood grain. This will remove the top layer from the finish, making it appear brighter.

You can also use a chemical-based paint stripper. The paint-stripping compound will remove a few coatings from the finish, making it appear brighter. However, only use the stripping compound for oil-based stains. If you use it for water-based stains, you will remove the entire finish. 

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


Will Polyurethane Brighten a Finish?

Water-based polyurethane will brighten a finish because its finish is clear (transparent) and allows light to pass through. This makes the finish appear brighter since it reflects light. 

However, oil-based polyurethane doesn’t brighten a surface because it has a high volume of oils and it gives a yellow tint.

Does Wood Stain Lighten Over Time?

Yes, the wood stain does lighten over time — especially if it’s placed outdoors. When the finish comes in contact with dust, UV lights, it will start to lose its color — especially oil-based stain. However, this can take a while and the finish will look blotchy when that happens. 

Does a Lighter Wood Stain Finish Mean less Protection?

A lighter finish means less protection only if you lighten it after you apply the wood stain. This is because if you remove layers of wood stain from a surface using bleach or sanding, the surface will have less protection than it did before.

However, wood stain doesn’t offer high protection to a surface whether you remove some layers or not. It’s recommended to seal it if the surface is placed outdoors. 

Tony Adams

Tony Adams

Woodworker, Interior and Exterior Painter, Flooring Specialist

Tony is a professional painter and an author of DIY Geeks. Tony has completed over 1,000 painting projects for his clients. It's safe to say he knows what he Is talking about.

Eral Kadrija

Eral Kadrija

Lead Editor, Home Renovator

Eral has a passion for home renovation and repair. Over the years, he has bought, renovated, and sold 7 old homes. Using his experience from different DIY projects he created DIY Geeks.

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