How to Make Dark Stained Wood Lighter? (7 Methods)

Some wood stains, such as gel stains, are known to give wood a darker appearance. But is there a way to make dark-stained wood lighter?

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

You can also apply wood bleach over the finish using a rag or paintbrush. Wood bleach is a corrosive substance that will lighten the color of the finish. However, the best way to get a lighter finish is to thin the stain before applying it. 

Is It Possible?

It is possible to lighten a dark-stained wood after applying the finish. To do so, use fine-grit sandpaper or bleach. The sandpaper will remove one or more layers off the surface, making the finish look lighter. Once a layer is removed from the surface, the finish will have fewer pigments, so it will appear lighter. 

If the finish is sealed with a sealant, such as gel or lacquer, you must remove the topcoat first and then sand it. You can remove the topcoat using medium-grit sandpaper. 

You can also make the finish appear brighter by applying bleach over it. However, wood is a porous material and can get damaged if you use too much bleach over it. 

Can You Do It Without Sanding?

You can make a stained surface look lighter without sanding. To do so, dip the 0000-grit super fine steel wool in warm water and run the wool 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 stripping compound will also 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 shouldn’t leave the stripping compound over the surface for too long or the whole finish will get removed. 

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.

Lightening Wood Stain Before Applying It

How To Lighten Wood Stain Before Applying The Stain?

To lighten the wood stain before applying it, thin it. When you thin it, you increase the concentration of solvent in the formula. This increases the ratio of the solvent to the pigments or color. This will make the coating lighter.

To thin oil-based or gel stains, use mineral spirits. To thin water-based paint, use water. 

Here’s how to do it:

    1. Pour the stain into a clean bucket.
    2. Measure the right amount of paint thinner. It’s recommended to dilute it in a ratio of 1:4 (1 part thinner, 4 parts stain).
    3. Stir the stain and thinner for a few minutes. 
    4. Test the mixture to see if it’s light enough. 

How To Lighten Wood Stain After Applying?

Brightening a coating after applying it is harder, you must either sand, bleach, or seal it to change its color. Don’t sweat though, this guide will reveal how to go about this.

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.
  • Breathing protection (or a respirator mask).
  • 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 Top Layer

Remove The Top Layer On The Wood Stain

If the coating is sealed with a top coat, such as polyurethane or varnish, the fine-grit sandpaper and the bleach wouldn’t work well. You should 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, let it sit for at least 15 minutes. The stripper will absorb the top coat during this time. After, 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. 

Other Methods To Use:

Method 1: Use Mineral Spirits

Mineral spirits are made from petroleum distillation and its content helps to fade a finish. To use mineral spirits, soak a clean rag in the solvent and wipe the finish with the dampened rag. As you wipe, you’ll see part of the stain coming off on the rag. After a while, the finish will look brighter.

You can use it for oil or water-based wood stains. You can also use turpentine as an alternative to it. 

Method 2: Vinegar

You can use vinegar to brighten water-based stained finishes. To use vinegar, pour some of it directly on the finish and spread it out using a paintbrush or a rag. Allow the vinegar to sit for a few minutes and then wipe it off. The finish will look brighter after this.

Method 3: Acetone

Acetone can fade a darker finish, but you should only use it for sealing stains, such as gel or lacquer stains. Acetone is a natural paint remover and will remove regular stains (oil or water-based).

Sealing stains are harder, moisture-resistant, and glossy meaning that it would be difficult to brighten them with regular solvents. So acetone is a good choice to do so. But you shouldn’t use too much of it because it can ruin the coating in large quantities.

Method 4: Steel

Steel wool works the same way sandpaper does — it removes a few layers off the surface and makes it appear lighter. Since the finish has fewer layers now, there are fewer pigments on the surface, so it appears faded. 

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 and inspect the finish. 


Will Polyurethane Brighten a Finish?

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

Oil-based polyurethane has a high volume of oils and will give you a yellow tint after a while, so don’t use it. 

Does Wood Stain Lighten over Time?

Yes, the wood stain will start to 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 Finish Mean less Protection?

Overall, wood stain doesn’t offer much protection to the wood. But, if you remove a few layers of it from a surface by using bleach or sanding, then the finish will offer even less protection.

Final Words

In summary, you can brighten dark-stained wood before and after applying the wood stain. To brighten it before, thin the stain using water or mineral spirits (depending on the type). To brighten it after the finish has dried, use sandpaper, bleach, or steel wool. 

Tony Adams
Tony Adams

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,

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