How to lighten stained wood and how to do it right

Want to know how to lighten stained wood? Pretty much like in that famous cat situation, there is more than one way to do it. But it is not a trivial job. Let me try to outline some of the available technologies as well as some of their not-so-obvious features on how to lighten wood stain.

By dedicating the following minutes to reading this text, you will get to know how to lighten the dark wood stain before staining, how to lighten a piece of dark wood that was stained before, and of course, some crucial theory behind it all.

Yes, the theoretical part is crucial. Proper preparation prevents poor performance, as they say. Even if you just want to lighten wood stain.

Disclaimer before diving in

The majority of methods of how you can lighten wood stain mentioned below do not show consistent results. The outcome will strongly depend on the type of wood, its state, the type of wood stain used to stain it, and a lot of other factors. Using them or not is up to your consideration.

Tip.  Also, see my tips on How long does stain take to dry and why.

What you need to know how to lighten stained wood properly

Penetration into the grain of wood is the defining feature of a wood stain. At the same time, it is the main feature that makes the lighting of dark stained wood tricky. But methods from below will likely work for both your freshly stained projects or, let’s say, a piece of furniture you are about to flip.

If you ever tried to mix colors for painting, you should know that lightening dark tones is much harder than darkening light ones.

This is true for a dark wood stain too. Both when you try to alternate the tint of your liquid wood stain and much more when it comes to changing the color of already dark stained wood.

How to lighten stained wood
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Components of the color of wood

First of all, let’s figure out what is forming the color of the dark wood you see. There are three main factors:

  1. Color of the wood stain.
  2. Color of the wood itself.
  3. Any tint changes that occur due to the properties of the topcoat.

To successfully lighten wood stain to the desired degree, you most likely will have to address all of them. Because the topcoat influences the color of the dark wood too, as it can get yellow over time.

But most likely will have to remove the topcoat anyway if there is some. So, you can assess your color after that. And don’t forget to clean all the dust before.

Know your wood

Every type of wood has its color. Moreover, it changes with time. Over years, most types of dark wood get even darker. The color of lighter wood becomes more saturated instead.

Tip. See my tips on How to dry wood fast for woodworking.

So, your piece might not even be stained, to begin with. The wood might just be darkened due to its age. In such cases, you would want to change the color of the wood itself rather than trying to lighten wood stain.

DisclaimerI realize that there is no way to precisely determine the actual kind of wood with just the bare eye, but for the purpose of figuring out a way to lighten dark wood stain, even the closest possible approximation will do.

So, before starting the actual process, it is better to determine which factors form the color of the wood you see to pick up the best set of techniques for lightening wood stain and the rest.

Lightening before and after staining

The best-case scenario is when you want to lighten wood stain itself rather than an already stained countertop, piece of furniture, or even a whole deck.

It is much easier and faster than trying to get to the wood stain that is already dried inside the wood fiber. All it takes is just to dilute the wood stain you have.

Pro-tip: Always stain test pieces of light and dark wood before staining the actual piece. It will take a little more time, but certainly less than trying to lighten wood of the already stained cupboard, coffee table, or even dark stained wood floors.

How to lighten stained wood
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Proper wood stain diluting

Diluting a wood stain has only two limitations. First of all, you should use water to dilute the water-based wood stain and mineral spirits for oil-based stains.

And, if you don’t want to make the wood stain thinner and runnier, use the natural wood stain of the same manufacturer. Natural wood stain will make your initial wood stain lighter without a significant change in consistency.

After reaching the desired tint in test applications of the wood stain everything is set up for the actual staining of your piece. The process for this newly formed wood stain is exactly the same as for the original one.

Methods of making dark stained wood lighter

As I mentioned before, wood stain sits inside the fibers of the wood. Moreover, the pigment of the wood stain is bound by a resin within the wood fiber. It causes a lot of complications when it comes to lightening wood stain.

Available methods overview

So, to lighten its tint, you have three main ways:

  1. Partially remove the tinted layer of wood by sanding, routing, planning, or other similar procedures.
  2. Put some chemicals that will dissolve the dye in the tinted layer of wood.
  3. Put a partially opaque layer on top of the surface to alternate its color.

One other alternative – is to cover the whole surface with paint, veneers, self-adhesive textured films, or any other suitable material.

Most likely, you will have to combine some of those methods to reach the desired look. There is no universal way to lighten the wood stain, so your best shot is to really figure out all the factors that form the current color of the wood and try to deal with every one of them.

Pro-tip: Every water-based layer of any chemical will raise the grain to a certain extent. You will need to knock that raised grain every time. Working with fuzzy surfaces can result in respective surfaces.

Wood preparation

The initial step for every method involves exposing the surface with the wood stain. There are two main ways of getting rid of a topcoat, sanding it down or using one of the dedicated paint stripping products. Those products also work for most clear coats.

Sanding off topcoat

You can use any preferred kind of sanding to get rid of the topcoat. Sanding by hand is as good as using any power sanding machine. It will just take much more time and effort to sand everything by hand.

The optimal grit for this stage is no higher than 150. You will have to finish the surface afterward anyway, and coarse sandpaper will make the whole process more efficient.

Just try not to forget the safety measures. Proper ventilation, lung protection, etc. It is not a bad idea to get one of the whole face masks with air filters to protect the eyes too. Especially if your projects involve a lot of sanding.

Pro-tip: Always sand along the wood grain. It will prevent scratching, and you’ll end up with a nice surface for further stages of work.

How to lighten stained wood
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Is there a way to lighten wood stain without sanding?

Of course. Every chemical way to lighten wood stain would work without sanding. But only if there is no topcoat.

Otherwise, the chemicals will react with the varnish or wax on the surface rather than with the wood stain that is inside the wood grain.

Other ways of covering up the unwanted color might work too, but usually, they require some surface preparation to have some decent results.

I would say you can get away without sanding, only in case you need to lighten wood stain right after application.

Using a paint stripper to make dark-stained wood lighter

Various commercial paint stripping products will help remove topcoat from the wood too. But it is better to use them on polyurethane and other varnishes.

When it comes to wax or oil finishes, you can use mineral spirits or even some alcohol to dissolve and remove it.

Just remember, paint strippers, are really toxic, have some potent smell, and require proper safety measures.

And after scraping the product off, you need to wash the surface with mineral spirits and water to rid of the residue. Naturally, wood will have to dry completely before you carry on with the project.

Pro-tip: Try to refrain from using plastic scrapers for removal of the stripper from the surface, as it can melt some types of plastics. A soft wire brush, metal scraper, or even paper towels will do better.

Practical recommendations on using paint stripper

Even the safest paint stripper is toxic. Protect your eyes and hands well.

Wrap the piece with some food-grade plastic wrap to cover the piece with a paint stripper to prevent it from drying up too early.

Hold the paint scraper at 45 degrees angle to prevent scratching of the surface.

Please dispose of the residue responsibly as it can harm nature.

Chemical ways to make dark-stained wood lighter

Chemical wood stain lightening is pretty similar to bleaching the wood itself, except the chemicals used for lightening wood stain affect the dark stain first. Also, you will have to keep in mind some features:

  1. Chemical reactions within the wood won’t stop on their own, so will need to neutralize or remove the chemical.
  2. Wood bleach or household bleach will start to ruin the wood if not neutralized on time.
  3. Use acids to neutralize basic chemicals and vise-versa.

The actual lighting effect is unpredictable. Acids and basic components of bleaching chemicals react with different types of wood and stains in different ways.

Pro-tip: Cover small concealed areas of the piece to have an idea of how the process will affect the surface.

Always use respective protection while working with chemicals. Gloves, protective glasses, and a respirator will protect all of the most vulnerable body parts.

Commercial wood bleach

Commercial wood bleach is a two-component chemical compound intended for bleaching the wood itself.

The main components of every chemical wood bleach are high-concentrated hydrogen peroxide and lye of sorts. Of course, commercial wood bleach has some additives that make it work better.

Commercial wood bleach is the most expensive solution for trying to lighten the wood stain. Mostly because of hazardous components that increase shipping rates.

To apply commercial wood bleach, just follow whatever instructions from the packaging. And do not forget to neutralize it after reaching the desired result. Otherwise, your attempts to make dark-stained wood lighter may result in the deterioration of the material.

Household bleach to make dark-stained wood lighter

Household chlorine-based bleach is one of the best and most affordable ways to lighten dark wood furniture. Any basic brand will do. It is a decent alternative for commercial wood bleach, but the actual results are rather unpredictable.

How to lighten wood stain with a household bleach

The actual process is pretty simple. Aside from the bleach, you will need:

  1. Protection for skin and eyes.
  2. Foam or bristle brush to apply the bleach to the wood. Even a piece of clean cloth will do for application.
  3. Some white vinegar to neutralize the bleach.

The process is as easy as it can be. You just apply some bleach to the surface of the wood for 20-30 minutes.

Then neutralize it with 50% vinegar in a water solution. A wet cloth dampened with the solution is a fine way to apply it. Let everything dry and repeat the procedure to obtain the needed tone.

Blotchiness and appearing of a greenish tint in some areas of the wood are possible downsides of the method. Areas of side grain along the edge grain are especially prone to such an effect.

How to lighten stained wood
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Paint thinners, paint strippers, and mineral spirits

While paint strippers, paint thinners, mineral spirits, turpentine, chemical wood stripper, and other solvents are great for stripping your wood piece off topcoat, they are also useful in an attempt to lighten the wood stain. These chemicals are especially effective on a wood stain that was just applied.

Basically, they will dilute the wood stain right inside the wood grain. On the other hand, such an approach may result in blotchy color areas. It takes practice to perform such unusual tasks.

In terms of application technology, there is nothing special. You just brush some solvent on top of the wood stain, wait 10-30 minutes, and then wipe everything with paper towels or a clean cloth.

You can repeat as much as needed, just don’t forget to let the wood dry completely between each iteration.

Pro-tip: Never let your paint stripper dry on the surface of the wood. Dried products will turn into tacky goo that is hard to clean up.

You can use fine steel wool between iterations to raise the grain and make a way for solvents to get into the wood easier.

Oxalic acid

Some posts online mentioned oxalic acid as a way to lighten stained wood. Except it is not. It is a wood bleach for sure, but with a very specific use.

Oxalic acid in woodworking is for removing stains from weathering and other wear and tear. Basically, this product removes oxidation but can do nothing with a wood stain finish.

Sanding wood to lighten its dark stain

All things considered; I would say that sanding down some of the material is the best shot in lightening stained wood. Yes, it requires more time and effort, but most of the best ways to do something usually do.

The process involves the removal of a significant amount of material. It is fine when it comes to solid wood pieces, but may be problematic on plywood or veneers.

Fortunately, you can get away with sanding even thinner materials if the wood stain didn’t penetrate too deep into the material.

The actual process is pretty straightforward. You can go by with hand sanding or use power tools.

Start with some lower grit to really take out the bulk of the material until you reach the desired color, and then just finish the surface with higher grits. 80-grit sandpaper will be a great starting point.

Pro-tip: The dust in the grain will change the color of the piece. So, clean a small area with a clean cloth, brush, or a vac to be able to see progress so far. It is better to keep an eye on the progress through the whole sanding procedure.

How to lighten stained wood
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Optical wood stain lightening

Covering up the color or trying to alternate it is another way to lighten stained wood. There are many ways of doing so, but the risk of ending up with a somewhat dirty look is high, too. It is just generally harder to lighten darker colors than darken lighter ones.


At its core, whitewash is just a thin layer of white or light-colored paint. You can use both commercial products or dilute some paint to use it as a wash to make the color of the wood lighter.

The application is pretty straightforward too. Apply a thin even layer on the areas that need to be lightened, wait for it to dry completely, then asses the result. Multiple coats may be needed.

Tinted waxes and oils

Tinted waxes and oils work in a similar way. Except, you need to rub them onto the surface. Achieving an even coat takes more time and effort. On top of it, portions of oil or wax that are trapped in the lower parts of grain relief tend to stand out more, making the overall impression of the color of the wood lighter.

I would say that this is the best way to go if you night to lighten stained wood slightly. In some instances, natural tints will do better, while other pieces will require the white-tinted product.

Wire brushing and painting over dark stained wood

Wire brushing stain wood and paint on top of it is another way to radically lighten stained wood. A hard bristled wire brush will take out some softer parts of the grain. Resulting grain relief is a great foundation for trying to mimic natural color.

Pro-tip: Run your brush along the grain to prevent cross-scratching of the surface. Cross-grain depressions won’t look natural after painting.

Simulating natural color with paint

Then you just pick base and grain colors for your piece. Cover the whole piece in a base color that should be lighter than the grain color.

The method of putting down base color is actually irrelevant. You can go with a spray gun, canned paint, or brushes as long as the paint has the right tint.

After the base color is completely dried, you need to dilute your grain color paint to be thin enough to get into all of the gaps and depressions in grain relief.

The next step is to brush this darker thin paint onto the piece and immediately wipe the excess with some paper towels. This way, darker paint will get trapped in the grain relief and will make the rest of the wood lighter.

Such a technique will simulate natural wood colors but only if the base and grain colors are selected right. And even so, the resulting surface will lack natural tint variations of actual wood.

Other coverup methods

The complete cover-up of the unwanted color of the wood is one of the most expensive and labor-intensive methods, however, it provides the best results.

I mean contact cement and some veneer. This method will provide the most natural look. Because it is actually some fresh wood on top of the old one.

Complete paint-over or some self-adhesive textured films are viable options too, but those methods aren’t actually lightening dark stained wood.

And, frankly, sometimes just covering up the entire surface is much better than damaging the wood with wood bleach or other chemicals.

On the combination of methods

If for whatever reason, covering the dark stained wood with some veneer isn’t available, I would recommend the following workflow:

  1. Taking off the topcoat.
  2. Some sanding to remove the most saturated wood stain layer.
  3. One of the chemical bleaching (household or wood bleach).
  4. Finishing with some tinted wax or oil.

This is the best way to go about a piece of furniture or even a piece of furniture. Let’s say tabletop.

When it comes to lightening stained decking or structural wood, the optimal workflow will be different. Trying to lighten dark stained wood is not the most trivial task.

Q&A bit

With most things figured out, let me answer some of the most popular questions.

How do you lighten a wood stain that is too dark?

Lightening wood stain is pretty straightforward. You just need to dilute it. Either in terms of consistency or in terms of pigment. To make your wood stain thinner, just add some water or solvent to it (depending on the base of the wood stain).

To dilute the wood stain in terms of pigmenting add some natural wood stain to the original product. It is important to use stains of the same brand and type to dilute the pigment.

What do I do if my stain is too dark?

If the wood stain is too dark in its jar – just dilute it. Oil-based stains are diluted with turpentine or mineral spirits, and water-based ones – with water. If it is too dark on the wood, then you’ll have to use one of the methods of lightening dark stained wood from the article above.

Can you change wood stain from dark to light?

There are several methods of lightening wood stains. But making strongly tinted wood stain lighter is usually much harder than vice-versa. Especially when you already stained the wood.

What is the easiest way to lighten wood?

I would say sanding is the best and easiest way to lighten dark stained wood. When it comes to lightening the natural color of the wood, commercial or homemade wood bleach is your best shot.

Putting a layer of veneer on top of the original piece is the best solution in terms of visual appeal. Some lighter natural wood stain on top of the veneer allows alternating the color in the needed way.

Wrapping it up

Now you know how to lighten stained wood. There are many ways of doing so, but most of them offer rather unpredictable outcomes and involve working with hazardous substances.

So, all things considered, I would recommend trying to sand or cover up your project rather than going for a bleaching of a wood stain.

On the other hand, if the project is not that important, and you feel the desire to make some experiments, go for any of the methods, just stay cautious and safe.

And be ready for some unpredictable results. Aren’t surprises the best part of exploration?

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