There are several methods for bleaching wood furniture, so which method is the best? Today I’m going to discuss three different methods using household bleach, oxalic acid, and two-part a/b wood bleach. For all of these methods, I’m referring to wood furniture that has been sanded or stripped to a natural state.
If you’re looking for instructions for stripping or sanding furniture, I have refinished several projects in the past, like this Pottery Barn Hudson Set, Provincial Dresser, and the Empire Dresser. Most recently, I refinished a cedar hope chest and used all of these methods below to bleach it.
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products used for Bleaching Wood
Common household laundry bleach, used to whiten and disinfect laundry, is typically either 5.25 percent “regular strength” or 6 percent sodium hypochlorite “ultra strength,” quoted from the American Chemistry Council. I have used this method on several pieces of furniture. You simply wipe the wood down with bleach and let it dry. Then you can repeat as necessary. I’ve also found that sitting it out in the sunlight helps. Household bleach typically removes stains or dyes but it does not alter the actual color of the wood. Unfortunately this method does not guarantee a lighter wood color and stronger chemicals may be needed.
Oxalic acid is a natural and organic material that comes in a crystalized form when purchased from the store and has to be diluted with hot water before application. This is a strong acid and you must follow safety instructions from the product insert when handling this product. The product is sold at home improvement stores. Oxalic acid works really well for removing stains and restoring your wood to a natural state, but it does not change the actual color of the wood. In addition to safety measures, you will need to need to follow the instructions for clean up and disposal.
Two-part A/B Wood Bleach
This process is made of up of two products, sodium hydroxide “Solution A” and hydrogen peroxide “Solution B” There are a few different brands that sell this product, each with different directions. I’m going to discuss the Zinsser Wood Bleach because I have used it more than once on my furniture pieces. The process is simple, applying Solution A with a sponge to the wood and letting it sit for 5-10 minutes. Then following up with a new sponge and applying Solution B to the wood. Next, letting it sit and dry for several hours. If you’re looking to change the actual color of the wood, THIS IS YOUR PRODUCT! According to Zinsser, this process does not remove the actual wood grain. It took the red out of my cedar hope chest. I cannot wait to try it with other red woods and do a comparison!
Henry and Brooke from Plank & Pillow have created their own solution to remove the red from their red oak builtins. They made a two-part solution by mixing the same products (sodium hydroxide and hydrogen peroxide). You can read more about their process and results here.
Selecting a Method
So which method is best for your project? First, determine what kind of wood you’re working with. If your piece of wood is covered in varnish, stain, or paint, you will need to remove those layers prior to bleaching the wood. There is no harm in starting with household bleach. Oxalic acid simply “cleaned” a few stains from my furniture projects but it didn’t actually lighten the wood. I wish I would have used the two-part a/b solutions on ALL of my previous projects where I wanted to lighten the natural wood. It works really well and I cannot wait to try it on new projects!
Tips + Tricks
- Follow all safety precautions when using all of these methods. When working with chemicals, you should always follow the product instructions.
- Use sunlight to help speed up the process. I only have experience to quote here, but I’ve found that bleaching a piece of furniture and leaving it in the sun for several hours helps the final outcome. If anything, it will help it dry quickly.
- Neutralize and clean the piece after bleaching. It helps when sealing or staining the final piece. You do not want it to continue oxidizing and you’ll want to make sure the final products can be applied effectively and safely. I’ve found a mixture of 50:50 vinegar to water does the job. Another option is household baking soda mixed with water.
- Lightly sand after bleaching and neutralizing the wood. The chemicals might cause slight damage or rough spots in some places that might not be visible but will show up when stained or sealed.
In conclusion, there are several methods for bleaching wood and it’s important to determine your end goal when selecting a method. Are you looking to clean and remove stains or are you looking to completely lighten the piece? All of these questions will help determine the best method for you!
Photography Credits: Caitlyn Motycka Photography