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Bleaching Wood, Which Method is the Best?

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Amazing, you’ve found the perfect piece of furniture and now you would like to bleach it. However, you’re possibly confused about where to start. There are several methods for bleaching wood furniture, so which method is the best? There are three different methods for bleaching wood, household bleach, oxalic acid, and two-part a/b wood bleach.

But how do you know which bleaching method is best for your piece of furniture? I’m breaking it down so you can easily determine which method to use based on your type of wood furniture. From simple to complex, you can use any of these methods to effectively bleach wood!

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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 several of these methods below to bleach it.

Products Used for Bleaching Wood

First things first, there are several different methods for bleaching wood. Before we discuss which wood bleach is best for your project, we will discuss the different types of bleach and how they’re used for bleaching wood. I will also explain why it really does depend on the wood you will be using. The most popular methods include household bleach, oxalic acid, and two-part A/B bleach.

Household Bleach

While household bleach is not exactly wood bleach, it is frequently used to lighten 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,” according to the American Chemistry Council. I have used this method on several pieces of furniture. 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 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.

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Oxalic Acid

Oxalic acid is a natural and organic material that comes in a crystallized 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.

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Two-Part A/B Wood Bleach

This process is made 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, let 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!

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Mixing Lye & Hydrogen Peroxide

We’re moving into mixing chemicals, so use recommended safety precautions here. While I’ve had the best results using the two-part solution, it is difficult to find. If you find yourself with red wood after sanding, you can actually create your own two-part bleach. For this process, it is suggested to mix equal parts of lye with hydrogen peroxide and apply it to the wood. I have not personally used this method, but my friends Henry and Brooke from Plank & Pillow have created their own solution to remove the red from their red oak builtins.

PLANK + PILLOW How to bleach wood using household bleach, oxalic acid, and two part a/b wood bleach.  How to lighten wood.  How to remove red from wood.  Bleaching cedar.  Bleaching red oak.  How to remove stains from wood.  #woodbleach #refinishingfurniture #redoak #cedar #bleachingcedar #removingstains #woodstains #lightenwood
Credit: Plank & Pillow

Sunlight

Many stores actually sell stains and finishes that are called Sunbleached. Sunlight alone will bleach some wood but it usually takes a long amount of time and is not ideal for furniture. Sitting a piece of furniture out in the elements will expose it to things like moisture and cause damage with time. You will also see unbleached wood from UV exposure through windows in homes, where it alters floor or furniture colors with time. So how do you use the sun to bleach an actual piece of furniture? Just add bleach! When you combine bleach AND sunlight, it speeds up the process and helps to lighten wood. I’ve found that this method really only works with some lighter woods that do not have red undertones.

Which Method is Best?

So which method is best for your project? The answer to this question depends on the type of wood you are bleaching. 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 solution 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!

1800's Dresser Refinish

Best Types of Wood to Bleach

Learning the type of wood you will be bleaching will save a lot of time and frustration in the end. I like to know what is underneath the stain and varnish before I set any expectations for the end results. Different types of wood will bleach differently and knowing the wood type will help to determine which method you should use. There are several types of wood used for making furniture, like softwood, hardwood, and engineered wood. The most common varieties of wood furniture include Oak, Walnut, Maple, Pine, Beach, Mahogany, Ash, Birch, Cherry, Cedar, Rosewood, Gum and Pine.

When to Use Household Bleach:

  • Woods that are lighter in appearance with cooler undertones.
  • The best woods to use for household bleach include white oak, birch, beach, gum, pine, and ash.

When to Use Two-Part Bleach:

  • Woods that are dark or have red undertones.
  • The best woods to use for two-part bleach include cherry, cedar, rosewood, red oak, and mahogany.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you use household bleach to bleach wood?

Household bleach is a chemical cleaning product that is typically used to remove color from fibers and for cleaning and disinfecting purposes. It is not a fix all solution for removing color from wood, but it does work in some cases. You will have better results with lighter and soft woods when using household bleach to lift the color.

What is the difference between bleach and wood bleach?

Bleach is typically a dilute solution of sodium hypochlorite whereas wood bleach is a marketed term that encompasses a mixture of solutions that bleach wood specifically.

Do you have to neutralize wood bleach?

After bleaching a piece of wood, it is important to neutralize any solution that might be remaining. First, it’s imperative that all of the solution is dry to avoid chemical reactions. I prefer using a diluted vinegar and water solution before staining or sealing.

Can all wood be bleached? 

First, you will need to remove all finish from wood and restore it to a natural state. Some woods will lighten better than others. Some woods will yellow. Some will be red. It just depends on the wood that you’re working with and I’ve found that understanding the different methods discussed will help you to determine if your wood will bleach.

How many times should I apply bleach to wood?

You can apply bleach as many times as needed until you achieve your desired end look. Just remember that sitting it out in the sun will help with the bleaching process. I like to apply the bleach and then let it sit for several hours or all day in the sun before repeating. It is a multi-day process.

Do you just wipe bleach on the wood?

It’s important to apply in a constant application and don’t put too much bleach on the wood. If it pools, it will might cause spots that look like watermarks.

Does bleach dry out or damage the wood?

Any time you apply chemicals to natural wood, they will dry it out. Water and other substances will raise the grain and make it look rough. This goes hand and hand with the desired coastal look. However, you can always lightly sand any roughness, just keep in mind the sanding might alter the final color.

Quick Tips for Bleaching Wood

Now that you’ve determined what type of bleach to use for your project, you will need to follow a few quick tips for the bleaching process. Here are a few of my favorite 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. When neutralizing oxalic acid, you can use 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.
How to bleach wood using household bleach, oxalic acid, and two part a/b wood bleach.  How to lighten wood.  How to remove red from wood.  Bleaching cedar.  Bleaching red oak.  How to remove stains from wood.  #woodbleach #refinishingfurniture #redoak #cedar #bleachingcedar #removingstains #woodstains #lightenwood
How to bleach wood using household bleach, oxalic acid, and two part a/b wood bleach.  How to lighten wood.  How to remove red from wood.  Bleaching cedar.  Bleaching red oak.  How to remove stains from wood.  #woodbleach #refinishingfurniture #redoak #cedar #bleachingcedar #removingstains #woodstains #lightenwood

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!

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Photography Credits: Caitlyn Motycka Photography

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2 Comments

  1. Did the provincial style dresser that you restlyled have that laminate finish that most seem to come in?

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