If you’ve read one of my previous DIY blog entries, you may remember how much I love the woodworking plans on Ana White’s website. During the last year, I’ve built several of Ana’s plans… this ‘barn-beam’ being one of them. Since I live in a tiny house and am always in need of more storage space, I modified the plan slightly to include interior storage. I typically finish my projects with a low or zero VOC stain or paint, but wanted a weathered wood finish and winter isn’t the best time to have special stain shipped. So, I ignored my better judgement and opted for a locally available yet non-eco friendly finish which included pre-conditioner, and stacking two separate Minwax stain colors. I love how it turned out, but the process left me with a headache and frustration over using something so toxic. I later found how to achieve a nearly identical finish with a homemade non-toxic stain made of vinegar and steel wool – keep reading to find out how to make your own!
First, here is the link to the shelf plan: Barn Beam Ledges
It’s about as simple as they come – if you don’t have many tools, this is one you can make using only a hand saw, hammer, and nails. If you choose to use my storage modification, you’ll need a screwdriver as well.
Next, my storage modification: Rather than attach the front board with nails, attach a hinge near each end so that the front board acts as a drop-down panel. Finally, attach a small screw-in eye and hook in the top center of your shelf to hold the front panel shut. After seeing the photos (click to enlarge) it should make sense, but feel free to comment below if you have questions!
Now, my favorite – THE STAIN!
This stain relies on oxidation and despite my biology background, chemistry was not my strong suit, so you won’t find me explaining how this all works. I can tell you though, it works, and it works beautifully. However, it’s also one of those things that relies on a number of factors, so you may get a slightly varied finish depending on how heavy you coat your wood, type of wood, age of your stain, etc. Consider saving a piece of scrap wood from your project to test on that day that you will be staining. Note that your stain will need to age for a few days prior to usage.
You will need:
- Green or black tea bags (depending on your wood, see notes below)
- Very fine steel wool (I bought mine at Lowe’s and used #0000 grade)
- White vinegar
- An airtight glass jar
- Cheescloth (optional)
Fill an airtight jar with white vinegar (other vinegars should work, but I haven’t tried them). Take one piece of your steel wool (it needs to be of a very fine grade so that it will break apart/dissolve properly) and stretch it out and pull it apart a bit. Submerge this in your vinegar. Seal your jar and leave it to sit. You can gently shake it once a day to encourage it to break apart, though this is not necessary. It should be ready to use in several days, but I left mine sit for about two weeks. The photo below shows what it looks like at the beginning and at the two week mark, after shaking (prior to shaking you will have clear-ish liquid with a lot of steel wool sediment on the bottom).
Depending on the type of wood you’re using – the day you will be staining, prepare your tea. The tea will be brushed onto your bare wood prior to staining in order to impart tannins onto the surface, thus allowing the stain to react, and creating your simulated weathered finish. If you are using standard lumber or pine, you will likely need to apply tea first. Softwoods are typically low in tannins, whereas hardwoods are higher. If your wood is naturally darker in color (more brown or red-toned like cedar), it probably won’t need tea first. If in doubt, test an inconspicuous spot on your piece, or a scrap piece from your build and use only the vinegar/steel wool stain on it. Wait several minutes, and if the wood color does not change you will know you need to pre-brush with tea.
For the tea: how much you need will depend on the size of your piece to be stained. Mine was small, so I boiled one cup of water and let 3 green tea bags steep in it for about thirty minutes. Then I brushed all surfaces of the wood with it, and let it soak in. I sped up my dry-time by using a hair dryer on low for a short time. Make sure everything was coated – anything that was left uncoated will not change color.
Staining: I was a little worried about the smell of the stain, but it just smelled like potent vinegar. In general, it’s not a bad idea to do things like this outdoors, but if you are staining something small and/or it’s winter, a big plus of this stain is its lack of chemicals; so, it’s not a big deal to work indoors with an open window. You may wish to wear gloves, as it can stain your fingers a little. Once your wood is dry (if you brushed with tea), slowly open your stain – there will be pressure that’s built-up (hydrogen gas?). If you’re working on a project that you want to last a very long time, you might consider straining your stain into another jar by using cheesecloth. I stumbled upon a comment by one person that said any little pieces of steel wool that unknowingly make it onto your wood may cause small dark spots to appear years later. Whether or not this is true, I have no idea. Evenly brush stain onto your wood (following the direction of the wood grain, as always). It’s best to do only a single coat unless you want an almost black finish (which is what will happen if you double-coat). I could see a change in color almost immediately and it continued to slightly darken over the next few minutes. Keep in mind that the ends may be more porous and will turn darker. You can sand any darker areas after your wood is dry. You should now have a beautifully weathered-looking finish! Stain can be kept for quite a long time from what I’ve read, but when it comes time to dispose – please do so responsibly (use it up by coating scrap wood perhaps?) since steel wool bits probably shouldn’t be going down your drain!
I skimmed several websites when learning about how to make this stain, but by far the most useful was the Friendly Home blog If you want more detail than what I’ve offered (and sealer suggestions), her blog entry and many of the associated comments are really helpful!
Happy staining, and an early…