I Used Pantry Ingredients to Make 4 Natural Wood Stains, and Found a Surprising Favorite

updated Jun 2, 2020
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Spices and various cooking ingredients organized in pantry
Credit: Joe Lingeman

When there are seemingly a million paints and stains on the market, it’s easy to forget that there are plenty of common at-home supplies you can use to give your bare wood project a deeper brown color or a bold, bright hue — likely without having to leave your house, which provides a serious advantage during social distancing times. But natural stains aren’t just for quarantine: Whether you’re hoping to avoid the VOCs that come with many store-bought stains, use up supplies you already have, or just save a little money, natural wood stains might be the way to go.

Not all natural stains are created equal, and I consulted a lot of DIY and woodworking blogs before choosing my supplies. In the name of frugality — and limiting my time out of my home — I used supplies I already had, including instant coffee, black tea, and turmeric. I thought about using my red wine, but I am going to be honest, I much prefer my wine in my mouth than on my furniture. Instead, I did end up buying beets. They weren’t already in my pantry because I hate them, but at 95 cents per can, they weren’t a bad investment — and far better than wasting my wine.

One stain I didn’t test this time: The tried-and-true steel wool and vinegar stain method. That’s because I wanted to limit my stains to only edible items — which steel wool is not — and to use just what I could find in my pantry (again, with the exception of beets. Please, someone, teach me to like beets).

There are a number of different methods online when it comes to making natural stains, and — as with any artistic endeavor — there’s no single right way. I decided at the outset that I did not want to boil or cook anything; instead, I let things steep at room temperature. Having some experience with making cold brew coffee and knowing how long steeping can take, I wanted to allow 24 hours to pass between making my stains and applying them to my wood; it ended up being about 36 hours so that I could stain outside in sunshine. Here’s how it went.

Supplies and tools I used for my natural stains:

A note on my staining process:

Since I was testing the color of these stains, I used a birch project panel to easily see how the colors compare. However, it’s important to remember that every type of wood has a different natural tone. The wood I used was quite light in color, which easily showed off the hues; using a wood that’s naturally darker, like oak, would yield different color results.

If you’re planning to stain your own wood furniture, shelving, or other accessories, it’s best to find an inconspicuous spot on your piece to test out any stains first (such as the underside of a chair or table). That way, you’ll know if you like the color before proceeding. While you can re-stain wood—either by using a new stain over the old one, or by sanding down the wood and starting over — it’s time-consuming and might not get you the results you’re looking for.

How I mixed my natural stains:

I knew I wanted to have the stains percolate as long as possible, so I gave each material its own bowl with a lid. For each stain that I mixed, I added about a quarter cup of the material to water so I’d have a roughly even comparison point.

Credit: Megan Baker

Black tea was first. To make the process less messy, I decided to leave my tea in its teabags for soaking. Because I didn’t measure the tea directly, I had to guess how many tea bags would equal roughly one quarter cup of ground tea leaves; I ended up adding 25 tea bags. As you’ll see later, this made little difference in the effectiveness of the stain. Once the bags were in place, I filled the bowl with warm water from the tap and placed a lid on top.

Credit: Megan Baker

For the coffee stain, I used about a quarter cup of instant coffee and roughly a quarter cup of water. The consistency once mixed was a bit like syrup — quite thick. I added a lid to this, too.

Credit: Megan Baker

For my turmeric stain, I used about a quarter cup of ground turmeric plus about a quarter cup of water here. Unlike the coffee, the turmeric grounds did not dissolve; instead, the mixture was a bit like a sandy mud. Not appetizing! I covered this with a lid for storage.

Credit: Megan Baker

For my beet stain, I decided to keep things simple: I opened a can of sliced beets and poured the liquid from the can into a glass bowl just before I started staining.

The staining process:

Again, I intended to leave these 24 hours to develop, but it ended up being closer to 36 (thanks to, you know, having to do other things for work). After that, I pulled my project panel outside to see what they’d look like as applied on my light wood. For each stain, I dipped a clean cloth in the bowl and gave the wood two coats of the color.

Credit: Megan Baker

The black tea stain

I was… disappointed with the color of this one. My tea bags did not deliver the depth of color I was envisioning, but I thought there was a chance this would look darker on the board.

Credit: Megan Baker

Not so much. The black tea went on smoothly but in a barely-there color, even after a few coats. One good thing: the smell was subtle, and even if you could detect it, it was pleasant.

Credit: Megan Baker

The coffee stain

The coffee color, unlike the black tea, was super concentrated. After two days of sitting, it was even thicker and a little sludge-y. That seemed promising for a wood stain.

Credit: Megan Baker

This coffee color was a warm, rich brown — reminiscent of the walnut tones that are popular in mid-century-style furnishings. There was a bit of residue left over — likely owing to the fact that I used instant coffee rather than a drip or French press batch — but I figured I’d clean that up once it was dry. The smell was surprisingly not as strong as I’d expected — when I held my nose there I could get a slight whiff of coffee but I had to get quite close.

Credit: Megan Baker

The turmeric stain

Unsurprisingly, the turmeric powder yielded an extremely strong color on my cloth. The mixture was a bit gritty, since the powder is not water soluble, but as with the coffee, I figured I could clean that up later.

Credit: Megan Baker

If you’ve ever made dishes with turmeric, is should come as no surprise to you that this stain went on bright and bold. (I regret not wearing gloves for this one, because the yellow stained my nails for several days afterward.) There was a bit of grit left over, but the stain overall went on quite evenly. However, sensitive noses take note: This mixture was quite pungent.

This color looks exactly like you’d expect from looking at a jar of turmeric: a bold, sunny yellow that would feel at home among eclectic decor.

Credit: Megan Baker

The beet stain

Straight out of the can, this stuff was b-r-i-g-h-t.

Credit: Megan Baker

Another beautiful color payoff, another strong smell. The vegetal aroma of this wasn’t particularly offensive, but it did smell a little like dirt. Unsurprising, considering the source. I’d expected beets to have a deeper, more purple color but this one was a cheery hot pink.

Credit: Megan Baker

Once I was done staining, I propped the board up in the sun to let the stains dry, and see if there was any fading. As you can see, I created a few drips during my process that stained the wood unintentionally — a good reminder to protect your workspace if you’re using any of these wood stains, because they will definitely leave color behind if splattered or spilled.

Credit: Megan Baker

Here’s how the four stains looked the next day. The coffee was just as dark as it was when first applied, and the tea looked slightly darker. Both of these are natural, more traditional colors for wood stains. The turmeric and beet were also just as color-rich as they had been the day before; both are good picks for colorful, eclectic decor.

The turmeric and beet stains still had a bit of smell, but the coffee and tea were mostly unnoticeable. And any lingering smell be tempered by coating your project with a clear water-based polyacrylic like this one; and even if you don’t mind the smell, I’ll give you another reason for a top coat. (Full disclosure: I didn’t coat mine with the top coat since this is just a project and I wanted to avoid trips to the store or needless deliveries).

While commercial stains might not require a top coat to stay in place, these natural stains definitely do. Once they’d dried for a day, I used a damp paper towel to assess their staying power without any sort of sealer.

Credit: Megan Baker

As you can see, all four of these stains were lifted by the damp paper towel, with coffee being the worst of the four. If you used these stains and didn’t top them with a clear coat, you could probably expect similar results if you were to wipe them clean at any point. The takeaway: Definitely apply a sealer to any of these food-based stains.

The final takeaways

Coffee: Cheap, and easy to mix and apply. This one’s good for decor that leans more traditional, since it has a rich brown finish that has a comparable look to a dark walnut stain.

Tea: Cheap, and easy to make and apply — but with a low color payoff. This one would be better for a really subtle shift in wood tone, but it’s the most versatile of the bunch.

Turmeric: Cheap, but more difficult to mix into a smooth stain, and it did leave some grittiness behind that would need to be cleaned up with a dry rag. There was also a smell, but that faded with time and would be hard to notice under a top coat. The color payoff is huge and makes this one a great option for people looking for a bright, bold, statement-making color for their wood decor.

Beets: Cheap, and — if you use my method of just utilizing the juice — the easiest of the four to apply (no prep!). This had a bright, even pink color that would also fit in with colorful, eclectic decor.

All four stains are successes for their color payoff and accessibility. But while the color was not as rich as I’d initially hoped, the black tea stain ended up being my favorite of the four. It was subtle, and brought out the best in the (very cheap) wood I was staining. Some DIYers recommend applying tea to furniture before staining with store-bought colors for this reason — so even if you’re not sold on exclusively using natural food-based stains, tea stain is a worthy addition to your next wood staining project.

One final thought: It’s probably worth experimenting with combinations of the above stains. While the beet juice produced a bright pink on its own, in combination with coffee or tea it might be closer to a deep cherry tone; turmeric and coffee might look a little more like oak. If you have some scrap wood and basic pantry supplies, try to do your own experimenting—and if you do, show us how it looks!

This originally ran on Apartment Therapy. See it there: I Raided My Pantry to Make 4 Natural Wood Stains, and Found a Surprising Favorite