How To Get The Bleached Wood Look (without bleach!)

How To Get The Bleached Wood Look (without bleach!)

How to Bleach Wood Furniture

© 2006 Publications International To even blotchy areas and to lighten the wood slightly overall, applylaundry bleach full-strength along the grain of the wood over the entire surface.

In most cases, bleaching is essentially a first-aid measure, not a routine part of refinishing. A piece of furniture should be bleached if the surface is marked by stains, black rings, or water spots; if the wood is discolored or blotchy; if the color is uneven; or if an old stain or filler is left after the finish is removed. Old filler is often a problem with oak, walnut, and mahogany.

Bleaching can also be used to even the color of a piece of furniture made with two or more woods. It can lighten the darker wood to match the lighter one.


Before you use bleach on any piece of furniture, make sure the wood is suitable for bleaching. Some woods don’t accept bleach well — cherry and satinwood, for instance, should never be bleached. Some woods, such as bass, cedar, chestnut, elm, redwood, and rosewood, are very difficult to bleach, and some — notably pine and poplar — are so light that bleaching makes them look lifeless.

Birch, maple, and walnut can be bleached, but bleaching destroys their distinctive color. And the rare woods — mahogany, teak, and the other choice woods — seldom benefit from bleaching. Common woods that are easy to bleach, and may benefit from it, include ash, beech, gum, and oak.

Choosing a Bleach

Not all bleaching jobs call for the same type of bleach. Depending on the problem you want to correct, you may need a very strong bleaching agent or a relatively mild one. Below are some common bleach options you might want to consider.

  • Laundry Bleach: This mild bleach can solve most refinishing color problems, from stain or filler not removed in stripping to ink stains and water spots. It works well for blotchy areas and for slight overall lightening, but it won’t change the color of the wood drastically. Before you use a stronger bleach on any piece of furniture, try laundry bleach; it usually does the trick.
  • Oxalic Acid: Oxalic acid, sold in powder or crystal form, is used to remove black water marks from wood. It is also effective in restoring chemically darkened wood to its natural color. You’re not likely to encounter this problem unless you have a piece of furniture commercially stripped because lye and ammonia, the chemicals that discolor wood, are not recommended for nonprofessional use. Oxalic acid must be used on the entire surface of the wood, because in most cases it also bleaches out old stain. You may have to bleach the entire piece of furniture to get an even color. Oxalic acid is more effective in lightening open-grained wood than close-grained.
  • Two-Part Bleaches: The two-part commercial wood bleaches are used to lighten or remove the natural color of wood. If you want a dark old piece to fit in with a roomful of blond furniture, this is the bleach to use. Two-part bleach is very strong and must be used carefully; wear rubber gloves and safety goggles. This type of bleach is also expensive. Several brands are available.

Bleaching Techniques

Whatever bleach you use, remember that the results are permanent — you may be able to restain if you make the wood too light, but uneven bleaching is very hard to remedy. Make sure the wood is absolutely clean, and touch it as little as possible. The bleach must penetrate the wood evenly. Before applying the bleach, test it on a scrap piece of the same wood or on a hidden part of the piece of furniture. Make sure you know exactly what the bleach will do and how fast. In general, bleaches act quickly on soft woods and slowly on hard woods. Bleaching isn’t difficult, but it does require some precautions — bleaches are fairly strong chemicals. The stronger ones can damage skin, eyes, and lungs. Wear rubber gloves and safety goggles when working with bleach, and make sure your working area is well ventilated. Follow the bleach manufacturer’s instructions exactly. If you get bleach on your skin, wash it off immediately. Bleaching also requires careful application and removal. With any bleach, use a synthetic-bristle brush — the chemicals will damage natural bristles. Apply the bleach along the grain of the wood, wetting the surface evenly and thoroughly; there should be no dry spots and no puddles. Let the bleach work as detailed below. After bleaching, wipe the wood clean with a damp cloth. To remove any residue, neutralize the wood thoroughly; use an ammonia solution for oxalic acid, a borax solution for laundry bleach or two-part bleaches. Wash the bleached wood thoroughly with the appropriate neutralizer; be careful not to overwet it. Then, working quickly to prevent water damage, rinse the wood with clean water and dry it thoroughly with a soft cloth. Let the piece of furniture dry for at least two days before doing any further work on it.

Laundry Bleach

Apply laundry bleach full-strength, brushing it evenly over the entire surface. If you’re removing spots or lightening discolored areas, apply bleach full-strength to those areas. Laundry bleach works quickly. After a minute or two, you should be able to see the stain fading. If you’re bleaching out an old stain, wipe the bleach off with a damp cloth when the stain has lightened.

If you’re spot-bleaching to remove spots or blend color areas, wait until the bleached spots are roughly the same color as the rest of the wood; then apply bleach again over the entire surface. Remove the bleach with a damp cloth when the color is even. Finally, neutralize the treated wood with a solution of 1 cup of borax dissolved in 1 quart of hot water. Neutralize, rinse with clean water, and dry it thoroughly.

Oxalic Acid

Oxalic acid is not caustic, but it is poisonous. Wear rubber gloves and safety goggles, and make sure ventilation is adequate. To prepare the acid, mix a saturated solution with warm water: 1 ounce of powder or crystals per 1 cup of warm water. Make sure you prepare enough bleach to treat the entire surface or piece of furniture.

Apply the acid solution evenly to the wood, brushing it on along the grain to cover the entire surface. On soft wood, you’ll see results very quickly; on hard woods the bleaching takes longer. Let the acid work for about 20 minutes, then wipe it off with a damp cloth. If the surface isn’t fully or evenly bleached, reapply the acid as necessary. On hard woods, complete bleaching may take up to an hour. Wipe the wood clean with a damp cloth, and wash it with clean water. Then neutralize it with a solution of 1 cup of household ammonia and 2 quarts of water. Rinse it again with clean water, and dry it thoroughly.

Two-Part Bleaches

Two-part bleach is easy to use, and usually works very quickly. The two components of the bleach — labeled "1" and "2" or "A" and "B" — are usually applied separately. Read the manufacturer’s instructions and follow them exactly. The first solution is usually allowed to work for about 20 minutes before the second solution is applied.

Following the directions carefully, apply the first solution and let it work; then apply the second solution. One treatment usually bleaches the wood completely, but if the wood isn’t light enough, treat it again. Wipe the bleached wood clean with a damp cloth, and then neutralize it with a solution of 1 cup of borax dissolved in 1 quart of hot water. Rinse the wood with clean water, and dry it thoroughly.

Post-Bleach Treatment

Treatment with any bleach raises the grain of the wood, even when the piece of furniture has already been thoroughly sanded. To prevent the raised grain from affecting the finish, it must be resanded to the level of the wood surface after the wood is dry.

After bleaching, let the piece of furniture dry for at least two days. Then sand the grain down lightly with grade 5/0 or 6/0 sandpaper; be careful not to roughen the surface. Because there may still be some chemical residue in the wood, wear a breathing mask and use a vacuum to remove sanding dust. Wipe the wood clean with a tack cloth.

One other complication of bleaching, especially with laundry bleach, is that the wood may be left with a whitish or grayish color. This is not serious; it indicates that the bleach has dried out the fibers of the wood surface. On hard woods, it disappears when the finish is applied. On soft woods, the gray color may be pronounced and the loose fibers obvious. To remove them, rub the wood firmly along the grain with No. 000 steel wool; rub the entire bleached area, and make sure the color is even. The grayish cast will disappear completely when the finish is applied.

Read the next page to find what to do if your furniture has scratches, dings, or dents.


How To Bleach Wood

Bleaching wood is a step-by-step process but it isn’t all that difficult. Here is how you can use bleach to bleach wood, the traditional way to lighten wood while allowing it to keep that natural wood grain.

Note: the bleach used in this guide varies. We will talk more about the different types of bleaches later. Wood bleach is recommended as it was formulated for this purpose and offers the most consistent results. 

Step 1: Clean The Item

The first step is to use a good cleaner to clean the furniture or floor. You want to use something fairly strong and do a good job. After you clean it, you can wipe it down with a wet rag and then dry it.

It’s very important that you always work with dry surfaces unless otherwise noted in the instructions. This is a good rule of thumb that will save you from making some very common mistakes, like with painting for example. 

Step 2: Strip The Wood

This is a very important step that requires patience. It’s important to remove the stain on the wood by using a wood stripper. Apply it thickly with a bristle brush of medium size, covering the entire item.

You may need to let it sit for a couple of hours, so take a break and grab a drink. When you return, you can make the next step much easier because you didn’t get impatient and start doing it too early.

Step 3: Scrape, Scrape, Scrape

Using a putty knife, scrape off the stripper and any finish that it has peeled off. This is satisfying to watch and even more satisfying to do yourself. So enjoy this step. If the stripper didn’t work, you may need to go another round.

But you will need to scrape it fairly rough, but don’t do it rough enough that you leave dents in the wood. After you scrape all that you can off, it can be helpful to finish up with a good sanding to help the next step.

Step 4: Start Bleaching

Now you just take a bleached rag and apply it to your wood as if you were cleaning it. Do a medium amount at a medium pressure level. You can do this as many times as you want just let the bleach dry between each coat.

If the wood is naturally dark it will take more coats. The more you do the lighter and more washed-out the wood will look. So keep doing it until you are happy with the result. 

Step 5: Cleaning And Finishing

Clean the wood with just water. Then, after a day or so you can wash it with soap and water. After that, all that is left to do is either enjoy it the way it is or finish up with a sealer on top, which is like a clear coat.

This will protect the wood, make it shiny, and ensure it lasts longer than it normally would. Though it is completely up to you whether you add this topcoat or not. It may take away from the natural look.

2. Scrape + scrub off stain

This is the most satisfying and the most messy part of the whole process. I LOVE watching that disgusting old stain get scraped away…but then things start to get a lil’ messy. Be prepared. Wear old clothes. Trust me. 😉 I tried to do what other bloggers have recommend and only use plastic paint scrapers to help avoid digging into the wood, but man…they did not work well. I figured the table was already beat up anyway, so after awhile I switched to the metal scraper and it worked way better.

For the carved legs, I switched to a couple of brushes with metal bristles so that I could really get into those hard to scrape crevices and crannies. There was NO way I was going to get out all of the stain that had settled into the depressions in the carvings, but you what? I ended up liking it in the end, because those darker areas really set off the carvings and detail! Less scraping, pretty details. Win win.

How to Bleach Wood Furniture

Here are a few tips when bleaching wood furniture:

  • Prep the wood first! This means you have to strip the furniture that has a varnish or thick stain. I used Citrus Strip.
  • You will want to make sure after stripping and cleaning wood that you wipe down with mineral spirits/water mix and let dry completely. 
  • Use a good power sander! And use good chemical resistant gloves when stripping and bleaching wood. 
  • Use a vinegar/water mix in between bleaching. You can do the bleaching process multiple times if you are using a darker wood (like in my case cherry wood). This will neutralize the wood between bleaching. 
  • The best wood types for bleaching are oak, beech and ash. Typically the darker the wood, the harder it is to bleach. I used an antique cherry wood table and did the bleaching process three times to get the light driftwood color I was going for! 


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