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March 15, 2010

Staining Wood with Cheap, Natural and Non-toxic Tea


A few months ago George Constance, owner of the online tea emporium Indonique.com, sent me a parcel of beautifully packaged teas.  He had been asking woodworkers on Twitter to try mixing up a concentrated tea solution to use as a stain for woodworking projects, and tell him how they liked the effect.  He would even provide the tea.  I put my name on the list.

I got around to experimenting with the tea stains just in time for the Canadian Home Workshop Show.  Anyone who was at one of my presentations last weekend will remember how excited I was about finding a new, non-toxic stain that's dead simple to prepare.  And dead cheap too.

In the Indonique kit I found 3 different kinds of tea leaves:

  • Rooibos (a red-hued, fruity tea)
  • Black Assam (earthy black tea)
  • 'Powdered Blend' (a finely ground custom mix)  

George's instructions were to boil the tea leaves in 2 cups of water until the liquid was strongly concentrated, and then apply the hot slurry, leaves and all, to wood.  I boiled and prepared each of the teas and put the preparations into separate jars.

I painted a little of each mixture onto a pine board.  (Experimental digression: I also tried engraving the wood so that the tea would sink extra-deep into the broken fibres in whatever design I had etched.  It's a cool effect.)

Tea imparts a warm honey-coloured beauty to pine and fir, and the stain deepens over time.  It's subtle and easy to control by adding more coats.

The Assam produced a light ash tone (left). The Rooibos imparted a warm reddish shade (center).   The 'Powdered Blend' gave me the strongest colour (far right), a nice deep golden hue. (You can see the original whitish colour of the board peeking through between the swaths of tea).


I was pretty jazzed by the success of the tea stains.  I've been using aniline stains for the past 10 years to achieve these honey and ash tones, but aniline is toxic and the intensity can be difficult to control.

Just when I thought I'd hit paydirt with tea stains, things got even better.

Working with the teas reminded me of a favourite old standby stain - a handful of nails (or one 'bun' of steel wool) tossed into a covered container with a few cups of vinegar and aged for at least a week. 

The resulting rusty stain creates a dark brown (on pine) or charcoal (on oak) effect as it reacts with tannins in the wood cells.  I always have a jar of 'Rusty Vinaigrette' in the garage looking like a science experiment that became self-aware.

By the way, I also made up a turquoise stain last year by soaking pennies in vinegar.  The stain is gorgeous but it's not stable so you have to clearcoat it after it dries. 

Left: Rusty Vinaigrette

Right: Coppery Goodness

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I was using 'Rusty Vinaigrette' to darken some chip-carved lines on a coat rack when I had a minor brainwave.  The rusty stain interacts with the TANNINS in the wood. 

And tea is full of TANNINS. 

So, if I add tea to the rust stain, I reasoned, it should really intensify the chemical reaction and impart a deeper colour. 

I made a sample board of my homemade stains and let it dry.  Then I dragged a paintbrush dipped in George's 'Powdered Blend' through each sample.  Instantly, the stains changed colour and deepened.  I freaked.

I should have yelled 'Eureka' but I didn't have the presence of mind.  The thin dark line in each of the samples is where I painted on one coat of tea.


After this discovery I played with several mixtures.  I found that if I put a couple of coats of Rust on a pine board I would get a dull medium brown.  But as soon as I added Indonique's Powdered Blend, the wood went black.  BLACK.  A gorgeous rich black I've never been able to achieve before. 


I also discovered that you can control the hue of the stain by blotting the tea after applying it over the rust stain.  That's how I perfectly matched the colour of aged barnboard on the cut edges of my Ghostwood key rack.  


Tea grows mouldy after about a week, so I blended it in equal parts with the rust stain.  The vinegar acts as an anti-fungal so the stain is now stable but weak, since the chemical reaction occurs in the jar and not in the wood fibers.  So for most projects I will still make up a fresh batch of tea stain and layer it over the rust or copper stains to control the hues.

Cool eh? 


Thanks to George at Indonique.com for having such a great idea, and for putting it out to the woodworking world in a spirit of collaboration.  Now you can try it too; either experiment with your own tea blends, or ask George to mix you up some of that kick-butt 'Powdered Blend'. 




See this article:



That's a fantastic article. Thanks Keith. I can see how my Black Magic mixture is more like ink than stain, since the chemical reaction has already occurred and the colour will just sit on top of the wood. Plus I love the word 'ebonizing'. I'm going to go ebonize. Catch you later.


Condo Blues

That is brillant. I used tea to stain the pages of books I used to wallpaper a bathroom but I never thought of using tea to stain wood. Hmmm... I need to find a woodworking project to stain with tea.


How long did it take for ya get it at that color?? that is so neat


Thanks CondoBlues. I love your idea of tea-dying paper too. Must look nice and anitque-y. In high school we used to tea-dye all of our white blouses for theatre productions because white fabric was too bright under the lights; tea has many talents.

Abi, not sure which colour you're referring to!


The black one.. How long did it take for ya to get it that color?


It happens really fast. You paint on a couple of coats of rust stain, let it sink in, then paint on the tea. Adding a second coat of tea makes the black even darker.


sweet maybe i should try.. theres an urge in my spirit to do that.. this kicksass.. thanks maggie!!

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Thanks Keith. I can see how my Black Magic mixture is more like ink than stain, since the chemical reaction has already occurred and the colour will just sit on top of the wood.


Looks like tea & bark powder work about the same. I'm guessing any plant polyphenol (tannin), if the concentration is high enough, will work. Anyone experiment with very mild copper and iron concentrates? Does soaking iron in tea neutralize the chemical effectiveness on the resulting solution? May neeed a chemist for this one.

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The local recycling centre receives all kinds of old hardcover books that no one wants anymore, and you know what they do? They rip the pages out! It almost kills me, to see it. So I hope this creative idea spreads. Excellent!

chipped bark

Keep in mind, too, that stained wood can change with age – often with attractive results, but be prepared to potentially end up with a different look later.


Just wanted to thank you for the tutorial. I just stained some clear fir and it's a gorgeous deep gray! I was too impatient to wait a whole week for the vinaigrette to steep so I tried it after 2 days, worked just fine. Thanks for giving me a home cooked non-toxic solution to my problem!


I linked back to this post on my blog today. Love that blue stain!


I'm curious about the penny stain. What kind of vinegar should I use and how long do I need to soak the pennies?


I'm wondering what I may have done wrong—I have had about a cup of pennies in vinegar for 2 wks now (in a jar with the lid on) and it's still not turning blue...should I buy a more expensive vinegar? thanks, s


Danielle, pickling vinegar works best (it's stronger than regular white vinegar) - and it only takes a few days.

Snixysnix - the problem is leaving the lid on! The process needs oxygen to work, so you need to leave lots of air space or just leave the lid off for a couple of days.


awesome...thank you!!!!!


It's gorgeous. You make me want to put on a pot now with some Lipton's. I like the various shades that you produced.

This is a good idea and it's the first time I've seen anyone use this exact process with the steel wool.

The fact that the tea is non toxic is one of the main advantages. Of course, the fact that it's also cheap really helps. It also probably doesn't smell the way most commercial stains do.


Fantastic! I have some pine wine crates I'm needing to stain for a storage project and will use the tea stain and turquoise penny stain techniques. How long did it take to make up the penny stain? Thank you :-)


Hi Hazel,
It takes just a couple of days for the vinegar to interact with the pennies to make a fairly vivid stain. You'll need to leave the lid off for those first 2 or 3 days though, since oxidization is part of the magic. Have fun.


Thank you! I found this process on pinterest but some of their stuff doesn't work, so it's nice to see something thorough (and your blue looks better than I'd hoped- I thought it would look dusty like actual pennies)


Please help. Are you using Apple Vinegar rather than white? I've tried EVERYTHING with my pennies, even making sure I used older ones. Nothing doing! Do Canadian pennies work better? (I'm from the States.)


Hi Krista,
Are you leaving the pennies & vinegar mixture open to the air for a few days to let the oxidization happen? Regular white vinegar or pickling vinegar (a little stronger) work just fine. Either American or Canadian pennies will work.
Try reducing the amount of vinegar so that it just barely covers the top of the pennies.
Hope that helps!


This is super neat. I was just searching for some simple homemade wood stains and then found this wonderful blue stain. I gathered up what pennies I could find, ran right out to the shed and started the process. Thanks for the tips to keep the lids off.
I am also trying some nails in vinegar too. I had also had the thought about tea tannin and what interactions might happen if I put the two togther, great pictures.


Copper and Vinegar *are* toxic.


What about a small amount of organic turpentine in the tea stain to preserve it rather than the rust stain. I get some good turpentine from Diamond G Forrest products that I think would be perfect for this.


Hi. Have a pine table. Boiling water from party chafing dish spilled onto brie-waxed pine table. Wherever water hit, the color and wax are gone; mainly now almost white raw wood. Do you think I can just use the tea stain and then apply brie over again? If I want to add a more water-resistant finish can I apply a clear seal over the whole table can it go over existing brie way? THANKS in advance.

Disa Kauk

I have an issue, tried this but the mixture made the wood a milky brown colour...any ideas how to turn it grey now?


George - sure, I don't see why a little turpentine wouldn't work as a preservative.

Mary - It sounds like the Brie boiled off in the spill. I would spot treat it with tea stain and wax. Because the wax contains solvents and oils, it probably will only cover with a solvent-based finish like polyurethane.

Disa - You don't specify the type of wood you applied the mixture to or which of my mixtures you used…since the process is a chemical reaction with tannins in the wood, the only way to get it grey now is to treat it with a paint finish. Here's a painting tutorial that will give you the effect of silvery aged wood...http://akadesign.ca/grey-wash-wood-finish/?mc_cid=0fae62873f&mc_eid=a1fd141ea0


Just a note of caution. You might be getting a nice green color from the copper in your pennies but I think it might be poisonous too.


its only toxic if you drink it...so dont...do your research before you try scaring people.

Debbie Scholes

When you combine the tea and rust stain do you strain the rust stain first?

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