Stained Finishes, Naturally

Rediscovering the natural beauty of wood with sustainable, non-toxic, zero-VOC natural stained finishes.

This is one of a four-part series on natural, non-toxic, eco-friendly wood finishes.

In the process of building a sustainable and eco-friendly casket company, we’ve had to learn a lot about eco-friendly wood finishes. The “Plain Pine Box” appeals to only so many. We’ve learned how to achieve a wide variety of beautiful wood finishes without using harmful chemicals. Most of our learning has been a matter of rediscovering the historic techniques mastered by 16th century English craftsman. In this article we’ll briefly cover products and useful techniques for achieving natural stained wood finishes.

This pine casket is stained naturally with tung oil, orange oil, with iron oxide and Gilsonite pigments.

This pine casket is stained naturally with tung oil, orange oil, with iron oxide and Gilsonite pigments.

Staining wood includes techniques that expose, enhance, or otherwise highlight the natural characteristics of wood. Stains highlight the natural grain pattern of wood enhancing, masking, or changing the color with reactive chemistry or color pigment mixed in the stain. Typically, stain techniques must be followed by some form of sealant or protective finish. Commercially available stains are available in hundreds of colors and fall into either oil-based or water-based categories—all of which contain VOCs or other harmful chemicals and vapors. Many are unpleasant to work with and require ventilation and care while handling them.

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There are three categories of staining recipes and techniques we’ll cover in this short article that I like to refer to as the following:

  1. Adding pigment to natural oils,
  2. Glazing with milk paint, and
  3. Dissolving chemical concoctions.

Each of these techniques will introduce you to a whole book of recipes for endless experimentation and amazing results.  All of these techniques employ natural, biodegradable, non-toxic, eco-safe, VOC-free ingredients with the exception of some of those in the “chemical” category that produce toxic solutions that must be handled with care.

Adding pigment to natural oils is perhaps the easiest way to stain and protect wood in one step. Adding iron oxide (powdered rust) to tung oil or linseed oil will yield a beautiful red stain much like what you’d expect from a redwood deck stain color. Another natural pigment, Gilsonite, is as black as obsidian and creates a beautiful aged dark look on pine and oak. Any natural pigment used by painters can be added to natural oils to your liking and brushed into wood. Covering the stain coat with a second coat of oil will help encapsulate the pigment. Other topcoat techniques including waxes and burnishing pastes are effective as well.

Glazing with milk paint is an easy way to add color to wood without covering up the natural beauty of the wood grain.  Start with any color of milk paint and dilute at least one-to-one with water. Dilute further for lighter staining. I prefer to use a foam brush to push the stain onto the wood instead of pulling like you would with a paint brush. For large projects, consider using a large sponge. Apply the paint and let dry for 24-48 hours before applying a protective finish of natural oil, wax, or burnishing paste.

Creating your own homemade stain with chemistry can open up a whole category of concocting your own solutions. White vinegar is an inexpensive, eco-safe chemical to start with.  Try leaving some rusty nails in vinegar or steel wool for a few days and the metal will release iron oxides into the vinegar. The result is an effective stain that will add beautiful browns to your wood. Some old copper wire salvaged from an electric motor will take several weeks in vinegar, but the green-blue and teal color is worth the wait. 

Vegetables are an ancient source of color for staining wood. Try beet juice for bright pink, blueberries for purplish gray, blackberries for bright purple, and vegetable greens for yellows. Blend the whole fruit or vegetable into a paste and mix in 1-2 tablespoons of alum per blender full for a fixer.  Use the paste thick and leave sit on the wood overnight or thin with water for various saturations.

For more information on eco-friendly finishes including real milk paint, natural waxes, and non-toxic burnishing glazes check out our blog or ask us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/NorthwoodsCasket.