More and more homeowners are opting for a lighter look in their wood finishes. DeDe Bailey, a DIY home interior specialist at Designed Decor, says she’s seeing a shift to lighter wood tones in flooring, doors and trim, primarily in new home builds.

But if you’re an existing home owner looking to lighten your interior wood, Bailey says you don’t have to miss out. “The trend in new home design carries over to the DIY homeowner wanting to change their dark stained trim and doors to a subtle softer finish as well,” she says.

Whether you’re interested in brightening up your interior trim, making your wood doors warmer or lightening the finish on your wood furniture, chances are there’s a DIY solution that will work for you.

Can You Lighten Wood After Staining?

Absolutely! While it’s natural to think of stained and sealed wood as having a permanent color, engineer and woodworker Leo Watts assures us it can still be modified. “Lightening interior trim or doors is a process I’ve done many times,” says Watts.

While understanding wood types, grains and finish effects plays into effective wood lightening, he says the basic process doesn’t have to be complicated.

What’s the Easiest Way To Lighten Wood?

“The easiest way for a DIY homeowner to change over their dark stained trim and doors is through paint,” says Bailey.

Traditional paint can be applied to finished wood with only a light sanding. But Bailey says paint can also be diluted, creating a paint wash. “Paint wash allows the wood grain to show through,” she says, “and gives the dark stained wood a lighter finish.”

Natural Methods To Lighten Wood

Paint is a good choice to lighten a wood finish without using chemical solvents. Another option that minimizes chemicals? Steel wool. This technique can work on wood with a thin top coat of sealer, or a top coat that can be removed with a gentle chemical stripper.

To lighten wood using steel wool:

If needed, strip the sealer. Apply a chemical stripper to the top coat. Leave the stripper in place per the manufacturer’s instructions. Use a plastic scraper to remove the stripper without damaging the stained wood, then wipe down the surface to remove any traces of the chemical.Dip very fine steel wool (#0000 or similar) in water. Gently rub it along the direction of the wood grain. To prevent scratches, avoid rubbing across the grain.Wipe down the wood with mineral spirits to remove the steel wool flecks and wood shavings.Repeat until the color lightens to your liking.

Chemical Wood Bleach Techniques

If the steel wool technique sounds too involved and you don’t mind adding another chemical treatment into the mix, wood bleach is a popular solution. “There are many popular brands that now offer these products to easily lighten your home’s interior trim,” says Bailey.

To use a chemical wood bleach:

Remove any sealer coat as described above.Apply the bleach to the stained wood in the method recommended by the manufacturer. (Most suggest brushing it on.) Leave the bleach to sit for the suggested time.When it’s ready to come off, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions for removal. It’s important that you neutralize the surface or the residual bleach may continue lightening the wood, swinging its appearance too far in the other direction.

Sealing Lightened Wood Surfaces

All these techniques have one thing in common wearing away some of the top layer of sealant, stain and sometimes the wood itself. To return the wood trim or furniture to full resilience, cover them with a topcoat of sealer.

You can use a water-based poly over almost any stain or paint wash after it’s dry. Typically, this should only take a few hours, but sometimes drying takes a little longer. I’ve seen some finished wood require a full 24 hours before drying enough to take a sealer coat.

Putting It All Together

Combine all these steps and you can lighten wood even on large-scale projects.

Watts shared his experience on one such effort, transforming a 1920s bungalow with a houseful of dark wood trim into a more modern and lighter environment.

“We aimed to brighten without compromising original design integrity,” Watts says.

Here’s how it went:

“After stripping finishes, we carefully worked the intricate trims, using proper safety gear for the potent chemicals.” Watts says. “Plastic scrapers removed old finish along the wood grain to avoid damage. Bleach then further lightened the wood. Applying evenly is key for consistent results. We neutralized with vinegar/water, wiping away residue.

“Overnight drying let us properly evaluate in natural light and ensure moisture evaporation. Sanding prepped for the polyurethane finish to seal and protect the lightened wood, enhancing its natural beauty.”

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