How to Lighten a Dark Wood Stain

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It might have been fashionable at the time. But the dark stain on your cabinets has become dreary. Don't get depressed, it's never too late to lighten it. Wood is typically stained, and color is only skin deep.

Exceptions to Lightening

When stain is applied to any species, it typically darkens the wood. Walnut, mahogany, cherry and an assortment of exotic species are naturally colored dark, and even without stain, can only be lightened to a certain degree. Ash, maple, oak, pine, birch, fir and cedar are light in color, and easier to lighten.

Top Coats

If your stained project has a top coat, such as lacquer, varnish, or polyurethane, it must be completely removed before lightening can be done. Chemical stripper is the most efficient.

Things You'll Need

  • Chemical stripper

  • Paint brush

  • Sharp sticks

  • Steel wool (optional)

  • Drop cloth


Chemical strippers are caustic, and emit noxious fumes. Use only in well-ventilated areas -- outdoors if possible. Wear gloves, eye and breathing protection when working with strippers. Dispose of waste products, such as the scrapings and leftover stripper, only in designated drop-off areas for your local community.

Step 1

Apply a small amount of stripper to the wood. Allow it to soften the finish for about 10 minutes, or as directed by the manufacturer.

Step 2

Scrape off the gelled finish with sharp, flat sticks. Work from the center, and allow the finish to fall off onto drop cloth. Scrape the gelled finish out of tight corners and details using pointed sticks or steel wool.

Step 3

Allow the wood to dry for at least one hour.


You might notice that the stain has been removed or lightened by the stripper, and further lightening may not be necessary.

Bleach for Lightening

If the stain is still too dark after the finish has been removed, additional steps can be taken to lighten it using wood bleach. Wood bleach is a two-part process, and one of the best all-purpose choices for lightening wood.

Two-Part Bleach

Begin by washing the wood with mineral spirits. Allow it to dry for about two days. Apply part one of the wood bleach with a paint brush and allow it to dry for 10 minutes. Apply part two of the formula, and allow it to dry for about four hours. Wash the wood down with a 50/50 mixture of vinegar and water to set the color. Let the wood dry, then sand to smooth down raised grain using fine-grit sandpaper.


Two-part bleach may remove or change the natural color of the wood, even if it is walnut, cherry or mahogany.

Powdered Chlorine Bleach

Chlorine bleach is best for dye-based stain lightening, and will not remove the natural color from wood. Mix the powder with water according to directions printed on the package. Apply it directly to the wood and wait 24 hours. If it's not light enough, repeat the application.

Oxalic Acid

Oxalic acid is a heavy-duty, somewhat toxic bleach that removes dark mineral stains that the other products can't touch. It's often used on exterior decking to remove the dark gray color. Mix the powdered acid with water according to the instructions. Apply it to the wood and allow it to work for about 15 minutes. Rinse with a light ammonia and water solution.


Bleach products can be hazardous to your health. Wear breathing and eye protection when using them. Use in well-ventilated areas only.

Sanding to Remove Stain

Lightening stain can result in blotches or uneven color. If this is the case, it might be beneficial to completely remove it. Use 100-grit sandpaper to sand the stain off by hand. Sand gently to avoid removing details or contours from the item.

Dark Paneling

Lightening dark paneling can be done with gel stain. Gel stain is thick enough to stay on vertical surfaces without dripping or running. It contains opaque pigment that dries to form a layer of color. It will reduce the visibility of the grain on the wood. Sand the paneling lightly with low-grit sandpaper -- 100-grit is sufficient. Apply the gel stain to the paneling with a soft cloth, and allow it to dry. Apply a second coat if needed. Finish it off with a top coat of your choice.


Wade Shaddy

Specializing in hardwood furniture, trim carpentry, cabinets, home improvement and architectural millwork, Wade Shaddy has worked in homebuilding since 1972. Shaddy has also worked as a newspaper reporter and writer, and as a contributing writer for Bicycling Magazine. Shaddy began publishing in various magazines in 1992, and published a novel, “Dark Canyon,” in 2008.