I was beginning to have nightmares about staining our perfect, handmade wedding tables. The kind of nightmares that wake you in a cold sweat and make you wish you picked out rental tables for $7.99/each instead of challenging yourself to build 800 pounds worth of rustic pine tables for your fast approaching wedding. The tables, more than anything else, have been one of the bigger stressing factors of our wedding. That’s right, the vows, they’re cool. The dress, it’s great. The food, easy. Rings, done. Cake? Well, that’s another story, it’s cool now, but the tables, we worried a lot about how they’d look once they were stained. If, you know, we could figure out how the hell to stain these monsters.
Turns out, it was worrying for nothing, because BAM, a wee bit of work yielded a lot of awesome natural distressing, which is exactly the look we hoped for.
Back this thing up a minute. There’s way more to this story of how I came to have these amazingly distressed tables.
After my first test at staining with apple cider vinegar went rotten, I turned to alternative, more traditional, staining options. I didn’t look far and wide, I decided quickly that Olympic offered enough semi-transparent options that would challenge our new pine tables into a submissive state. Why do consumers demand so many options anyways? I think we can all agree that fewer options in life would make everything easier.
The issue we had with most stain samples (the clears, the toners, the opaque solids) is that they didn’t make fresh lumber look aged per say, they just made the wood looked glazed. Smooth and new, just glazed over. We weren’t working from aged pine, and if we had been, man, this whole process would have been a lot easier, rather our tables were constructed using lumber fresh from the mill sold through big box store channels, so fresh that it was almost sappy and was mostly cut a-new from unjostled bundles in the big box store.
Side note: Whether you were able to tell this in the pictures I posted once they were built, one table was built from Home Depot lumber and it appeared more pinkish, and the other table was constructed using lumber from Lowe’s and was a bit more yellow. This absolutely effected how the stain looks in the finished pieces. Lowe’s had plenty of lumber our first go-around, but was wiped totally clean when we went in for lumber refills with which we were to build table #2. Cheers for competitive big box convenience.
Back to the staining efforts. Our best guesses at surface-appearance-altering stains ended up being Rust-Oleum ULTIMATE in Sunbleached (thanks to a recommendation from a pretty handy girl you should all get to know), and a semi-transparent Olympic deck stain/sealant, tinted Storm Gray. There was potential here, they’re striking a strong We Will Rock You pose, if I do read too much into stain can positioning myself. But Rock Me, they did not.
If you’re curious about the wood conditioner in the background of that picture, note that I purposefully tested an area with it, as one might commonly do with soft woods, but found that the semi-transparent outdoor deck stain specifically repelled against it. It didn’t seem to do much for the Sunbleached stain either, so I abandoned the idea of using it.
Wood conditioner #fail aside, neither color resonated with us as it dried. The sunbleached, too opaque like a paint, and the semi-transparent a wee bit too transparent (and/or unwilling to disguise the color of the natural pine wood itself). Neither stain looked good as a thick application, or massaged into the wood. Oh well.
And so, we were at a standstill, not sure which direction to go. Still hesitant to try a traditional stain that wasn’t exactly the color we were going for, I decided to give the vinegar stain one last hurrah; it worked so well in the many tutorials I reviewed, that I figured I must have done something wrong. This time, as I explained in this post, I allowed the steel wool and vinegar to mull for two weeks (as opposed to my previous 24-hour soak test).
Before I tested this mixture, I strained the vinegar to remove as many bits of steel as I could, and that seemed to help keep the solution less obstructed with steel remains. The new batch worked nicely, as shown in this test spot on the underside of one of our tables, distressing the wood and its natural grain into a brown that can only be described as naturally weather-worn lumber, like when you leave your wedding tables outdoors to age in the sun and snow for three years. It had almost a burnt quality to it, and it took to different areas a little differently, giving it a more natural effect than a common oil-based stain might have achieved.
My first 2-week soak batch was a small volume, so I started again from scratch by filling an airtight canister with a half gallon of vinegar and three wads of steel wool and watched the solution change color over the course of another two weeks before I dared to test it out again (stirring periodically seemed to help the steel disintegration process move along faster). After about day 5, however, this new solution was no longer transparent and once it’s not transparent, you can pretty much guarantee that your results are going to be awesome.
Before we stained the tables, Pete took time to prep them (and play with a new tool, his Black & Decker Dragster Belt Sander, a $60 investment from The Home Depot).
We have palm sanders a-plenty, but to save time and energy, he insisted on testing out a belt sander to smooth out irregularities in the tabletop boards and make the surface very even. The belt sander, armed with alternating high- and low-grit sandpaper, made the job virtually effortless. Dusty, but easy.
Each table only took 45-minutes and left us with surface areas consistently prepped for staining. You know how it feels like there’s a bit of a glaze/haze/coating on the exterior of new boards (versus when you cut into them and feel how rough the inside plane is)? Eliminating all of that store-bought smoothness gave our stain a more worn surface to react with; we think that helped a lot, you’ll see in the final pictures.
With the tables sanded smooth, there was nothing holding me back from testing our new stain concoction. I used a paint brush to apply because it worked a faster than the foam brush I used during the test application, and it glazed over the table board by board. I saw immediate results with the more-infused batch of stain, especially in the natural grains of the lumber.
It continued to darken too, this photo begins to show a substantial contrast between the stained and unstained sections, especially at the far end of the table where I began application.
The transformation continued, the lumber just changes before your eyes, gradually graying in a way that resembles naturally weather-worn wood.
Remember when I mentioned that the lumber was sourced from two different big box stores? Have a look at how differently the second table reacted to the stain – it looks much darker – or should I say, parts of the boards look darker! Interesting.
Not a bad variance, and we’re not concerned about them looking slightly different (especially because it evened out after I applied an extra coat to the first table), but wow, what a difference between the two lumber sources.
Actually, what’s especially noticeable is how some areas were sanded more thoroughly than others, like this leg, which looks like I purposefully stained one section more than another. I did not. I think it adds to its charm, though.
The difference between the tabletops looks pretty dramatic here, but note that one table is inside and shaded, while the other is being affected by natural daylight.
As they began to dry, it was apparent that the second table, whose wood was slightly more yellow in hue, took the stain in the best possible way we could have imagined.
The other table looks great too though, so much more rustic and weathered than when we started. And I think you’ll be even more surprised to see when photographed at our wedding, that the tables look even more alike when fully dried.
Adding to it’s appeal, the table that we stained outdoors was repeatedly splattered by a dripping gutter, and those drops had an artful affect on part of the finished tabletop. How mad would you be if this was supposed to be a flawless table staining? And how happy am I to have these little imperfections? I probably couldn’t have faked them, and it makes the table look even more like it was something we had sitting in our yard for summertime picnics.
The real question is, where are we going to store these after the wedding so our garage can be functional again?