Stained, Sealed, and Delivered

December 14, 2012   //  Posted in: DIY, Wedding   //  By: Emily   //  25 responses

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.

Wheeee, that's a pretty distressed table!

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.

Olympic Paint Display at our local Lowe's.

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.

Testing new stain options on our wedding tables.

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.

Weather-resistant stains tend to bead up over wood conditioner. Lesson learned!

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.

My test stains in gray were just not going to cut it.

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 Wednesday’s 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.

Testing apple cider vinegar stain again. Much darker result!

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.

DIY bulk stain made of steel wool and apple cider vinger.

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).

The newest toy, a Black & Decker belt sander.

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.

Pete, belt sanding machine.

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.

Belt sanding worked great for our rustic tabletop.

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.

Instant staining using apple cider vinegar infused with steel wool.

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.

Staining the wedding tables using a natural stain.

The transformation continued, the lumber just changes before your eyes, gradually graying in a way that resembles naturally weather-worn wood.

Lumber distressing using natural wood stain.

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.

The second table was immediately much darker.

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.

Second wedding table took the stain much differently.

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 stain took much differently to this leg which received heavy sanding in a specific area.

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.

Two tables, slightly different stain finishes.

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.

Wheeee, that's a pretty distressed table!

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.

DIY rustic wedding table.

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.

Droplets from a drippy gutter left spots on our stained wedding table.

The real question is, where are we going to store these after the wedding so our garage can be functional again?

  • John @ Our Home from Scratch
    5 years ago - Reply

    Beautiful table! I like what you’re thinking about aging it. That thing is big!

    • Emily
      5 years ago -

      Thanks John!

  • Katharine
    5 years ago - Reply

    These look great! Makes me want to build tables for our wedding, but I don’t know that my fiancé would be as gung-ho as I would. Maybe I should start working on him now …

    • Emily
      5 years ago -

      They were CERTAINLY a time investment, but we really love being able to contribute such a personal thing to our day. There’s already so much decor in the shop we’ll be married in, it feels great to be bringing in something of our own that represents us and is made by us! If you can talk him into it, do it. Or else, consider a smaller scale – like dessert tables!

  • Brittany aka Pretty Handy Girl
    5 years ago - Reply

    Those tables are looking great! Can’t wait to try your vinegar mix next. And thanks for the shout out gal ;-). I think you could sell the tables on Craig’s List after the wedding as long farmhouse tables!

    • Emily
      5 years ago -

      ;) Now that they’re done, I want to keep them! I know, totally impractical.

  • Cait @ Hernando Hosue
    5 years ago - Reply

    Those look great!! I really want a table like that on our back patio, with these chairs.

    I’m leaning towards staining/painting out new fence, but I can’t decide between something like vinegar stain, Sunbleached, or maybe the charcoal paint we’re using as an accent on the back of the house & our front planter. Too many choices!

    • Emily
      5 years ago -

      Those chairs would be a great complement to the tables!

  • Lisa
    5 years ago - Reply

    I have the almost same table , I have started it today cant wait to see the finish

  • steffunny
    3 years ago - Reply

    you can store them at my house! :P

  • Greg
    3 years ago - Reply

    Amazing results! I had also researched the vinegar & steel wool concoction on a test piece but only let the mixture set for 2 days. Didn’t get the grey that I wanted. I’ll see how it goes after a week (that stuff is going to REEK). Thanks for sharing this project!

    • Emily
      3 years ago -

      The longer, the richer! Glad I could help.

  • sandy
    2 years ago - Reply

    could you please let me know the exact formula for your vinegar solution? mine turned very orange :( and yours doesn’t look orange at all. please as soon as you get this, i am trying to get a table done before i get visitors in three weeks. thank you!

    • Emily
      2 years ago -

      Hmm… I’ve made this a few times without any orange results. I will say, the stain turns the wood darker more gradually than immediate dark brown stain does. Did you use the same vinegar? What ratio do you think you used?

  • locnguyen
    2 years ago - Reply

    Can you tutorial me exactly how to make the wood have the color like this:×371.jpg

    Very thanks.

    • Emily
      2 years ago -

      Let 4 cups of apple cider vinegar stew with a piece of super fine steel wool in a sealed container. After about 2-3 weeks, the steel wool will have completely dissolved and the solution itself will be the stain. When you first apply it to any wood, it appears almost transparent, but as it cures (for weeks, months) it will continue to darken. My favorite stain of all time – I even used it on a few outdoor pieces (bat house, wood storage) this past fall and notice that they look even darker and richer than they do in these photos:

  • Amy Lehman
    2 years ago - Reply

    We did this when we made barn doors and they turned out fantastic!!!! I really think we are going to use this when we do our plank floors. I was going to use rustic gray stain, but not sure if I will like the end result.

    • Emily
      2 years ago -

      And it keeps getting better with age! I find every time that I use this DIY stain, it continues to evolve in color for several months.

  • Rhett
    2 years ago - Reply

    When biscuit joining and using pocket holes for the table top, were you left with any gaps between the boards? Did you also clamp when drying them? We attempted a table using biscuits but found it left gaps and the boards started to bow. We straightened it out, but we have some gaps, I know the table is suppose to be rustic, just with a little one on the way, I want it to be easy to clean.
    Also how has the table held up overtime, I’ve read some articles about construction lumber not holding up and starting to bow, twist, and warp overtime.

    • Emily
      1 year ago -

      Nope – they went together very tight. There are still crevices between the boards that catch dirt, but not open enough to even let light through. I don’t believe that we clamped them, although my memory may be escaping me. We certainly would have used a mallet to be sure that the boards were fitted together very tight as we built the tabletop.

      The tables have help up wonderfully; we use one of them on a covered porch, and the other actually sitting outside in the elements as the dining table on our patio. The boards have bowed a little bit with time, but not substantially, and I’ve been diligent to wax them annually which helps prevent water from soaking in too much. They are solid, durable, and hopefully will last us well for many more years!

  • Charlene
    12 months ago - Reply

    Hi Emily!!

    I just finished the same mixture of steel wool and vinegar to my farmhouse table hubby build! The worn weathered look is super close to yours! Did you “finish ” the table? I am running into a problem that all the water based polys, lacquers, beeswax, toxic wax-ha.. have changed my test pieces from weathered grays/browns back to natural brown. This is going to be our dining table so I thought poly for sure but even “clear” has amber in it and they all changed the color! I am REALLY hoping to finish this project this weekend. I would like a non-yellowing, matte (could sand stain) finish /sealer ) that will not change the results/color of the steel wool and vinegar. Any suggestions?

    • Emily
      12 months ago -

      I really wish I could give you advice here! I have only used a thick wax to seal our tables, and that’s because we decided to use them outdoors. (Good news is, the paste wax has helped the tables hold up great despite rain and snow). If there’s anything I recommend, is that you wait a few weeks or even a few months before you seal it. The color of the stain will continue to evolve and become more rich, and that may influence the color of whatever sealant tests you perform. I’m glad there’s another fan of the vinegar/steel stain out there… I have a new batch brewing right now! It is seriously my favorite stain ever.

    • Charlene
      12 months ago -

      Thanks Emily- which wax have you tried? Yes, It has been a week and notice the changes but we are so ready to get the table into the house-LOL, its been a long project and I mean months and month long! I have been testing on scrapes that I have used the same process to see what sealants do:) Thank you!!

    • Emily
      12 months ago -

      It was specifically minwax paste finishing wax. I’m not sure I would use it on an indoor table. It was a little tacky at first, but gradually rubbed in to feel pretty smooth and soft… it wouldn’t clean as easily as something with a poly-like finish.

    • Charlene
      12 months ago -

      Thanks Emily! Minwax has a tint to it:( Thank for all your help!!!

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