Nontoxic Wood Stain

Make natural wood stains from vegetable juices to create subtle, eco-friendly colors.
By Kirk Krauss
October/November 2013
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Avoid toxic wood stains by making a natural, plant-based version.
Photo By Kirk Krauss

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Sometimes I work on indoor cabinetry that is so large I have to stain and finish it in the same spot it’s ultimately going to live. If I use commercial wood-staining and finishing products, not only will I be exposed to toxic fumes during application, but the fumes will also affect anyone who is on-site while the products cure. For the past few years, I’ve been experimenting with my own safer wood stain alternatives.

The stain I used for these shelving units is made from turmeric and beet juice. I make most of my wood stains using a Champion juicer. I add vodka to dilute and preserve the juice. The vodka seems to add some wood-penetrating power, too. I use about 1 part vodka to 2 parts fresh juice.

Turmeric juice has a vivid yellow color. For this bookcase project, the ratio of the beets and turmeric was roughly 1 big beet to 1 big turmeric rhizome. Mix a batch of stain big enough for the full project, as the juice colors from the beets and turmeric can vary with each vegetable and rhizome.

I’ve also created a natural finish that is as nontoxic as the stain. Because plant-based stains — like natural wood itself — are subject to fading in sunlight, I use a zinc oxide sunscreen that lends ultraviolet protection. The product, Hara Sport SPF 30, is available in many health food stores. It contains an oil blend that I’ve found can aid wood penetration and ease of spreading. The oil provides a moisture barrier for the wood, too. I imagine any sunscreen of zinc oxide and plant-based oils would work about as well as the Hara product.

Both of the bookcase cabinets shown in the photo are coated in the sunscreen finish. I always rub zinc oxide sunscreen in by hand — no gloves required.

Kirk Krauss
Los Gatos, California

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10/31/2013 10:06:32 PM
In addition to what I've described here, I've also worked out a way to create blue-pigmented stain, using hulled sunflower seeds. You can soak them in purified water -- enough to just cover the seeds -- and add some baking soda. I haven't tried to figure out perfect proportions, but I've seen that a little baking soda goes a long way, when you do this. Once you've let it sit, overnight or a bit longer, you can strain off the fluid. You might mix that with little vodka as a preservative, and there's your stain. It may not look like much, but I've seen that it's potent enough to add an even, lasting, blue tint to sanded oak. As with any plant-based pigment, you'll probably want to apply some ultraviolet protection, like a zinc oxide sunscreen, to preserve the color after staining a project this way.

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