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Understanding and Using Wood Bleaches

Just as you can put color into wood with stain you can remove it from the wood with bleach. Woodworkers often use wood bleaches to lighten the natural color of woods or to even out color differences between heart and sapwood. Bleaches can also be used to remove black water stains, iron stains, and to lighten pigments and stains.

The bleaches work through a chemical reaction between the bleach and the color in the wood. These reactions differ from bleach to bleach and, as we will discuss later, the correct bleach will depend on the situation. The bleaches don't actually remove the color from the wood. They react with the chemical substances to convert them to a substance that is colorless.

Bleaching wood is not difficult. Selecting the proper bleach can require some attention. All of the chemicals used to bleach wood can be dangerous if used improperly so care should be taken to protect you from contact with their chemicals. Wear gloves and goggles and read the direction on the container carefully. Two part bleaches contain hydrogen peroxide, which will burn your skin. Keep water nearby and immediately rinse off any of the bleach that touches your skin.

These bleaches only work on bare wood so be sure to remove any finishes before attempting to bleach the wood There are three primary bleaches used by woodworkers today.

Two-Part bleaches are a combination of sodium hydroxide and hydrogen peroxide. These bleaches are used to lighten the natural color of the wood. They are sold in separate containers because they chemically neutralize each other when mixed. When the chemicals are mixed on the wood itself the reaction removes the color from the wood. They can tend to remove the luster from wood as well so care should be taken to test the results on a piece of scrap wood. Two part bleaches remove the natural color of the wood and bleach it to an off-white color. This type of bleach is also en excellent choice when you need to even out the color variations between heartwood and sapwood before applying a stain. The sodium hydroxide in two-part bleaches can burn your skin so care should be taken to protect your skin and eyes.

Chlorine Bleach can be used to remove dye stain from wood in much the same way that it removes color from clothing. Household bleaches such as Chlorox can be used but they tend to be weak and require multiple treatments. The shock treatments used for swimming pools contain a higher concentration of chlorine bleach and can be used for a more-aggressive bleaching treatment. Chlorine bleaches can also be used to remove some food stains such as grape juice.

Oxalic Acid is an excellent choice for removing iron stains and black water rings from old furniture. It is sold in a dry crystal form and is available at most hardware stores. You will often see oxalic acid labeled as "Wood Bleach" so check the label to make sure you are getting the right product. It can also be used to remove some inks and pigmented stains. Oxalic acid is also often found in deck cleaners because it works well with old weathered wood.

Neutralizing Bleached after Use
After the bleaches have completed their jobs they should be neutralized with water and then followed up with a water/baking soda mix. Two-part bleaches can be neutralized with a 1-part vinegar to 2-parts water bath.

This article is presented as a general guide to bleaches commonly available to woodworkers. Before using bleach, you should read and follow the manufacturers directions closely. Always test the results on a scrap piece of wood or a part that is out of view in the case of furniture restoration.


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