How to Change Wood Stain Color – Dark to Light in 3 Steps

Changing the wood stain from a darker shade to a lighter one is fairly easy.

  1. First you remove the current stain.
  2. Next you sand down the wood.
  3. Finally, you apply the new stain.

The shade is dependent upon the type of stain you choose as well as the amount of time you let it sit. Below I’ll go in depth through these three steps, including the materials you will need.

I’ll use a wooden table as an example, so you decide you’re just going to re-stain it lighter. But, how do you do change the wood stain from dark to light?

While this process will be in depth, it shouldn’t scare off even the people with zero experience. If you follow these three steps you will be able to change your wood stain from dark to light in a matter of hours. I will list the required items for each step in a listed format, as well as options for each of the main ingredients needed for the step!

Strip the Current Stain

In any sort of artistic endeavor, prepping the piece is the most important thing you can do. When you paint a room, you prep by taping off outlets and laying down plastic to keep the paint from getting on the floor. This is no different when it comes to wood working.

Before you can apply the new, lighter stain, you need to get rid of the old one. To do this, you have a few different options. Let’s take a look at the options we have to remove the current paint.

Mineral Spirits

Mineral Spirits are generally used for cleaning wood. However, if you have a thin base of paint on this table you’re redoing or the wood is less durable, mineral spirits could work for you. The pros of using this product include a low odor being emitted compared to other cleaners.

Mineral Spirits aren’t as potent as say, Chemical Stripper, but it can be used for more than cleaning wood. In fact, one of its multitude of uses is for cleaning tools and brushes. Mineral Spirits are seeing a bit of a rebirth with many manufacturers going towards cheaper composite wood, which is lighter and can’t handle something much stronger. However, if the stain or paint is thick, then this would not be the stripper to use.

This can be found at Home Depot for under $10.

Chemical Stripper

This is the type of product I usually use with my projects. Chemical Stripper works great and will remove just about anything that has ever been put on the wood. With this chemical property however, safety comes first.

If any of this gets on your skin it could prove to be very harmful. Gloves and a mask, even maybe glasses, are a must when using this chemical. Due to its potent properties, if you do end up making contact with your skin, then wash it off immediately. Speaking from experience here, the chemical stripper will leave you with a burning sensation on your skin and the faster you wash it off, the less time it has to burn you.

The chemical stripper I recommend can be found at Home Depot for under $15.


In strength based testing, Acetone is similar to Mineral Spirits. It’s been known to strip some of the most difficult spots you’ve encountered on your wood. However, for general purposes of removing paint or something else on your wooden furniture, it can lack power.

As with Mineral Spirits and Chemical Stripper, Acetone is highly toxic and should be handled with care. It’s never a bad idea to have a small batch of this laying around incase you encounter some odd type of paint that can’t be undone on your table.

Acetone usually runs around the same price as mineral spirits and can be found at Home Depot for under $10.

For the purposes of this example, assuming we are stripping a solid wood table, we are going to use Chemical Stripper. The process of stripping the wood is probably the most time consuming and tedious, but the better you do on this first stage, the better your table will come out. Let’s take a look at the supplies we will be using:

  • Gloves
  • Mask
  • 1 Coffee Mug
  • 1 Qt. Klean-Strip Premium Stripper (Chemical Stripper)
  • 2 or 3 cheap paint brushes (nothing too nice as these will need to be disposed of after use)
  • Old Newspapers
  • 1 2in. Paint Scrapper or Putty Knife
  • 1 3in. Paint Scrapper or Putty Knife
  • 00 Grade Steel Wool

If you’re tackling this project in an enclosed environment, you will need a heavy duty painter filtering mask as ventilation would not be provided within the garage. If you’re doing this on your back deck or on the driveway, any sort of mask will work just fine.

Step 1: Okay, you’ve got all your materials set out, the table is sitting in front of you and you’ve got a few hours. Time to get this going! The first thing we are going to do is ensure we’ve got our personal protection gear on. Make sure your mask and gloves are on. If you’ve chosen to wear eye protection, throw those goggles on!

First thing we are doing is pouring the Chemical Stripper into the coffee mug. Now, I usually just eyeball it and pour it straight onto the table, but as a first timer you want to be careful since you’re new to this. Fill the mug a little more than half way up. Get your brush ready.

Step 2: Now we’ll be applying the Chemical Stripper onto the table. The most important thing is to ensure you’re going with the grain. So if the grain is going long ways within the table, so are you. (Tip: It usually is) Dip your paint brush into the chemical stripper and brush it onto the table. For best results, apply no more than 12 inch segments at a time.

Be liberal with your chemical stripper and ensure the segment you’re applying is no more than 12 inches long but more than 4 inches wide, as your paint scrapper is 3 inches at the most. Once applied, let the stripper sit for 3-5 minutes, or until it starts bubbling (Just like pancakes!). The longer it sits, the easier it is to scrape the paint up.

Step 3: This part is the most tedious of this whole process. Here is where we will be scraping the paint off the wood. The chemical stripper has done it’s job and has separated the paint from the wood. However, since this stuff is so potent, it doesn’t just evaporate.

I included two different sizes within the materials list due to the fact that you could use either and as the process carrels on, you might need a smaller one. With your scraper, start from the edge of the table. Ensure you’re going with the grain, and slide the scraper at a downward angle along where you’ve applied the stripper. Almost as if you’re using the scraper to scoop the leftover stripper up.

As you slide through, the scraper will accumulate both paint and stripper. Depending on the amount of stripper you’ve used, you might need to dispose of the built up gunk on the scraper two or three times per segment. Thats fine. As it accumulates, take the built up stripper with the scraper and wipe it onto a newspaper page.

This process will need to be completed over and over again. Don’t worry too much about little missed spots here and there, we will get to that. This part is mainly for the majority of the table and to rid the wood of the paint.

Step 4: Okay, you’ve got newspapers full of paint/stripper mix lying around and your brush is starting to fall apart as a byproduct of the stripper, yet you can see the wood in its natural color. The final step of this process is among you. The goal is to ensure that all the stain is off of the bare wood.

Spot any small blemishes of paint or stain left on the wood. With the steel wool you’ve purchased, rub it over the paint with a little bit of steel wool. This should small blotches and leave you with a clean slate. If you need to, rub harder or add more stripper, you can’t hurt the wood with either of these. The importance lies in ensuring that no left over paint or stain is on the wood.

Now that you’ve lifted the stain or paint off the table, you’re done with your “prep” work. Walk around the table ensuring you’ve got it all off. Clean up any left over materials and throw away any stripper that’s wrapped up in newspaper. Our next step in this process is sanding!

Sanding the Table

Now that we have removed all the previous stain and paint, its time to sand the table down. While electric sanders make the work easier and less rigorous, there’s a potential of it damaging the wood. I’d recommend using the Pro Grade Precision Sanding Tool by 3M (Under $10 at Home Depot).

This sanding tool is extremely beneficial to this specific project due to the control you have. The multiple angles it allows are very helpful for the different types of moving you need to make. Sanding is extremely easy, all it requires is the sander and some good old fashioned elbow grease.

Going with the grain, run the sander back and forth over the table. As you go, ensure you encompass the whole of the table, leaving no spot undone. A good way to gauge is by taking your gloves off and running your hands over the table. This is an effective way of finding rougher areas that need to be sanded. Once the table is smooth, you’re ready to apply your stain!

Applying The Stain

You have removed the previous paint or stain from the table. You’ve sanded the table down. Now, you’re ready to add your stain! As with most things, a little prep is required. Since you’ve already sanded the table down, it should be clean and ready to go. A little brushing over the table to remove any dust won’t hurt.

For this section, you’ll need some additional supplies:

  • Painters tape: 3M Scotch Blue: Under $5
  • Gloves
  • Cloth for Staining: HDX Delux Paint and Staining Cloth (10 ct.) Under $5
  • Stain of your choice (I’ll list a few below that I can vague for)

Choosing a stain can be a stressful situation. There are literally endless options and if you don’t know what to look for, it can prove to be overwhelming. Some stains come blended with Polyurethane, which adds a shine to the stain. Here are 3 I approve of below:

Varathane Kona Premium: This is my favorite stain to use. Varathane makes a great product in my opinion. The Kona color is a perfect shade that provides a nice modern look while preserving your woods true grain and texture. I’ve found Kona to be lighter than advertised, which is great.

This stain is advertised is drying in one hour. I’ve found that to be a little bit of a facade, and would recommend letting it sit. While it dries faster than others, it definitely takes a little more than an hour.

ZAR Teak Natural Wood Interior Stain: ZAR’s stains are oil based. This gives it a bit more consistency and a little more thickness. It’s cheaper than Varathane and really has a pretty color.

The Teak Natural color truly gives your wood a gorgeous shine and it’s on the lighter side. Unfortunately since its oil based, it takes much longer to dry. If you have the time on your hands, the stain makes it worth it.

General Finishes Antique Walnut: General Finishes is a popular brand. Their shades are generally well received. This stain is made of gel, which requires far less penetration into the wood. I’m not a big fan of this process, but the finished product speaks for itself.

As with the ZAR Teak Natural Wood stain, timing on this one seems forever. General Finishes recommends allowing the stain to sit for 24 hours before wiping and re-applying.

For the beginner, I’d recommend sticking with the Varathane Kona. It’s tried and true, and can adapt to really any interior colors. So, lets start with the staining process using the Varathane Kona Premium!

Step 1: Again, Prep Prep Prep! Prep work is king and if you spend an extra five minutes prepping properly, your life will be much much easier. First, place the table on top of either a plastic tarp, or newspapers. Next, using the painters tape, make your way around the table. Tape off any portion you do not want to stain. Once everything is prepped, it’s time to stain!

Step 2: With your gloves on, grab two cloths. One for applying the stain, and one for wiping off the stain. You can apply the stain and leave it on for a few hours, then wipe off. However, this will leave a darker tone to your stain. Since we are trying to make the stain lighter, we will take a different technique.

Step 3: Dip your cloth into the stain and spread it on the table, as always, going with the grain. Work your way from one end of the table to the other, dipping the cloth back into the stain as needed. Make sure you spread the stain on the table equally, ensuring it is evenly applied. you want to make this first coat not too light or not too dark in terms of the amount of stain you put on the table.

Once you cover the whole table, use the dry cloth to wipe off the stain, starting from the same point in which you started applying the stain. If your table is larger, then section out the work. Start on one point, spread the stain then let sit for a minute or so, and wipe it off.

If you like the shade of the stain after the first coat, then be sure to conduct the next coat or two in the exact same manner and time. If you’d like it a bit darker, let the second and third coat sit longer before you wipe it with the clean cloth.

I’d recommend adding three coats at the minimum. In some cases, if the shade of the stain is perfect after the second coat, you can get away without adding a third one. It’s entirely up to your judgement! Once you’ve applied the final coat, let it sit. It should be complete dry in 3-5 hours, but letting it sit overnight can’t hurt either! If you want to incorporate a shine to the table top, then spray some polyurethane once the stain has dried. This will help protect the stain while adding a nice shine to the table!


I've been building things for many years, and I want to share what I've learned to try and help whoever I can. Make sure to checkout the homepage for my most read posts!

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