Why Woodwork Goes Yellow (And What to Do About It)

Those who are professional or amateur woodworkers or anywhere in between have likely encountered a common problem: woodwork turning yellow. While this problem seems to be fairly common, that doesn’t make it any less frustrating!

Why does woodwork go yellow, and what can you do about it? There are a few different reasons for woodwork turning yellow. Woodwork can turn yellow due to poor or no preparation of the woodwork before starting the process of working with it. Woodwork can also turn yellow due to the paint being used on it; some chemicals in the paint can unfortunately cause a yellow hue.

Luckily, there are some things you can do about your woodwork going yellow. You can attempt to prevent your woodwork from going yellow in the first place by doing the correct preparation on your workpiece before working with it. You can also make sure to buy a paint that is less resistant to yellowing. Additionally, you can control the environmental factors the woodwork is exposed to.

There’s clearly quite a bit that goes into why woodwork turns yellow and an equal amount of techniques that can be employed to avoid and prevent it. We’ve researched and written all the information you need to know about why woodwork goes yellow and how you can keep it from happening to yours!

Why Woodwork Goes Yellow & What You Can Do About It

Why Does Woodwork Go Yellow?

There are quite a few reasons why woodwork can go yellow. More often than not, woodwork goes yellow because of the finishing. Finishing is often painted; think of a wooden table painted white or wooden cabinets painted white.

Regardless of the species of wood or the type of woodwork that has been finished and painted, white paints have an annoying tendency to yellow over time. Why, though? That seems pretty problematic and frustrating, right? It turns out that there are several reasons.

Chemicals in the Products

Woodwork can turn yellow simply due to the chemicals in the paint or finisher used on it. Oil-based paints, specifically alkyd paints, are great because they’re durable – but they have chemicals in them that cause the paint to yellow over time.

Certain types of varnish, especially ones that aren’t polyurethane based, can also be subject your woodwork to yellowing due to the chemicals in them.

Exposure to Moisture

Unfortunately, a lot of exposure to moisture can cause your woodwork to be yellow. This means woodwork in areas that are prone to leaks or steam may fall victim to yellowing more easily and more quickly (looking at you, bathrooms and kitchens!).

Exposure to Cigarette Smoke

Exposure to cigarette smoke can also damage and yellow your woodwork. If you have woodwork in an area that is frequently smoked in, be aware that it could yellow much more quickly and easily.

Exposure to Ammonia

Unfortunately, ammonia is also an enemy of the woodwork. If you plan on cleaning your woodwork, avoid using ammonia or cleaning products that contain ammonia as the chemical can make your woodwork much more prone to going yellow.

Not Enough Exposure to Light

As it turns out, light – both natural and artificial – significantly slows down the chances of woodwork going yellow. If you’ve got woodwork that will be finished with white paint or non-polyurethane varnishes, try keeping it in an area that gets a significant amount of sunlight.

Be aware that if you’ve got woodwork in an area that gets little to no exposure to sunlight, it can be more prone to getting a yellow hue.

No Prep Work or Incorrect Prep Work

Prep work is also a big factor in woodwork going yellow. A huge part of important prep is making sure to clean and sand any wood down before working with it to remove any color blemishes or other issues.

Incorrect prep work can also involve not sealing the wood before working with it, or using the wrong type of sealer, primer or undercoat.

What You Can Do If Your Woodwork Goes Yellow

If your woodwork turns the dreaded yellow on you, there are some solutions available to you. You can attempt to clean your woodwork, expose it to more light, and even go right to covering it with another finish.

Here’s what you can do if your woodwork goes yellow!

Attempt Some Basic Cleaning

You can attempt some basic cleaning for wood that has gone yellow with mild to moderate stains. Let’s look at the step-by-step process:

  1. Mix ½ cup of all purpose cleaner (remember, try to avoid ammonia if you can), wood cleaner and white vinegar with a ½ cup of water.
  2. Put your solution in a spray bottle.
  3. Spray your woodwork with the mixture. Scrub the surface in slow circular motion.
  4. Dry the woodwork off with a clean, dry rag.

Attempt Some More In-Depth Cleaning

For stubborn, advanced yellow stains, you can try a more in-depth cleaning technique. Here’s how!

  1. Mix ½ cup baking soda with ¼ cup water to make a thick paste.
  2. Take a soft toothbrush, damp sponge or nylon-bristled scrub and dip it into the paste.
  3. Scrub the yellow areas in gentle circular motions. Leave the mixture on the areas for about 5 minutes.
  4. Wipe away the mixture with a damp sponge.
  5. Dry the woodwork with a clean, dry rag or soft towel.

Expose Your Woodwork to More Light

If you can, expose your woodwork that has gone yellow to some sunlight – whether it’s natural or artificial. Time to open those blinds!

Cover It Up With New Paint

If your cleaning solutions and light exposure just aren’t doing the trick to fix your woodwork that has gone yellow, you can turn to the simple solution of just covering it up with a new layer of white paint.

This time around, be sure to use quality products. Try applying a coat of interior-grade latex paint or primer and let it dry. Then, protect it with a coat of sealant or varnish. The sealant and varnish should further protect the new paint from yellowing on your woodwork.

Tips for Preventing Your Woodwork from Going Yellow

As you’ve probably gathered by now, you can either try to fix your woodwork that has gone yellow after the fact, or you can try to prevent your woodwork from yellowing in the first place. This is a great option and something to be aware of if you don’t want that yellow hue creeping in.

Time to discuss some tips for preventing your woodwork from going yellow!

Clean Your Wood Before Working With it Further

Make sure to properly clean, sand and seal your woodwork before working with it further. This will prevent any yellows from seeping through the woodwork, and from seeping through any paints and varnishes.

Avoid Using Oil-Based Paints

Like we discussed, oil-based paints have chemicals in them that have a tendency to yellow over time. To avoid any woodwork yellowing in the first place, try using a latex paint instead of an oil-based one.

Use Polishes and Varnishes With Urethane

Like we also previously discussed, polishes and varnishes that don’t have urethane or polyurethane also have a tendency to yellow over time. Coating your woodwork in a layer or two of urethane or polyurethane varnish or polish can help avoid any yellowing.

Position Your Woodwork in Well Lit Areas

As you have probably learned by now, light is a big friend of woodwork that helps it not yellow. If you have a chance or a choice, try to position your woodwork in an area that’s well lit – either by natural sunlight or by a lot of artificial light.

If you’re unable to get your woodwork in an area that has a lot of natural or artificial light, you may want to explore other options for painting or finishing your woodwork that isn’t white or another extremely light color. However, if you’re still dead-set on the white or light colors, follow the other tips for preventing your woodwork from going yellow.

Avoid Exposure to Moisture, Cigarette Smoke, Ammonia and Grease

After our first section, this probably goes without saying. To keep your woodwork from yellowing in the first place, make sure you avoid exposing it to moisture, cigarette smoke, ammonia and grease. Be especially wary of kitchens and bathrooms in your home – moisture and grease tend to accumulate there. You’ve heard it before, but try to avoid cleaning your woodwork with ammonia or products that consist of a lot of ammonia. Additionally, if you’re looking to keep your woodwork from going yellow, keep it in areas that it won’t be exposed to cigarette smoke, If that’s not possible, at least keep it in the areas with the least amount of cigarette smoke.


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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