creative bleaching techniques

Most woodworkers associate bleach with removing stains, whether they occur naturally in the wood or have been caused by contact with the iron or when the wrong stain was applied. But there is a creative side to whitewashing wood. You can achieve a new look by removing the natural color of the wood; can produce a neutral base for grey, stripped and other finishes; and you can color match older furniture.

There are several products sold as wood bleach, but for this technique you will need a two component bleach also known as A/B bleach. Check with your local paint or hardware store. This product is sold in a pack of two bottles; part A is sodium hydroxide and part B is hydrogen peroxide.

Sodium hydroxide is particularly dangerous. You should wear eye protection because a healthy splash in your eyes can cause permanent blindness, and wear long sleeves and thick gloves (preferably nitrile) to protect your skin from chemical burns.

Because whitewash will raise the grit, don’t bother pre-sanding past P180 grit. Some brands of bleach tell you to apply Part A first, then Part B. The brand I used, made by Klean-Strip, says to mix the two parts in equal amounts in a non-metallic container. Mix only what you will use; the mixture weakens after three or four hours. Apply the bleach evenly with a disposable foam or nylon bristle brush. The bleach can foam up a bit when the wood is wet, a sign that it’s working. Results may begin to be visible in 10 to 15 minutes, but allow the wood to dry at least six hours to judge the full effects. If the wood is not pale enough, try a second application. But be careful; more than two coats will severely lift the grain and may produce a greenish tint.

In particular, after a second application, wait at least two hours and then neutralize the reaction with a mixture of white vinegar and water. Follow the instructions for the exact ratio.

Let the wood dry for 24 hours out of direct sunlight, then sand with P180 or P220 grit sandpaper, being careful not to sand down to the unbleached wood.

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