Why does steel wool and vinegar not work for me?

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Forum topic by Scott Albrecht posted 06-06-2016 03:07 PM 8245 views 0 times favorited 14 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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Scott Albrecht

20 posts in 2021 days

06-06-2016 03:07 PM

I am starting this topic to hopefully get some answers why I can’t seem to get steel wool and vinegar to work. Here’s what I’ve tried:

Attempt 1:

Took washed glass jar, cut up one bundle of fine steel wool (bull dog brand if it matters) and put in jar, poured in vinegar (Heinz brand) to cover it and left the lid off for 3-4 days stirring it around occasionally, after 3-4 days the vinegar was still crystal clear, so I put the lid on and left it for 3-4 more days, same result so I threw out the mixture and started over

Noticing that most of the posts I’ve read on this concoction call for distilled vinegar, I thought maybe the 5% acid vinegar I used wasn’t strong enough to desolve the steel wool, this time I tried Pickelling vinegar which is 7% acid and was the strongest I could find.

Attempt 2

Same as the first but with the stronger vinegar and this time I put the lid on right away, left it for almost a week, shaking it every couple days, same result, vinegar remained clear.

What am I doing wrong?

Any advice anyone could offer would be greatly appreciated


-- I am not a hoarder...., I am a rescuer of still usable things !!

14 replies so far

View joey502's profile


537 posts in 1540 days

#1 posted 06-06-2016 05:14 PM

Did you apply the mixture to anything before you threw it out? I would test it on a scrap before your project to check for desired effect. What kind of wood? Oak?

My first experience with the steel wool/ vinegar mixture was similar to yours. My nephew wanted to come over to make a picture frame for his girlfriend. He wanted the aged look so we decided to try the vinegar ( on oak). The picture frame and jar of our mixture went home with him for a few days after the project was completed. He waited 4 days for the steel wool to dissolve. The vinegar remained clear but we decided to test it anyway on the 5th day. Turned the boards deep charcoal grey within a few minutes of the application.

View xeddog's profile


189 posts in 3030 days

#2 posted 06-06-2016 05:21 PM

You have not said exactly what you are trying to accomplish, but I am assuming that you have some sort of wood that you would like to blacken. If you are trying to darken a wood that has a lot of natural tanin like oak, then your solution should work although I have left my solution “cooking” for 2-3 weeks instead of days using standard kitchen variety vinegar. If you don’t remove the steel wool from the jar, the solution will remain clear for quite a while and then eventually start turning dark. I don’t know why, maybe there is so much steel dissolved in solution that it begins to rust or ??? But if you remove the steel wool before this happens, it will remain clear much longer.

If your wood has no natural tanin, like maple for example, then tanin will need to be added. There are several ways to accomplish this but two sources are Quebracho bark and black tea. I have used a very strong solution made with black tea and had decent results with maple. You will not get BLACK with maple, but more like a very dark grey.

One last thing, you said you have used a washed jar, but have you used washed steel wool? Some steel wools have a dabble of oil, soap, or some other substance to prevent rusting or increase cleaning effectiveness.


View distrbd's profile


2252 posts in 2469 days

#3 posted 06-06-2016 05:23 PM

Maybe the problem is the type of steel wool:
In 1933, Thamesville Metal Products Ltd. was formed to fill the need for a safe and reliable way of removing rust and corrosion from metal parts. Since then Bull Dog Steel Wool has proven invaluable in the home, workshop and in industrial applications such as engine exhausts and silencers, filters and other applications requiring high heat absorption and resistance to oxidation.

-- Ken from Ontario, Canada

View DwightC's profile


26 posts in 798 days

#4 posted 06-06-2016 05:26 PM

The steel wool does not discolor the vinegar. Nor, when the solution is applied to the wood, does the wood instantly darken. It glistens wet, then, as the chemical reaction between the steel in solution, the vinegar, and the tannins in the wood occurs, your piece will darken. Joey502 says wait a few minutes. That’s about right, maybe a little longer. Then once you’ve ebonized your wood, you’ll need to dewhisker with very fine (~400 grit) sand paper, since the process raises the grain.

BTW, there are lots of different ways to ebonize woods, with different results, and different guys have different preferences. Also, each species of wood responds in its own way. Some like the blue-ish, incredibly deep black you get with Marine Corps boot blackener. I prefer the steel wool and vinegar on walnut that mimics ebony very nicely, with hints of brown in with the black. Others like the results with ash, etc., better. YMMV.

View shipwright's profile


7992 posts in 2820 days

#5 posted 06-07-2016 03:11 AM

You don’t need to use steel wool. It may be the easiest way to go but I used to use just any very rusty (preferably flaking) steel and it worked amazingly well. I have used steel wool too with similar results.
If I had to guess, I’d say that your “gestation” was too short. A couple of weeks is my norm and I get jet black on high tannin woods like oak and walnut.
You can watch the colour in walnut change to hard black in real time (seconds) in this video.

-- Paul M ..............If God wanted us to have fiberglass boats he would have given us fibreglass trees.

View Scott Albrecht's profile

Scott Albrecht

20 posts in 2021 days

#6 posted 06-09-2016 06:32 PM

Thank you all for the responses, I hadn’t even considered that the wool had oil on it so I am trying attempt 3 with washed steel wool, I tried my second attempt on some spruce, I know it has little to no tannins and I tried it on spruce that was prepped with black tea, basicly no change in color


-- I am not a hoarder...., I am a rescuer of still usable things !!

View bandit571's profile


20209 posts in 2706 days

#7 posted 06-09-2016 07:27 PM

IF you know a source of metal shavings, like from a lathe or drill press…..Place in a cheese clothe baggie, and soak.

-- A Planer? I'M the planer, this is what I use

View Tootles's profile


808 posts in 2524 days

#8 posted 06-12-2016 10:43 AM

Try watching this video. Perhaps it has something that will help.

-- I may have lost my marbles, but I still have my love of woodworking

View xeddog's profile


189 posts in 3030 days

#9 posted 06-12-2016 05:02 PM

I just watched tootles video link and have just a couple of comments.

First, when he put the steel wool into the vinegar, he sealed the jar. I have read that the jar lid should be left a little loose because the chemical reaction between the steel and the vinegar releases hydrogen gas which should be vented.

His untreated maple darkened quite a bit. The hard maple that I used for testing didn’t change color at all unless a source of tanin was added.

When I applied the the ebonizing solution to tea treated maple, the coloring was almost instantaneous, and increased time in solution didn’t really add anything except more moisture into the wood that had to be dried.

I’m sure I could find more to comment on, but that is what stands out. All-in-all, a good video.


View Tootles's profile


808 posts in 2524 days

#10 posted 06-13-2016 12:23 AM


I did not notice that about the sealing of the jar – you are right that hydrogen is given off. Admittedly, the volume in the jar is so small that the risk is small, and it is only a problem if you open the jar next to a flame or heat source, but it is a good catch. It is the sort of video that I point people to, so it is a good addition to the discussion.

Regarding the maple, did you notice that it was Queensland maple? Steve Hay is from Brisbane in Australia so he was using local woods. I do not think Queensland maple is really the same as North American maple – just some similarities in colour and other properties perhaps (I still have a lot to learn about the Australian timbers). Apparently though, one of the differences must be that Queensland maple has more tannin. At least, that would explain your results by comparison to his.

-- I may have lost my marbles, but I still have my love of woodworking

View xeddog's profile


189 posts in 3030 days

#11 posted 06-13-2016 04:39 PM

I agree that the risk of anything going wrong when sealing the jars is low, but Glass jars are designed for vacuum inside, not pressure. The amount of hydrogen gas given off is probably not explosive unless in a small confined space (like in a cabinet??). But as far as I’m concerned, why risk it?

I did notice about the maple. That is why I attempted to differentiate between “his” and “mine”. The Queensland Maple that he used is even a little darker in color the my almost white hard maple, so it obviously has more tanin.


View Arlin Eastman's profile

Arlin Eastman

4230 posts in 2583 days

#12 posted 06-13-2016 05:13 PM

There are a lot of steel wool out there has oil in the fibers and it needs washed out in the sink with dish soap let dry and then use it.

Also when it is done it will only work on woods high in tannin like Black Walnut, Oaks and I forget the other wood.

-- It is always the right time, to do the right thing.

View Scott Albrecht's profile

Scott Albrecht

20 posts in 2021 days

#13 posted 06-20-2016 02:34 AM

Ok, so attempt 3 was a success, I washed the steelwool, put a lid on the jar and every couple days would give it a bit of a shake, after a week and a half I tried it and the results were amazing, the solution didn’t change much in color until it was open to the air for a few mins, then it turned a frothy reddish color, after trying out a test sample board, i strained the mixture in to another jar through a coffee filter and used on my project, thank you all very much for your ideas, tips, and advice, it’s people like you that make our Comunity such a great group to be a part of.


-- I am not a hoarder...., I am a rescuer of still usable things !!

View daddywoofdawg's profile


1028 posts in 1597 days

#14 posted 06-20-2016 02:57 AM

I have read you should wet the steel wool and leave it out in the air for a couple days,to let it start to rust.I haven’t tried it that way,I have let mine soak for about a year and every month have tried it on woods,oak pine,tea soaked and not.Me,I think it’s almost a myth that it works,I get just a little gray it it more like brown dirty color.your mileage may vary,but what I read should soak for a few weeks,and may sure you get the steel wool in the paint isle not the dish-washing maybe soaked with a chem to keep it from rusting or have a soap on it.the paint isle stuff is pure steel wool.

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