Use Hydrogen Peroxide on Wood to Lighten it Easily

When looking to bleach or lighten wood furnituret, consider Hydrogen Peroxide rather than an expensive two part bleaching agent or standard bleach. Hydrogen Peroxide on wood is the preferred method of furniture restoration experts to bleach wood as needed. Therefore, I immediately had to test it out for myself! 

Mahogany Veneer lightened with hydrogen peroxide
Mahogany Veneer, originally the darker both sheets were darker but hydrogen peroxide lightened the top.

Table of Contents

What is Hydrogen Peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide is a common household and industrial chemical. At it’s chemical basis, it is water with an extra oxygen molecule. It is sold in different percentage of concentrations with most household usage being a 3 percent solution.  

 

In daily usage, hydrogen peroxide is most commonly a disinfectant, antiseptic or bleaching product. At a 3 percent solution, it is considered  safe for cleaning and disinfecting around the home.  Always check the concentration percentage of your Hydrogen Peroxide, as a 3% solution may be ok for household use, higher solutions can be more dangerous.

 

Hydrogen Peroxide is often referred to as non-toxic, as it breaks down into water and oxygen.  However, while being non-toxic it is still dangerous to ingest, inhale or come in contact with your skin.  There is no level of safe hydrogen peroxide solution for our skin so always wear appropriate safety equipment.

Hydrogen Peroxide at 12% concentration
Hydrogen Peroxide (Waterstofperoxide in Dutch)

Hydrogen Peroxide on Wood

Store-bought 2 part wood bleach solutions often contain various chemicals, are expensive, often sold out and you will have less control in how far you lighten your wood.  Meanwhile, hydrogen peroxide offers a more simplified alternative for Furniture refinishers. 

 

In order to successfully lighten wood with Hydrogen Peroxide you will require a solution strength of 12% minimum. However, 35% is recommended, as it will lighten the wood quicker and with less applications required.  

 

In addition to Hydrogen Peroxide, you will require ammonia to successfully lighten the wood.  I personally used a solution of 4% of Ammonia and a 12% of Hydrogen Peroxide. 

Walnut Bleached with Hydrogen Peroxide
Walnut Veneer Lightened with Hydrogen Peroxide

Why I opt for 12% Hydrogen Peroxide Strength

In the Netherlands you are required to have a specific license in order to purchase a hydrogen peroxide strength of 35%. Therefore, despite the recommendation of using 35% strength hydrogen peroxide, I opted for 12%.  

 

I could not be bothered with the extremely long, and costly process to get the required license approved.  This means the change in colour within the wood will be slower and less dramatic immediately.  

Ammonia Alone on Wood

Ammonia used alone on wood will actually lead to the wood potentially darkening in colour.  This occurs due to ammonia attacking the tannins in the wood. There is actually a method called ammonia fuming which is used to naturally discolour lighter woods naturally.  

 

It is the combination of hydrogen peroxide and ammonia together which attacks the tannins and lifts the colours to create a bleaching affect

bottle of Ammonia for household use at 4% dilution
Ammonia for household use at 4% concentration

Needed Materials

To lighten wood using hydrogen peroxide, you will need:

  • Hydrogen peroxide – This can typically be found at most pharmacies or drug stores. While I used a 12% concentration, you could opt for a 35% concentration as well.

  • Ammonia – I used a 4% solution of ammonia.

  • Paint brushs – A paintbrush works well for targeted application. You will require two brushes, one for the hydrogen peroxide and one for the ammonia.  Label each and do not mix them up. After use, I allow each brush to dry and wrap them up individually and store for future use.

  • Glass Jars – you will want to pour a little of each chemical into a separate glass container, to make it easier to brush on your wood.  Avoid metal containers as hydrogen peroxide can react with certain metals.

  • Rubber gloves – Wear gloves to protect your hands and avoid skin irritation when working with hydrogen peroxide.

  • Eye protection – Safety glasses or goggles are recommended to avoid eye exposure when applying.

  • Face mask – Use a respirator to avoid breathing in ammonia or hydrogen peroxide vapours.

  • Water – Have warm or hot water available to clean spills and to wash the wood or wooden furniture after you have reached the desired colour of wood.

  • Clean Cloth – You will want cloths or rags available for cleaning spills or to wash your piece once you reached the desired colour. 

  • Heat Gun – without a heat gun the drying time between coats can take a long time. 

Hydrogen Peroxide and Ammonia

Safety Precautions

When using any types of chemicals safety should always be your top priority. Here are some key precautions to take:

  • Use in a well-ventilated area –  work in an area with good airflow and ventilation. Open windows and turn on fans to circulate fresh air.

  • Wear gloves and eye protection – Hydrogen peroxide and ammonia can irritate skin and eyes. Always wear gloves to protect your hands, and safety glasses or goggles to protect your eyes. Ensure no skin or eyes are exposed when working.

  • Read and follow manufacturer’s instructions – Carefully read the entire product label and follow usage directions. Pay attention to any warnings or precautions listed by the manufacturer.

  • Test on inconspicuous area first – Before applying a solution of hydrogen peroxide to the entire surface, do a spot test on a small, inconspicuous area of the wood or wood furniture to check for any discoloration or damage to the wood.

  • Be very careful to avoid spilling or splashing both chemicals. 

  • Wear old clothes and have a water source nearby to rinse any accidental exposure on skin.

 

Following proper safety measures will help ensure you safely lighten wood. Never compromise on safety when working with chemicals.

Use gloves with Hydrogen Peroxide

Preparing The Wood Surface

Before applying hydrogen peroxide to lighten your wood, it’s important to properly prepare the surface. This will help the peroxide penetrate the wood and achieve even lightening. If you are working on wood furniture, you will want to firstly handle your prep work of both cleaning and sanding your piece. Any old finish must be fully removed, in order to have success. 

 

First, thoroughly clean the surface of your piece.  You want to remove all dust, dirt, oil, wax etc.  Any residue could affect the chemicals and result in a splotchy finish.

 

Then you should remove any old finish via your preferred method.  This could be with a carbid scrapper, stripper or sanding.  Afterwards, sand your wood furniture lightly to open the wood grain so the hydrogen peroxide can penetrate into the wood. Remove any remaining dust again with a damp cloth or tack cloth and vacuum. 

 

It’s also a good idea to test the hydrogen peroxide on a small, inconspicuous area first. Hydrogen Peroxide can be unpredictable on different wood species and surfaces. Check for any discoloration or other issues on your test area before applying to the entire project. This will minimize any surprises with your final results.

Applying Hydrogen Peroxide

Start by applying a coat of hydrogen peroxide on your surface, working in the direction of the wood grain. Allow the solution to soak into the grain and be absorbed into the raw wood. 

Add Hydrogen Peroxide with a paint brush
Apply Hydrogen Peroxide with a paint brush

Then using your ammonia paint brush, brush on the ammonia solution onto the surface with the hydrogen peroxide and allow to dry.  Combining the two chemicals causes a chemical reaction. If using 35% solution of hydrogen peroxide, you should see a change in wood colour almost immediately.  If not, still allow the chemicals to fully dry. 

Ammonia brushed on after hydrogen peroxide
Apply Ammonia with a different paint brush

You may want to follow up with a second or third coat until your desired colour is reached.  If working with only 12% solution, you may not see much change in colour with your first application. In all honesty, I have had to apply up to 5 coats to reach my desired tone in colour.  

Hydrogen peroxide should lighten wood quickly
Allow time to dry and see the colour change with multiple applications

For additional coats, follow the application process again. First the hydrogen peroxide solution, allow it to be absorbed and then follow with ammonia. Allow time to dry afterwards.  

 

Once you have achieved the colour you are striving for, you will want to wash your piece with lots of warm water to stop any further chemical reactions.  

Use a heat gun to quicken the hydrogen peroxide drying time
A heat gun can quicken the drying process

TIP

The drying process can be slow, so to speed you may use a heat gun on a low setting to dry the solutions

Hydrogen Peroxide vs Oxalic Acid

Oxalic Acid is a natural product which is used for removing water stains and other colourations in wood.  While Oxalic acid can lighten wood, it’s mainly due to removing years of patina or staining on the wood, rather than adjusting the core colour of the wood itself.

 

Oxalic Acid tends to return wood to its original, natural, light tone, while stronger concentrations of hydrogen Peroxide will lighten the natural wood tone.

 

I continue to recommend oxalic acid for projects which contain dark or black stains most likely caused by water and other organic material.  These are the most common stains for which oxalic acid is a very effective stain remover.  

 

I have personally not tested hydrogen peroxide as a stain remover and therefore cannot recommend it as such. 

 

For more information on oxalic acid, how it works and how to apply it.

Oxalic Acid tools needed for mixing a batch

Hydrogen Peroxide on Wooden Floors

The lower concentration of 3% hydrogen peroxide is considered a great method for deep cleaning wood floors, minor spot cleaning, or dark stains. The lower concentration of hydrogen peroxide will not discolour your flooring.

 

Furthermore, without ammonia to work on wood tannins, it will only work as a cleaning agent rather than a bleaching agent. So with the proper percent hydrogen peroxide, you can safely use it to clean hardwood floors. Read these five reasons on why to use hydrogen peroxide on flooring.

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Hey, I'm Sarah, the owner of Bold Wallflowers.

I'm on a self-taught journey through furniture refinishing and restoration, loving every experiment in my workshop.

Join me as I share my discoveries and gained knowledge with our vibrant community of fellow refinishers!

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