DIY

How to Take the Red Out of Red Oak

When we were building our house, we ran into a small issue. Our hardwood flooring was white oak, but we had a lot of other wood elements like beams and built-ins that would have to be built using red oak boards. We had to use red oak due to the limited availability of white oak.

So you may or may not be asking yourself, so what’s the big deal? I definitely don’t think all wood in a house needs to match exactly. In fact, a little contrast is nice. But in this house, it was very important to us to not have reddish hues coming through in any of the wood elements.

So I spent several days trying to figure out how to take the red out of our red oak. I came up with two methods that worked really well. In this article, I’m going to share them both with you so you don’t have to spend the time trying to figure out how to do it.

Method 1: Beach the Red Oak

I had heard of people bleaching wood, but I was skeptical about how well it would work. After researching the best bleach for wood, I came to the conclusion that all of the products I was finding were very overpriced. I also noticed that they all seemed to have the same two main ingredients: lye and hydrogen peroxide.

So I decided to make my own wood bleach.

The hydrogen peroxide was easy to find. I picked up a bottle at my local Walgreens, but it took a little more effort to find the lye locally.

I ended up finding it at Walmart, but not where I expected to find it. It was with the plumbing supplies. What I bought was a cheap drain unclogger that was 100% lye crystals.

Here’s how I made the bleach:

Step 1: Mix the Ingredients

Important: When handling or working with lye, you should always wear gloves and probably eye protection. Also, never pour water into the lye and don’t pour a bunch of lye into the water at one time.

I filled a plastic container with 1 qt of water. It’s important that you use plastic and not metal. And if you are doing a lot of wood, you might want to make a gallon.

Then I slowly added 3 tablespoons of lye to the water, stirring the water slowly between each tablespoon.

Step 2: Apply the Hydrogen Peroxide

Once I had the lye solution made and ready to go, I set it aside and poured the hydrogen peroxide on the red oak.

Then spread it with a foam brush to make sure the entire surface was covered.

Step 3: Apply Lye Solution

I used the foam brush to spread on the lye solution thoroughly over the entire surface.

Then I let it completely dry.

Step 4: Rinse the Wood

After the wood had completely dried, I noticed that it had a yellow tint. I realized this was residue from the lye solution. Using water, I rinsed the surface of the wood and wiped it dry with a towel. Then I let it comply dry again.

As you can see in the picture below, the bleach removed almost all of the red/pink coloring from the red oak.

If you end up using this method to bleach red oak and you feel like there is still too much red, you can repeat steps 2 – 4 until you are happy with the color.

Also keep in mind that the bleach only affects the top layer of the wood. So if you end up sanding the wood a lot, you could reveal red by removing too much of the bleached layer. Light sanding should be ok.

Method 2: Add some Green to your Stain

If you don’t feel comfortable with the bleaching method, there is another way to get rid of the “red”.

You might be thinking, “If I didn’t want the wood to be red, why would I want it to be green?”.

Let’s talk a little color theory. Take a look at the color wheel below.

Notice how green is opposite of red on the color wheel. This means that adding some green to a stain will help neutralize or hide the red in red oak. Plus anytime you mix a primary color with its opposite on the color wheel, you get brown. And that’s what we’re trying to achieve.

So, for this alternative method for taking the red out of red oak, you can experiment and mix your own custom stain color by adding in some green. Or you can find a stain that already has some green in it.

We’ve found one that we really like and have used on numerous projects. It’s called Driftwood Gray by Olympic.

We used it on the stair treads in our farmhouse, and we used it on several red oak items in our current house – like our beams, living room built-ins, and the floating shelves in our kitchen.

Conclusion

Trying to achieve a desired color for red oak can be a challenge, but I hope these tips are a help to you! Remember to be careful working with lye and don’t be afraid to experiment with different amounts of bleach and mixing your own stain colors.

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15 Comments

  • Reply Joanne

    So we bought poplar wood and it has a slight green undertone if we add red ( based on the chart)would it help take out the green?

    June 9, 2020 at 5:16 am
    • Reply Jess

      Hey!! We are working with knotty alder wood- and it has red/orange undertones. Would this process work on that?

      June 9, 2020 at 3:34 pm
      • Reply Henry

        Hi Jess. I’ve not tried it on alder wood, but I don’t see a reason why it wouldn’t work. Let me know how it goes.

        June 9, 2020 at 3:38 pm
        • Reply Kate Martens

          Hi! The only stain I can find from Olympic in driftwood gray is an exterior stain. Is that what you used on these interior projects? I’m trying to find a stain for my red oak beams to go with my white oak floors. Did you buy the stain from Home Depot?Thanks.

          June 15, 2020 at 11:27 am
          • Henry

            Hi Kate. Yes, that is it. That’s what we used on our beams without bleaching. If you are wanting the beams to be light, I would recomend bleaching them, and using a lighter stain. Driftwood Gray will give you a medium brown on unbleached red oak.

            June 15, 2020 at 11:32 am
    • Reply Henry

      Hi Joanne. I’ve not tried that on poplar, but it seems like it should work. You could also test the bleach method to try and remove the green. Let us know how it goes.

      June 9, 2020 at 3:37 pm
  • Reply Ann

    Henry, Thank you so much for sharing this information.
    Is the Olympic driftwood gray stain water based or oil based? I’m having a difficult time finding Olympic interior stain. Would you recommend another brand stain with similar results?

    June 10, 2020 at 11:12 pm
    • Reply Henry

      You’re very welcome! The stain we used is actually outdoor stain, but it’s ok to use it on the interior. Hopefully knowing that will help you find the right one.

      June 10, 2020 at 11:21 pm
  • Reply Kim

    Did you add a finish over the driftwood gray or just leave it as it is a stain/sealer? Everything my carpenter tries changes the color?

    June 24, 2020 at 11:34 am
    • Reply Henry

      We didn’t apply anything else after the stain. But if you want to, I would recommend Helmsman Spar Urethane.

      June 25, 2020 at 1:38 am
  • Reply Amber Kunnen

    What exactly is the process you used on the built ins to match the white oak flooring? Did you bleach and stain with driftwood grey? Did you just do a clear coat? Poly or oil? Thank you!!

    July 13, 2020 at 6:09 pm
    • Reply Henry

      On the built-ins, I just used the Driftwood Gray stain.

      July 17, 2020 at 1:33 am
  • Reply Michelle

    Stained red oak (pickled oak) still super red but already indoor and installed built ins. Is it hard to sand down and restain? I love the custom built ins. The cabinet maker did a fabulous job but it’s just really red. Or is there another way?

    July 15, 2020 at 9:38 pm
  • Reply Adam

    Just curious – where did you source your oak from, and what were the dimensions?

    August 27, 2020 at 9:44 pm
    • Reply Adam

      Dimensions for the beams I mean (primarily interested in where to get longer pieces of oak)

      August 27, 2020 at 9:46 pm

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