How to Bleach Wood Furniture: A New Look in 4 Easy Steps

by James Fitzgerald
Painted Wooden lantern hangs from a bleached wood pergola overlooking the ocean

Bleaching Wood Furniture at a Glance

  • Tools & Materials: Bleach, surface protection, cleaner, rags, paint stripper, scraper, applicator, sander, sanding paper, face mask, gloves, safety glasses
  • Step 1: Clean wood
  • Step 2: Strip paint
  • Step 3: Sand
  • Step 4: Apply bleach

Everyone’s familiar with using paint and stain as a decorative finish on wood. However, few are aware that a third option might be tucked away in their cupboard or cleaning closet. Bleach!

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Along with being an awesome household cleaner, bleach can also contribute a unique and gorgeous aesthetic to furniture, wood flooring and deck boards — just to name a few. In direct contrast to wood stains, bleach lightens the wood’s natural color to give it a sleek and clean appearance. As a result, bleaching wood furniture can either make it an eye-catching accent feature, or allow it to perfectly accommodate existing farmhouse, Scandinavian and related design themes.

If you’re interested in learning how to bleach wood furniture, read on to learn how it's done in four simple steps.

Tools & Materials

  • Bleach (household, laundry or wood bleach)
  • Surface protection (canvas drop cloth, cardboard, etc.)
  • Cleaning agent (general-purpose, trisodium phosphate wood cleaner, mineral spirits or plain water)
  • Clean rags and or sponges
  • Paint stripper
  • Scraper or putty knife
  • Applicator (spray bottle, rag or paintbrush)
  • Spray bottle (optional)
  • Sander (random orbital or belt sander, finish or detail sander, sanding block or sheet)
  • Sanding paper for sander
  • Face mask
  • Gloves
  • Safety glasses

Can I Use Household Bleach to Lighten Wood?

Household bleach can be used to slightly alter the appearance of wood, but it won’t drastically impact the wood’s natural color. To truly white-wash a piece of wooden furniture, a stronger bleach solution — like laundry bleach or wood bleach — needs to be used.

How to Bleach Wood Furniture

Before you begin bleaching your furniture, you need to remove any existing finish (stain, paint or sealer) on the wood. To do this, you can use a chemical paint stripper, a power sander (random orbital or belt sander) or both.

Paint strippers work by chemically reacting with the finish material until it separates from the wood. Once this happens, the finish can be easily scraped off to expose the bare wood underneath.

Using a paint stripper is one of the most common ways to prepare wood for bleaching because it’s fast and effective. The main drawbacks are that many paint strippers emit toxic chemical fumes, cause a huge mess and are more expensive to use than a sander you already own. Strippers aren’t usually as effective at accessing hard-to-reach areas (like tight inside corners) since you can only remove the finish you can access with a scraper or putty knife.

Sanding might be cheaper, cleaner and capable of removing finish in tight spaces, but it’s considerably more labor-intensive and time-consuming. Also, even though sanding may not be as messy as using a paint stripper, sanding an entire piece of furniture can still produce a huge amount of dust.

To overcome the weaknesses of each, it’s best to maximize the strengths of both. This can be done by using a paint stripper to quickly remove the majority of the wood’s finish and then following up with a sander to remove the material the stripper missed.

In any case, protect yourself by only sanding or stripping in a well-ventilated area while wearing a face mask, safety glasses and gloves. Also, consider applying some type of surface protection, like a drop cloth or piece of cardboard, on the ground of your work area to help protect it.

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Step 1: Prep & Clean

If you’re bleaching a piece of furniture with multiple parts — like a dresser with several drawers — remove each piece and place them a short distance apart from each other.

Apply a cleaning agent to a clean rag or sponge, and scrub the wood until it’s free of dirt and residue. Allow the wood to dry fully.

Step 2: Strip & Scrape

If using a paint stripper, use a sponge or brush to apply a thick layer of the stripper to all the finished wood. Allow it to sit on the wood for as long as the manufacturer recommends, which is usually between 20 minutes and two hours.

Once the finish has loosened from the wood (often indicated by bubbling or peeling), use a scraper or putty knife to scrape off the loosened layer of finish.

Depending on the type of wood and the number of existing finish coats, you may have to repeat these steps one or more times to reach bare wood. Once you have, remove any lingering stripper residue with a rag and cleaner.

Step 3: Sand

If you’re removing the finish with a sander alone, start by installing 80-grit sandpaper onto your sander. Sand until bare wood starts showing through, then switch to 120-grit sandpaper paper to remove the remaining finish.

If desired, you can perform a third pass with 220-grit sandpaper to provide an extra clean and smooth appearance. It’s important to use progressively finer grits of sandpaper to avoid digging too deep into the bare wood, which can negatively affect the bleaching process.

If you’re sanding after stripping, use 120- or 220-grit sandpaper until only bare wood remains.

To get into especially tight, hard-to-reach areas, you might want to use a finish sander, detail sander, manual sanding block or a sheet of sandpaper. Sanding by hand with a bare sheet of sandpaper might also be necessary for round surfaces and edges, like round legs and drawer handles, that other sanding tools can’t accommodate.

When you’ve finished sanding, clean the dust off the wood with a rag and general-purpose cleaner.

Step 4: Bleach the Wood

The bleach can be applied with a cloth, paintbrush or spray bottle. If you’re using a spray bottle, mix equal parts water and bleach. If using a rag or paintbrush, pour pure bleach solution into a bowl or bucket you can dip the applicator into.

Spray or spread a thin layer of bleach evenly over the wood. Try your best to prevent any pooling on horizontal surfaces or dripping on vertical surfaces. Allow the bleach to dry for about 15 minutes, or until it’s dry to the touch.

Repeat this process until the wood achieves the desired appearance. The more coats of bleach you apply, the lighter the wood will get.