16 Shades of Grey – How to Create the Perfect Grey Stain

Hey there friends! If you clicked on this post thinking you were going to read a steamy romance… get your mind out of the gutter! Nope, this post is about a love affair with finding the perfect grey stain. The vanity I designed and built for a friend’s bathroom remodel is almost done and my plan calls for a grey stain. Here’s a Sketchup rendition of the vanity:

Vanity Final

My go-to stains are Rust-Oleum Ultimate Wood Stain and Varathane (also made by Rust-Oleum) Premium Fast Dry Wood Stain. I’m pretty sure the Rust-Oleum Ultimate Wood Stain is the same product rebranded as Varathane. The one coat coverage is awesome and I LOVE the deep, rich “Kona” color, so I decided to try their grey colors for this project. Want to see the Kona color in use? Check out my Best Dark Chocolate Wood Stain tutorial that I used on my Electric Fireplace Mantle.


For the vanity project I decide to try Rust-Oleum “Sun Bleached” and Varathane “Weathered Grey”. I tested them on some scrap pine, but neither was exactly what I was looking for. It’s not really the fault of the stain though. When using stain I feel in order to get a real “depth” of color that you have to apply two different stain colors to bring out the beauty of the wood. Any stain when used alone looks a little “flat” to me. For me the Weathered Grey looked too blue and the Sun Bleached was a little too white. But I thought both colors were a good place to start, and with a little tweaking, I could come up with something that would work. Perhaps an experiment was in order…


My “Shades of Grey” experiment would make Jamie and Adam of Mythbusters proud! Here’s how I would conduct the experiment: I would put together 20 swatches using different base colors each topped with the Weathered Grey and Sun Bleached stains. There would be four “control” swatches, four Sun Bleached swatches, four Weathered Grey topped with Sun Bleach swatches, four Sun Bleached topped with Weathered Grey swatches and four Weathered Grey swatches. All of the swatches would be pine, measure 2-1/2″ x 2-1/2″ and would be sanded with 120 grit sandpaper.

16 shades of grey techniques to create the perfect grey stain

Control Swatches

The four control swatches included raw, tea stained, tea stained and oxidized and oxidized.

Raw  – It’s just that… raw wood.

Tea Stained – I boiled 1 cup of water and let four black tea bags steep for a few hours. Then I applied it to the swatches with a foam brush and let it dry. The tea brings out the tannins in the wood. Tannins are what makes the wood dark. The tea doesn’t really change the color of the wood too much, but there is a dramatic reaction when the oxidation solution is applied.

Oxidized – I put one steel wool pad in a pint mason jar and filled it with white vinegar. I let this sit for two weeks. The solution only needs to sit for 24-48 hours, but I was late starting my grey stain experiment, so mine sat a little longer than necessary. Then I applied it to the swatches with a foam brush and let it dry. The oxidation solution reacts with the tannins in the wood and turns it a dark brown color.

Tea Stain and Oxidized – After the tea stain was dry I applied the oxidation solution which turned the wood a very dark brown color.
raw swatches

For more info and pics of the tea stain and oxidation process check out my The Best Dark Chocolate Wood Stain. These three techniques raise the grain of the wood, so after all of the swatches were dry they were sanded again with 120 grit sandpaper. Oh, and just in case you like the look of the oxidized and tea stain/oxidized look, I have an important note for you. These are water soluble, which basically means if they get wet, they’ll be ruined. So if you like it, you must top it either with an oil based stain or oil based finish. Do not use any water based products at this stage, because like I said, it will be ruined.

The next step was to apply the stain. I did not follow the instructions on the can which said to let it sit for 1-2 minutes. I’ve used this stain before and know the color change is quick. I used a rag (OK, I confess, I actually used one of my old socks!) to apply the stain and immediately wiped it off. For the swatches that required a second coat I waited a few hours for the first coat of stain to dry and then applied the second coat.


grey swatches numbered

1. Raw wood
2. Tea stained
3. Tea stained/Oxidized
4. Oxidized
5. Sun Bleached – raw wood
6. Sun Bleached – tea stained
7. Sun Bleached – tea stained/oxidized
8. Sun Bleached – oxidized
9. Sun Bleached over Weathered Grey – raw wood
10. Sun Bleached over Weathered Grey – tea stained
11. Sun Bleached over Weathered Grey – tea stained/oxidized
12. Sun Bleached over Weathered Grey – oxidized
13. Weathered Grey over Sun Bleached – raw wood
14. Weathered Grey over Sun Bleached – tea stained
15. Weathered Grey over Sun Bleached – tea stained/oxidized
16. Weathered Grey over Sun Bleached – oxidized
17. Weathered Grey – raw wood
18. Weathered Grey – tea stained
19. Weathered Grey – tea stained/oxidized
20. Weathered Grey – oxidized

For me swatches 9, 10, 13, 14, 17 and 18 look more bluish than grey, while swatches 7, 8, 11, 12, 15, 16, 19 and 20 look more grey. My favorites are #7 Sun Bleached – tea stained/oxidized, #8 Sun Bleached – oxidized and #15 Weathered Grey over Sun Bleached – tea stained/oxidized. Which one is your favorite?

Stay tuned… soon I will be sharing the plans for the bathroom vanity and reveal which stain color I used!

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  1. Brilliant! Well thought out. This is really great. I’m going to pin this for now. I have a steel wool sitting in some vinegar. There are several projects I’m working on and I will be “experimenting”. I love the colors you’ve come up with. #12, 16, 17, 20 are my faves. If I had to pick one…#12 is my pick. I’m planning on trying a few stains. I have some old paints to play with as well. Great work! Thank you so much for sharing. 🙂

    1. Thank you! I use the steel wool/vinegar trick on nearly every project. It really warms up stark white pine 🙂


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