Turn Trash into Treasure (and Inexpensive Props)

persimmons

The zero-waste journey will change your perception of trash

I have been on the lookout for photo backgrounds for months, maybe longer. I’ve checked out expensive wooden cutting boards and pricey marble pastry slabs and giant pieces of natural fabrics but I can’t bring myself to buy more new stuff. I’d feel silly buying a bunch of backgrounds for taking photos that I hope will encourage people to consume less. (Also I am extremely frugal and enjoy a challenge.)

A couple of months ago, on my way home from the farmers’ market, bike loaded with food, I found two pine wine crates on the side of the road. I didn’t have much farther to go, so I managed to stack them on my bike seat and walk the bike home.

wooden wine crates
Free crates (and tricycle) by the side of the road
wine crates on bike
I couldn’t pass these crates up!

The crates have come in handy for transporting food, dishes, utensils, produce bags and whatnot to events but their yellowish color doesn’t work well for pics. So I thought I would ask my neighbors if they have any old cans of dark wood stain I could use up.

Then my partner Chandra had a genius idea (as he so often does). He suggested I try making a natural stain. After he drank his coffee the next morning, I brewed a small second batch with the spent grounds. I rubbed some of that onto a small area of the wood with one of my many rags cut from old t-shirts. The watery coffee stained the pine only a tiny bit so I next tried boiling it down along with the grounds and applied that to part of the crate. That worked much better. In the pic below, you can compare the before and after. I left the bottom and right side untreated and applied the coffee only once to the back and left side.

wine crate with coffee stain
Crate with coffee stain

When I posted that picture on Instagram and Facebook, at least a dozen people suggested I try staining the wood with tea, vinegar and steel wool. People told me they have used that stain for theatre props, butcher blocks, mantlepieces, floors, staircases and more. A few sent me pics of their gorgeous projects. I had to try this!

I almost always have lots of vinegar on hand. I let some batches of my kombucha ferment so long that the SCOBY has eaten all of the sugar, resulting in very strong vinegar. I also make scrap vinegar out of apple peels and cores. I was low on kombucha vinegar but still had quite a bit of scrap vinegar left from the last apple season so I decided to make the stain with that for my first attempt.

You can also use store-bought vinegar of course. The various instructions I read online called for white vinegar but if my scrap vinegar worked, I’m pretty sure any vinegar will do.

How to make scrap vinegar for the stain

To make scrap vinegar, stuff a jar very generously with apple scraps and peels. Sprinkle on a tablespoon or so of sugar and pour in water just until you’ve covered the scraps. I like to put a jar inside the jar to keep my scraps more or less submerged in the liquid. This helps prevent mold. Secure a thin cloth over the top of the jars to allow air to circulate but keep dirt and critters out. Stir several times a day. After a few days, the concoction will begin to bubble as the bacteria eat the sugars and excrete gases. The liquid will turn slightly alcoholic after a week or so and then vinegary after another week. Strain it at that point and move to a clean jar or bottle. That’s about all there is to it.

homemade apple cider vinegar made from trash
Homemade vinegar made from apple peels and cores

Go here for a longer post on scrap vinegar.

How to make the stain with the vinegar

To make the stain, pull apart steel wool, stuff it into a jar of vinegar and wait for the steel to rust. You can also use nails, screws or steel shavings instead of steel wool.

When nothing happened in my jar for a couple of days, I thought my scrap vinegar wasn’t strong enough, I had wasted a bunch of it, what would I do with this jar of ruined vinegar now, my hippy ways had gone too far, why was this happening to me, etc. Then seemingly overnight, around day three, the mixture had darkened into stain.

vinegar rust stain
Stuff steel wool into jar and wait
homemade vinegar rust wood stain
Ready-to-use stain

How to stain the wood

Wood contains tannins, which react to the stain. I added more tannins by applying strong black tea to the crate with a paint brush. After the tea had dried for at least an hour, I brushed on my stain. The wood began to darken after less than a minute and continued to darker for several hours.

homemade vinegar rust stain
Vinegar rust stain on left side of crate, minutes after application
homemade vinegar rust wood stain
Stained (left) versus plain (right) after several hours

A background for all seasons

I am now obsessed with this stuff and need to stain all the things. I’ve stained three crates—all free—and have been using them in my photos. The wood all varies and so do the colors. Eventually I will play around with some beeswax sealer, but until then, I’ll continue to use the crates unsealed.

sourdough bread
Sourdough bread on the stained wine crate
inexpensive photo backgrounds
Another loaf, same background
homemade apple cider vinegar made from trash
I’ll need more vinegar so I can stain all the wood
persimmons
Free organic persimmons we found on the side of the road on Sunday
Black Friday Sale
The wood works well for memes too…
Kurt Vonnegut poem about Joseph Heller
…or Kurt Vonnegut poems about Joseph Heller

Feeling ambitious?

Lizzie Leigh of @livingunwrapped sent me pics of the staircase she and her husband stained with this vinegar rust concoction. She said the stairs are her pride and joy—and no wonder. She told me “It’s been over two years and they still look aged and gorgeous!”

stairs stained with homemade vinegar rust stain
Photo credit: Lizzie Leigh of @livingunwrapped
stairs stained with homemade vinegar steel wool stain
Photo credit: Lizzie Leigh of @livingunwrapped
stairs stained with vinegar steel wool stain
Photo credit: Lizzie Leigh of @livingunwrapped

Lizzie said that a chemical wood stain once made here very sick so she was thrilled to discover this vinegar rust stain and hoped more people would adopt it. To play with the color, she added balsamic vinegar to the stain and also let it steep with coffee grounds. She and her husband added two layers of stain (no layer of tea like I did with my crates) and then finished the stairs with wood conditioner. Currently, they treat the stairs with Feed-N-Wax Wood Polish and Conditioner. Lizzie’s mother-in-law had a bunch, so she and her husband have been using it up.

I have some beeswax pellets I bought in bulk at Rainbow Grocery. Eventually, I may do something with those and concoct a sealer for my crates—and anything else I make (I’m thinking spice rack or shelves for jars).

Going further down the zero-waste path

I have always been frugal but never quite this frugal. I managed to make backdrops out of discarded crates that I stained with vinegar made out of what constitutes compost.

In the old days, when I had a problem to solve, my initial impulse landed me in a store, credit card in hand. Today, with a bit of creativity, I can often find what I need to make what I need. And sometimes I turn trash into treasure.


Vinegar and Steel Wool Wood Stain

Ingredients

  • Strong black tea
  • Vinegar
  • Steel wool

Directions

  1. Fill a jar with vinegar.
  2. Pull apart steel wool and stuff it into the jar.
  3. Depending on the type of vinegar you use, the reaction may not begin for a few days.
  4. When the vinegar has darkened, apply strong tea to the wood. Let it dry.
  5. Apply the vinegar rust stain to the wood.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 for a darker finish.

Notes

  1. Several people told me they have used nails, screws or steel shavings in place of the steel wool.
  2. Open the jar of vinegar and steel wool occasionally to release gases.
  3. The first coat of stain darkens the wood drastically. Subsequent applications have a greatly reduced effect.

11 Replies to “Turn Trash into Treasure (and Inexpensive Props)”

  1. Jacqueline Galleymore/Mooney says: Reply

    Thoroughly enjoyed this post. It is wonderful to learn about a zero waste, non toxic alternative to staining wood.

  2. Fantastic blog and so inventive!

  3. Useful tips. Thank you (:

  4. Hi, hope you don’t mind, I reposted your blog, it is such a great read. Indy

  5. This is such a great idea and such a pretty shade of stain! I love the grey.

  6. No Makeup Mama says: Reply

    This is a great idea! Thank you for sharing! My husband is always making things for our home out of free pallet wood (like benches, signs, shelves) and we usually use a purchased stain. I had never even thought of creating my own!

  7. Omg I’m mesmerized by this technique. We just bought a massive vintage dresser that I wanted to stain. I wonder how this would work on wood that’s already stained? So excited about this either way.

  8. Great to know about this stain, thank you! For what it’s worth, you can often get free wine crates at BevMo. You just wander in and ask, and they are glad to get rid of them. A lot of people are hip to this, so they are often gone, but they won’t hold them for anyone, so it’s worth wandering in from time to time if you are near one. I use them to store canning jars on shelves that might otherwise be unsafe to store them during an earthquake.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      :O I had no idea. Thank you Anne! I live a few blocks away from a BevMo! I’m so excited! Great idea to put jars in there to earthquake proof them. Sometimes I look up at the two shelves I have above my sink piled with jars and while I do dishes, I think, “Please God, no earthquake right now.”
      ~ Anne Marie

  9. Thank you for the post. While I find the tips and tricks interesting, it is you, your attitude and your committment that is most heartening. I find myself incorporating the zerowaste principles a little more each day. Thank you so much!

  10. I have wanted to thank you, for some time now, for your offerings. I do enjoy some of them. I thought of you when a friend dropped off a peck of lemons. I live in northern Fl. and never had them straight off the tree, the size of grapefruit. I now have a half gallon of preserved, and making candy of the peal, the seeds went into a pot of soil, zero waste. Thank You once again for showing me the right path.

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