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In general, there are two basic kinds of wood stain; there are pigmented stains and reactive stains. Reactive stains are also called active stains or chemical stains. Instead of having pigment that soaks into the wood and colors it, reactive stains have chemicals that interact with the natural chemicals in the wood to change its color. Reactive stains have been growing in popularity along with the emphasis on rustic looks.

How They Work

A traditional stain has a pigment that is dissolved into a liquid. It’s applied to the wood. The liquid evaporates, leaving behind the pigment, and thus the color of the wood is changed. A reactive stain is a chemical or group of chemicals; it is applied to the wood, creating a chemical reaction in the tannins, cellulose, oils, extractives, and sugars naturally in the wood. These chemical changes alter the color of the wood.

Why Choose a Reactive Stain?

Typically, homeowners choose a reactive stain when they are looking for a rustic or distressed look. Reclaimed wood and wood floors from antique homes have a certain patina of age that comes from similar chemical reactions. The tannins are largely responsible for giving hardwood its color; as they age, they affect the color of the wood in different ways. Also, over time, sugars can evaporate, extractives can evaporate, and cellulose can absorb other colors. All of this lends itself to the patina of age that you see with older hardwood floors.

Homeowners seeking to replicate that look can choose reactive chemicals that essentially speed up the aging process exponentially.

The Different Chemicals

Different chemical stains alter the wood in different ways. Some of them darken the wood. Others will actually wash out the wood to make it look more gray. The graying stains are very popular for those who are looking to replicate early American floors from coastal regions. Those floors were often lime-washed, which resulted in them looking grayish.

There is often a concern that reactive stains might contain harsh chemicals that could be dangerous to the wood or to your health. Most reactive stains are actually just different salts dissolved in water. Iron chloride is a common example of a reactive chemical; it’s generally recognized as safe enough to be an additive in drinking water. Another common reactive stain can be homemade from steel wool in vinegar. The acid of the vinegar leaches iron from the steel wool to create a chemical reaction in wood.