In this video, woodworker and Fine Woodworking associate art director Kelly Dunton demonstrates how to stain a white oak table by exposing it to ammonia fumes. Unlike most finishing techniques, ammonia fumes react chemically with tannins in the wood causing it to permanently change color. The technique was popularized by Gustav Stickley and other Arts and Crafts furniture makers of his era.

Safety First
The ammonium hydroxide used for fuming contains around 28% ammonia compared to less than 5% in household ammonia. You should take extra precautions when handling this material, also known as aqua (or aqueous) ammonia. Avoid eye or skin contact with the ammonia by using goggles or a full-face shield, and protective gloves. A respirator with cartridges designed for ammonia is ideal, but basic charcoal vapor filters will reduce the exposure. If you don’t have a respirator, use a fan and stay upwind of the fumes.

Use a glass or plastic container rather than a metal one to hold the ammonia while fuming. Make sure that you don’t use an aluminum pie plate because the ammonia will dissolve it. After you have finished fuming, dispose of the used ammonia in a large bucket of water, which can then be poured on the ground or on the compost heap. It makes a good fertilizer.

Where to find ammonia
If you can find this type of ammonia locally, you will save yourself a large fee for shipping and handling this hazardous material. This type of ammonia is used in the manufacture of large blueprints, so possible sources include office-supply stores. Last we checked, you can purchase it online at www.hvchemical.com for just under $14 a gallon, but the shipping will cost you $39.