Wood Stains and Staining Wood | Fine Furniture Finishing

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Let me spend a moment talking about what wood stain is, and the process of staining. For whatever reason, there seems to sometimes be some confusion about the action "to stain" and about what the product "stain" is. Sometimes people will say that they still need to "stain" the wood, when they mean put a finish on wood. So even though they might have a can of a product that is totally clear, they may say that they're going to brush on a coat of stain. But these uses of the word "stain" are inaccurate, and become confusing, especially when the true stain or act of staining gets involved with the same project.

Now you know all this if you've watched the videos, but here are some quick definitions. A stain in a product that is intended to be applied to raw wood. The stain product may be a dye or composed of pigments, but it has a color and is used to change the color of raw wood. Stain by itself is not a finish; it will not seal the wood in any way. The stain itself usually has no binder ingredients to hold itself together and must have some sort of protection applied afterward. There are several products available that combine stain with a finish product (usually polyurethane) and advertise themselves as one-step finishing. These products are not as versatile as using separate products, nor will they produce as attractive of a result. But they can be handy for down-and-dirty quick finishes.

So again, stain is used to change the natural color of raw wood. Stains come pre-mixed in many "colors" of wood, though the names are almost meaningless. Let's use "Cherry" as an example. Real cherry has a natural range of colors all by itself, so which color did this manufacturer use as a reference to call this color "Cherry"? And each species of wood has its own color, which when combined with the "Cherry" stain will produce a different result. Then there are various modifier terms applied such as "deep" or "antique" or "light", etc. that could also mean just about anything. Sometimes one of these premixed colors will give you just the result you want on your furniture project, other times you will have to modify it with other stain colors.

As mentioned earlier, stain can be a dye or a pigment. Dyes typically offer a more "clear" (as opposed to murky) look and are available in all of the "pure" colors (e.g. red, yellow, blue, green, etc.) as well as pre-blended colors like the above mentioned "Cherry". Dyes start out as a powder which must be mixed with a liquid (the liquid varies) or as a premixed product that's ready to go. Pigmented stains are pigments suspended in a vehicle, usually mineral spirits. Kind of like paint with little or no binder ingredient and thinned down until it's translucent instead of opaque. Because pigment actually lodges in the cells of the wood, it obscures the natural structure or grain of the wood if used too thickly.

Dye stains are typically more finicky to use because they offer a smaller window of opportunity to modify once applied to the wood. They can soak into the wood so quickly and deeply that they may be difficult or impossible to remove if you apply too much or have overlapping areas of coverage. They also quickly change appearance from a wet, close approximation of the final look of the wood after it's been sealed to a dull matte that is impossible to judge for coverage or color. This makes samples extra important. Not only do you need to get a consistent method of application and partial removal (if it is deemed best to remove some of the stain to obtain the desired effect), but you must let it dry so that some sort of sealer or finish can be applied to rewet the color and give you the final look.

Pigmented stains are much more controllable both in application time and in the ability to partially wipe off the excess to obtain an even color over different parts of the wood or boards or surfaces of the furniture. It can also be purposefully left thicker in details or panel edges for a traditional aged or blended look. I would always recommend using this type of a stain if you are refinishing a piece that you've sanded down to raw wood because of near inevitability of uneven removal of the old finish. I'd also recommend on a new piece if you can't get some scraps of the same wood to experiment on with a dye product.

Here are the two questions I hear the most:
"The end-grain gets so much darker than the rest of the wood, no matter how little I try to put on. What should I do?"
"When I was trying to stain some poplar, it came out blotchy. How should I fix it?"

The answer to the first question is easy enough; the second question is tougher. End grain on wood is just like the end of the stem of a cut flower. Just as the flower stem sucks up the water in the vase, so too did the wood use to do for the tree. Now that it's a board on your project, it is ready to drink up whatever you brush on it, whether it's stain, paint, or varnish.

When you're painting raw wood, oftentimes you'll notice that any end grain pulls in the primer coat. Usually you just dab on a little more primer on those areas and you're all set. When you topcoat with your color coat, it all sits on top of the primer quite nicely. The same is true for clear varnishes; the first coat or two is pulled into the end grain, making those parts appear duller or rougher than the rest. Usually by the second coat, and certainly by the third coat, everything has evened out and looks fine.

The problem comes with stains because they are neither opaque like the paint, nor clear like the varnish, but are translucent. So, the more stain you apply and let absorb into the wood, the darker it gets. Since end grain always absorbs more of anything than the other parts of the wood, it ends up darker.

After that long preamble, the answer may already be coming to you; let your wood absorb something clear before you give it a chance to absorb something with color in it.

There are three generally accepted ways to do that. One method is to flood the end grain with the type of solvent that your stain uses so that it's already "filled up" by the time you apply the stain. Not as much stain can be absorbed since the wood cells are already full of solvent. The solvent would be water with water-based stains, mineral spirits with oil-based products, or alcohol for those who are using alcohol-diluted aniline dyes.

The advantages to this method are that it is fast, and if you slop a little solvent onto the adjoining face grain, there will be little problem avoiding light colored areas on the face grain. The disadvantages are that once you flood the end grain, you have to get the piece stained and wiped before the solvent is totally absorbed or evaporates, so you have to work quickly. The other problem is that it's near impossible to judge how evenly you got your piece colored; the flooded end grain will appear very dark while wet, but may dry a whole lot lighter than the surrounding wood if it didn't get enough stain.

The second way to solve the problem is to give it a light coat of varnish first. The varnish will be partially absorbed into the end grain cells and limit how much colored stain can be absorbed, keeping it lighter.

The varnish solves the haste problem of just using solvent, but introduces two new ones. One, you have to wait for it to dry before you can move on to the staining. Don't rush it or you'll end up with sticky goo! The other potential trouble happens if you get some of the varnish onto the face grain without wiping it off while it's wet. Later, when you start staining, you'll discover that not only did the varnish work on the end grain by preventing too much stain from coloring the wood, but it's equally effective at preventing the stain from coloring the face grain, -leaving you with a much lighter part of a board that is difficult to fix by trying to blend.

The third solution, and the one I like best, is to partially seal the end grain with white (clear) shellac. Unlike the varnish, the shellac will dry quickly, so you can move on with the staining. The shellac is always re-solvable, so if you accidentally get some on the face grain, you can wipe it off with alcohol and immediately continue with the staining.

One last bit of advice on this subject; don't go too heavy with whichever of the three methods you choose. You still want the end grain to absorb some stain just like the rest of the project. If you use too much solvent/varnish/shellac, you could end up with end grain that is too light. (Though that is usually easier to cure with another coat than when it is too dark.) A little experience helps here, and the easiest way to get it is to practice on a scrap of the same wood. After all, you'll almost surely be trying out the wood stain on a scrap anyhow.

The second question about getting blotchy results on poplar (it also can happen on many other species) is not as easily dealt with. The first thing to check for is to see if the blotching is in a pattern of jointer or surfacer knife marks. If it is, the wood just needs to be sanded more thoroughly to get rid of these "compressions" in the wood.

If that isn't the answer, here are some other options:

You can use a wash coat of the solvent over the whole piece, just like the end grain example above. This will be even out the amount of stain that is absorbed in different parts of the board(s).

The shellac treatment also works, but dilute the shellac with an equal part of alcohol or more to make a thinner wash.

There are commercial versions of both of the above that you can buy, if you want to try them.

You can also try using a gel stain, which, being thicker (lots!) sits more on the surface of the wood, providing a more even look. It won't get as dark, though, if that's what you were looking for.

And finally, you can glaze the wood instead of staining it. What's the difference? Glazing is coloring the wood after it has been sealed, instead of before. Seal the project with your choice of varnish or shellac and let it dry. Mix up some stain (it needs to be a pigmented stain, not a dye) with some of the same glazing formula that we use for antiquing and faux finishing. Apply it with a brush and remove it with a rag or towel to get an even coloring. This works great for light to medium coloring, but may start to get a little "chunky" if it has to be applied too thickly to get a very dark result.

Incidentally, you can get a wide range of looks by combining staining and glazing, particularly if you like a slightly "antique" look to your wood by having the color be a little darker in recesses or the corners. Stain the piece, and after the first seal coat of shellac or varnish has dried, brush on a glaze coat, wiping it for the effect you want. When it's dry, continue with your normal progression of finish coats. You can get some really sweet and subtle effects this way.

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- Dave

My featured product: gloves. Keep your hands handsome (or pretty) with gloves when you're working with messy phases of your projects. Dishwashing gloves work fine for things like cleaning/scouring old pieces in preparation for more fun things to come. They're not made for handling paint stripper, however, get a pair of chemically resistant gloves for that. They're usually available at paint or hardware stores. Both of the above are usually a little clunky for more delicate aspects where you need a better sense of touch (blending a glaze might be an example).

If you will only be working with water-based products you can use thin latex gloves, available at most paint or grocery stores. They melt more or less immediately with mineral spirit-ed products though; for these I use vinyl instead of latex gloves. They will still soften with exposure to massive quantities of spirits, and your fingers will eventually poke through. They can be a little harder to find, I always buy a box of 100 at a pharmacy. Most versatile for throwaway gloves are Nitrile, available at most paint stores.

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