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A Quick Primer on Adding Stains to Furniture


When you apply a stain to raw wood, it can enhance the natural color or dramatically change it, either highlighting or disguising the grain patterns.

A penetrating stain, such as an aniline dye, produces clear, transparent color and emphasizes grain. This stain actually soaks into the wood fibers. But because wood absorbs penetrating stain so readily, it can be difficult to avoid streaks and lap marks.

By contrast, pigmented stains, called wiping stains, are easy to apply. But because they leave a thin film of colorant on top, muddy grain often accompanies the rich color.

A third category of wood stains--gels--combines the advantages of penetrating and pigmented stains. Because they don't spatter or run, they're almost foolproof to apply.

Products are also available that combine stain and finish. While these produce a fast finish, it is often inferior to a conventional two-step finish.

When choosing separate stain and finish, consider their solvents because the stain and finish must be compatible. (It's always safest to use the same manufacturer's products.) Both penetrating and pigmented stains are available in water- and oil-soluble forms. Gel stains and combination products usually have an oil base.

Water-soluble stains are easy to clean up but can be more difficult to apply than oil-soluble ones. The biggest disadvantage of some water-soluble stains is that they swell the wood fibers. To compensate, you have to deliberately raise and sand the grain before staining. Or, you can use a nongrain stain (NGR), an aniline dye that contains no water. For best results, apply NGR stains by spraying.

When selecting a stain, pick a shade slightly lighter than the desired color--it's easier to darken a light stain than vice versa. The color will vary according to the wood; test the stain in a hidden area.

Apply stain with a lint-free cloth or a synthetic-bristle brush, according to the manufacturer's directions. In small areas use a foam brush. Or cut an ordinary 9-inch thick-nap paint roller into three equal sections with a hacksaw. Hold a roller piece in your hand to wipe on stain. The roller absorbs more stain than a brush and applies it more evenly than a cloth.

Many softwoods, such as pine, birch, spruce and hemlock, are notorious for absorbing stain unevenly with blotchy results. The same is true for dark stain on maple, a hardwood. To prevent this, before staining the wood, seal it with a very thin coat of shellac (1 part shellac to 5 parts denatured alcohol.) Let it dry for 30 minutes, then sand it with a very-fine 240-grit sandpaper. Then choose a water-base or gel-coat stain in a color that's a little darker than the natural tone. If you use an alcohol-base stain, apply it quickly and sparingly or the alcohol will liquefy the shellac.

When finishing a new wood project, treat the end grain last to keep it from staining darker than the rest of the work. Brush paint thinner, turpentine or mineral spirits onto the end grain just before applying the stain.

Here's a tip: When you open a can of wood stain, drop two medium-size steel nuts into it. Then each time you use the stain, shake the can thoroughly to stir the contents. (Never do this in a glass jar.) You'll be able to hear when the pigments are no longer sitting at the bottom of the can.

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