Some types of wood, like pine, cherry,
birch and maple, are notoriously difficult
to stain. A board that has a nice, attractive
grain pattern can end up with dark,
splotchy areas after you apply the stain. But
there's a simple way you can prevent most stain
blotches. In this article, we'll show you how.
Dark splotches show up when stain pigments
become lodged in areas of grain that are
more open. Unfortunately, it's not easy to tell
which boards this will affect. One test is to wipe
your board with mineral spirits. Spots that are
prone to blotching show up darker. But the best test
is to apply stain to a sample of the wood you're
using. If the stain appears uneven or has unsightly
dark areas, run the additional tests we show here to
determine the best staining process.
Seal the wood before applying stain
Most stain manufacturers make prestain conditioners, but you'll
get better results with the method we show here. We're using a
wipe-on oil finish as the sealer.
The key is to apply a thin base coat to partially seal the wood
before staining. Sanding sealers, dewaxed shellac and wipe-on
finishes will all do the trick.
Some types of stain perform better than others on blotch-prone
wood. In general, gel or heavy-bodied stains work best. Since these types of
stain tend to have a high concentration of pigments, they also
work better if you have to add several layers for a darker color. Just make sure the sealer and stain you're using
are compatible. Using products from the same manufacturer is
the safest bet.
Photo 1 shows how to make a test board with different concentrations
of sealer. The concept is simple. The percentage of
solids in the sealer determines how completely the pores in the
wood are sealed. If the wood was sealed completely, it would be
difficult to get any stain to stick. Diluting the sealer with mineral
spirits allows you to experiment with different degrees of sealing.
When you apply the stain (Photo 2), you'll see the results.
Then you can choose the dilution rate that delivers the best
results for your project.
Let the sealer dry for a few hours. Then sand
the wood lightly with 220-grit paper before
An inexpensive turkey baster is a
great tool for measuring small
amounts of finish and mineral
spirits. Mark the baster with a
permanent marker. Just draw
out equal amounts of sealer
and solvent to make a
50 percent solution.
We used disposable
End grain can look
great and complement
the board's surface, but
it often ends up too
dark. The solution is
simple, though. Use
the same prestain
sealing method we show
here to seal the end grain.
You can also use this method on
woods like oak that don't require a
prestain sealer. Just be careful to sand
off any sealer that gets on the face of the
board before you stain.
Apply several coats of stain to get the desired shade
Start by making a test board with
your chosen sealer concentration.
Then stain the entire
board. Let it dry and add a second
layer of stain to all but one
section. Repeat this process
until you get to the desired
However, applying multiple
coats of stain isn't always
the best way to achieve a
deeper color. For one thing,
it'll take a long time to finish
the project. You have to wait for each layer of stain to completely dry before
adding the next. Otherwise, the new coat will dissolve the previous coat and
you'll have a real mess on your hands. In fact, some stains will dissolve the stain
below even if it is dry. (That's why testing is critical for a nice finish.) Another
problem with multiple coats is that the stain will begin to obscure the natural
grain. One solution is to opt for a less concentrated sealer. You'll get a bit more
blotchy appearance, but the grain will show up better—a fair compromise.
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Finish your test board to get the true effect
Treating your test board just like the finished project will give you
a true representation of the final color and depth of the finish.
Make sure you sand the test board with the same grit as you
intend to use on your project. After you arrive at the desired
degree of sealing and number of stain coats, apply the final clear
finish to see how it looks. This is also a good time
to test the effect of different sheens. Most finishes are available in
sheens ranging from almost flat to high gloss. You'll be surprised
at how much richer the stain looks after a coat of finish.
Seal Pine Before Staining
Dark stains on pine can look horrible. In addition to
blotchiness, the softer areas between the grain lines
soak up stain like a sponge, creating an unnatural
look. The photo below shows the dramatic difference
between the raw and sealed areas
of pine using the same stain color.
Experiment with sealing the
wood on your next pine
project. You'll be
amazed at the