Craftsman, Woodworker, Antiques Refinisher, Columnist, Author and Television Host
"How do I match a stain color?"
I owned a professional refinishing business for nearly ten years and during that time the most frustrating challenges I had to face were matching the color of two boards. Experience soon taught me that you begin by assuming you are not going to make the two boards look identical, for that rarely happens in nature. Before beginning we must grasp a simple, irrefutable fact: wood is unpredictable. That is why we love it -- and sometimes don't. But that doesn't mean there aren't some ways we can swing the odds in our favor.
There are three factors that play key roles in color matching boards:
1. the color of the stain,
2. the sheen of the clear finish (satin, semi-gloss, or gloss), and
3. the grain pattern of the wood.
The closer these three factors come to matching in the two boards, the closer the color match will be.
Q. - The woodwork in our house is all oak with what looks like a very light pecan stain added to it. My husband just remodeled our bathroom and has purchased a pine sliding pocket door. How can we make it match the oak trim around it?
A. - This bring to mind the popular adage "You can put lipstick on a pig, but....."
Of the three influential factors I listed above, the sheen of the final finish is the easiest to control. If your woodwork is semi-gloss, then apply a clear semi-gloss finish to the door. This is discussed in greater detail under Finishes. For now lets assume that you can easily match the sheen of your woodwork and consider the other two factors.
Color matching requires experimentation, for unlike paint, which hides the natural color of the wood, a stain works with the natural color of the wood to create the final color. Since you do not want to experiment on your pine door, I suggest that you first study the stain color samples shown on pine either at the store, in a brochure, or at Minwax.com. That should narrow your choices down to two or three colors of stain, which you can buy in small cans. Then buy some pine boards like your door and begin experimenting with the stains on them.
You can affect the final color of the stained wood at least four ways:
1.) by how long you leave the stain on the wood before wiping it off;
2.) by applying one coat of stain, letting it dry, then applying a second coat over it;
3.) by applying one coat of stain, letting it dry, then applying a different stain over it;
4.) by mixing two or more colors of stain together before applying them.
Hopefully, by experimenting on your scraps boards, you will hit upon the right combination of stain color and absorption time to get your pine doors the same color as your oak woodwork.
However, matching the grain of the oak is something stain cannot do. As you have seen, oak and pine have totally different grain patterns, so even though you can match the color and match the sheen of the woodwork, the grain of pine is never going to look like the grain pattern of oak.
So, in this case you have a hard choice: (1.) either settle for two out of three match factors, or (2.) buy an unfinished oak door.
Q. - Are there certain woods that come closer to matching the grain of other woods?
A. - Certainly.
Poplar, for instance, is called "poor man's cherry" for the grain patterns of the two woods are so similar that when stained, inexpensive poplar can look like very expensive cherry. Not long ago I saw a set of brand new dining room chairs labeled as "cherry finish." Each chair had one cherry board in the back; the rest of the chair was poplar with a sprayed, cherry-tinted lacquer finish.
Here's a short list of examples of woods with similar grain patterns:
Cherry Poplar or Soft Maple
Oak Ash or Butternut
Mahogany Any number of imported woods
Hard Maple Birch
Q. - I am staining an all-oak bookcase that I bought unfinished. Already I can see that the sides and top are lighter than the facing. I?m using the same stain on all the parts. What happened?
A. - What happened is that your "all oak" bookcase was not all "solid" oak.
The tops and sides were probably made from less-expensive oak veneered plywood, then their edges were disguised with solid oak boards as the facing.
Oak veneer is a small fraction of an inch thick -- or thin, I should say, which means that the stain cannot penetrate very far before it hits a solid sheet of dried glue. In contrast, the oak facing is probably three-quarters of an inch thick and while the stain does not penetrate all of the way through it, the wood absorbs more dyes and pigments per square inch than does the veneered plywood.
As a result, the plywood will be lighter in color than the solid facing.
To compensate, in the future try this:
1.) stain the oak plywood first, leaving the stain on until, upon wiping it off, you achieve the color you want;
2.) then apply the same stain to the solid oak facing, but wipe the stain off after less than one minute (as compared to, perhaps, as an example, seven minutes on the oak plywood) and compare the color; if the solid oak is too light, reapply the stain and give it a little longer to soak in before wiping it off.
But to fix your already stained bookcase, try this:
1.) rub the solid oak facing with a rag dipped in mineral spirits to see if you can remove some of the pigments to lighten its color;
2.) apply a second coat of darker stain to just the oak plywood in an attempt to darken it.
You will want to experiment with any of the above, either on scraps of wood or, if not available, on the side of the bookcase that will be against the wall.
Q. - I built a cherry dropleaf table and, without thinking too clearly, used a board with a streak of light-colored sapwood along one edge. I took your advice and experimented with my clear finish on some scrap pieces of cherry and can now see that the finish made the sapwood look even worse. I had not planned on staining the cherry, but am not sure now what I should do. Any more advice?
A. - As you have seen, a clear finish acts as a magnifying glass: it makes good wood beautiful, but only makes flaws look worse.
As it ages within the tree, cherry darkens. The youngest growth, that which carries the nutrient-rich sap just beneath the bark, used to be trimmed off in the sawmill, but since cherry is so highly valued, it is often left on. Some woodworkers leave the sapwood, preferring the contrast in color between it and the older portions. Others trim it off. At this point you have two options: leave it as is, or use stains applied with an artist's brush to try to darken just the sapwood.
Experience has demonstrated that the results can vary (wood, you recall, is unpredictable), so be sure to experiment on your scraps before you try anything on your dropleaf table.
Three Important Rules: Always follow the manufacturer's directions, take all safety precautions and first test every product in an inconspicuous spot.