Craftsman, Woodworker, Antiques Refinisher, Columnist, Author and Television Host
"I'm ready to stain!"
Okay, so now the moment of truth!
You have sanded the wood so its smooth; you have vacuumed off all of the dust; you have applied a coat of Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner according to the directions on the can; and now you are ready to apply your stain.
I've selected a few questions I have received from readers like you to help illustrate the process, but if your question hasn't been answered, send it and a picture of your project to me at email@example.com.
Q. - Does wood have to be stained?
A. -- Not necessarily. Staining is optional, but finishing is not. A stain can do any of the following:
1. replace faded or missing color in the wood,
2. change the natural color of the wood,
3. highlight the grain of the wood, and
4. accent the beauty of the wood.
What it does NOT do is protect the wood, which is why stains and wood need the protection of a clear finish.
The most common reason for staining new wood is to make it match or at least compliment existing wood, such as staining an unfinished nightstand to match your bed, or a door to match your woodwork.
Another popular reason is to highlight or "pop" the grain of the wood. Light-colored woods such as oak or pine can look bland without any stain; even the application of a light-colored stain, such as Golden Oak or Golden Pecan, will make the grain of the wood stand out, as the dyes and pigments are captured in the pores.
Finally, stain can replace the natural color lost by fading in direct sunlight. An antique walnut table left in the sunlight for several years may end up looking more like butternut. If, during the refinishing process, a walnut stain is applied to the top, it will again match the base of the table.
Q. - What is the difference between a stain and a dye?
A. -- A dye is a colorant, either natural or man-made, which can be dissolved in a carrier, such as water, mineral spirits, or alcohol so that it can be applied to the wood with either a brush or a cloth.
A stain is generally a combination of dyes and pigments, tiny non-dissolving, colored particles which are mixed into a carrier, most often mineral spirits or water, so that the stain can be applied with either a brush, a cloth, or an aerosol can. The pigments lodge themselves in the pores of the wood while the dyes are being absorbed into the wood cells, so you get both benefits.
Stains with pigments have a higher resistance to fading in direct sunlight and are easier to apply evenly than dyes alone. Dyes, although more difficult to master, do not obscure the grain since they are completely absorbed by the wood. Some professional woodworkers are more apt to use dyes than your typical amateur do-it-yourselfer, primarily because it takes years of practice to master dye application. For you and I, stains are easier to use -- and the results last longer than dyes.
Q. - My husband shakes. I stir. We both argue. Who is right?
A. -- You are.
Stains contain colored pigments which over time settle to the bottom of the can. If not thoroughly stirred and distributed throughout the can, the pigments will impart uneven color to your wood. Shaking simply does not distribute the pigments evenly. Stirring sticks are still free at the store where you buy your stain, so urge your husband to use them. Its not like having to ask for directions when lost.
Keep in mind, too, that when staining a large project you need to occaisionally re-stir your stain to keep the pigments evenly distributed.
Q. - What is the difference between a water-based stain and an oil-based stain? How do I know when to use which?
A. -- Both types of stains contain dyes and pigments, but in the case of oil-based stains, they are added to mineral spirits, often called paint thinner, which is a petroleum product. In water-based stains, water replaces the mineral spirits.
Each type of stain has its distinct advantages. Traditional oil-based stains have a longer working time, which typically means that from the time you first brush or wipe it onto the wood, you have nearly ten minutes to work with it before it begins to dry. The total drying process takes approximately eight hours, so in most cases you stain one day and apply a finish the next.
Water-based stains dry much faster than oil-based stains. You may only have two or three minutes to apply the water-based stain before it begins to get tacky, so it is always best to work on small sections at a time, especially until you get more comfortable using it. One major advantage to using water-based stains and finishes is that you can stain and finish your project in the same day.
It should also be noted that water-based stains and finishes emit no dangerous fumes. If you are sensitive to oil-based fumes or cannot adequately ventilate your work area, you should opt for water-based products.
Finally, the range of colors available in the water-based line of stains far surpasses those which can be made in the oil-based line. Colors such as Sangria, Mediterranean Olive, Hunter Green and Antique Jade are only available as water-based stains.
Note:drying times of all wood finishing products will be affected by the relative humidity and the air temperature in your work area. In short, the higher the humidity or the lower the temperature, the longer a stain or finish will take to dry. Be sure to read the label of any product you use and follow the manufacturer's recommendations for application. Avoid working in direct sunlight, for the rays of the sun can draw moist air out of the wood and into your stain or finish in the form of bubbles.
Q. - What is the best way to apply a stain?
A. - That really depends on what you are staining, and your personal preference.
I like to use a clean, lint-free cloth or a heavy-duty paper towel, especially on flat surfaces, for a they do not splatter the stain. I often switch to a brush for tight corners, carvings, and hard-to-reach areas, for the bristles are better designed to flood the area with stain. Some stain colors are also available in aerosol cans, which are also great for hard-to-reach areas, such as shutters.
Regardless which you choose, be sure to apply a liberal amount of stain to the wood so that it will have plenty to absorb. Also, don't concern yourself with always applying the stain in the direction of the grain, for at the moment neatness does not count.
Your choice of application tool is not critical simply because within a few minutes you will be wiping off any stain that the wood did not absorb. Stain, you must remember, is designed to dry IN the wood not ON the wood. More on that in the next question.
Q. - How do I know when to wipe off the excess stain?
A. - By testing it on an inconspicuous spot first.
You can determine the final shade of the color of stain you selected by how long you leave the stain on the wood before you wipe it off. For a light version, you can wipe it off less than a minute after you apply it. For a richer version of the same color, you can let more of the dyes and pigments soak into the wood by allowing it to remain on the wood for a longer period of time before wiping off the excess.
Don't forget, however, that water-based stains dry very quickly, so you may only have a minute or two before you need to begin wiping off the excess stain.
One other factor that must be taken into consideration is the type of wood. Open-pored woods, such as oak and ash, absorb more stain per minute than will closed-pore woods like hard maple and cherry. That is why it is important that you test and time your stain on an inconspicuous spot or on a piece of scrap wood before you stain the entire piece.
When you do begin wiping off the stain which the wood did not absorb, wipe in the direction of the grain of the wood, and change or refold your cloth often to avoid leaving streaks of stain on top of the wood.
And if, after drying, the color is lighter than you wanted, simply repeat the process by applying a second coat of stain.
Three Important Rules: Always follow the manufacturer's directions, take all safety precautions and first test every product in an inconspicuous spot.