How to Stain Wood

Staining wood seems like a very complex topic but it doesn’t have to be. There are a few things to know that I will explain to help you gain a better understanding and help you achieve that perfect professional look. One of which is knowing the nature of the wood you are working with.

Some wood species such as cherry, pine, maple and birch can make you want to throw your project against a wall for all that money you spent making it and then it turns out looking different from what you expected.

African Mahogany

My favorite woods to work with are African Mahogany, Oak, Walnut and Cherry. I use my wood CNC machine a lot and have found hard woods are the funnest and most beautiful to work with. Pine wood is soft and the fibers of the wood can be difficult to make very smooth. You may have to stain, sand and re-stain to get a smooth perfect surface.

Once you stain a wood, much like when wood absorbs water, it causes the wood grain or wood fibers to raise making a rough surface. You’ve seen water damaged wood that has warped, is rough and looks Weathered Woodweathered. Applying moisture to wood can change the wood grain tension.

Many times when I stain Pine it warps. When the stain dries it tightens the wood grain causing unwanted reactions. I have had luck using a torch and burning the back side of the wood to tighten the grain and bring the warp out of it. I then sand the back surface to remove the burnt area.

Difficult wood to stain

Wood species that have natural oils or sap will be more difficult to get that even stain color. The oils and sap in the wood will prevent the stain from absorbing into the wood causing blotchy areas. Pine has a large amount of sap in it and the wood has a high tendency of warping when cut.

Some wood species such as Oak have larger pores which will cause the stain to “pool” into the pores making darker spots. Another thing to know is the end grain of the board will absorb much more stain than the surface face.

Another thing to watch out for is the characteristics of the wood. What I mean is some wood such as Cherry will naturally darken over time. If you pick a darker stain for Cherry it may look much different six months down the road because the color of the wood changed, not the stain.

Testing wood for stain

I always recommend taking scrap pieces of wood you are working with and try different colors of stain. Even when using the same species of wood bought at different times can change the expected finish. Different trees of the same wood can have different amounts of oils so it may take stain differently.

Take three pieces of scrap wood and apply different stains colors, sealers and varying coats to get that look you are going for. After some experimentation you will find your go to choices for sealers and stain manufacturers. Once you figure out the stains you prefer you will save time in the long run. Initially, it may take more time to figure out what works for your tastes.

Sealing before you stain

One effective way to get a better finish is sealing your wood before applying stain. Putting a light coat of sealer will help condition the wood to have a more consistent density and therefore allowing the stain to look more even. Most stain manufactures provide a sealer that will work with the stain you prefer. Dewaxed shellac, sanding finishes and wipe on finishes will work. For blotchy prone woods I recommend heavy, thicker stains or gel stains as they go on thicker.

Contrasting wood stains

Wood Box
Oak Box

Many of the projects I make have different wood species, colors and stain hues. I like contrasting color on my projects. I think it kicks it up a notch. Take a look at the small oak and walnut box I made. The corner slots are specifically for looks. Doing this you may find you use multiple stains colors on one project and you will reap the rewards of great looking project.

Test it, try it, make it happen!

Roll up your sleeves, jump in and get dirty. Put the time into understanding wood characteristics and stains. The time spent on the front end will save you time on the back end. Once you have a good understanding of how wood and stain work together you will be able to a good idea of how to finish a project before you start it.

This website is a great source of information for wood species, how to identify wood, wood that may trigger allergies and much more.

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