Staining blotch prone woods

Let me start by saying I'm no expert. I've read a number of books on finishing and spent a few hours reviewing a variety of ideas on the subject of staining blotch-prone woods such as maple, cherry, etc.
There are more than a couple of popular ways of dealing with this problem. 1. Use a pre-stain conditioner. 2. Sand to a higher grit (400) to close the pores. 3. Use a gel stain. 4. Seal with shellac or a wash coat of finish. 5. Spray with alcohol or lacquer based dye. 6. Color the finish coats (least desirable for the obvious reason that scratching the finish will expose the lighter wood)
I may have forgot some other methods, but those are the ones that come to mind at the moment.
Using materials that I have on hand, I decided to try some of those methods, with a little fudging (#4, below).
1. Sand maple with 100, 150, 220, 320, 400 and then apply water soluble dye. Result: terribly blotchy as expected, so sanding to higher grits, without utilizing additional tricks, isn't sufficient to prevent blotching.
2. Same as #1, but use Zar oil based stain. Result: just as bad as #1.
3. Follow same sanding schedule as #1 with Zinnser Seal Coat cut 50%. Sand moderately with 400 to cut back smooth wood, leaving shellac in the pores. Applied water soluble dye. Result: not as much blotching, but the resultant color was not only way too light, but the color shifted to yellow. Totally unacceptable. I didn't bother to try using the Zar stain. I figured a pigment stain wouldn't darken sealed maple much.
4. Final attempt: Tried mixing water soluble with alcohol for grins, since I don't own any alcohol solubles yet. My tip for the day: Don't even THINK about it. The dye doesn't dissolve properly. Threw out that batch and mixed up some dye in warm water and loaded up my HVLP gun. Using the .043 tip, I sprayed numerous light coats, pausing on each pass to avoid wetting the surface, so that the dye wouldn't run. I got it on fine enough that immediately after spraying each coat I felt it with my finger to see that it was essentially dry to the touch, just seconds after application. Results: darn near perfect! So what I'm planning on doing is to order an even finer tip like .028, and order some alcohol soluble dyes and do it according to Hoyl. Being a perfectionist is why I'll order a finer tip, but the results today are great, considering that finishing wisdom dictates using a finer tip (not to mention that an alcohol dye should be used for faster drying).
Now I've got TWO questions:
1. How do YOU get perfectly blotch-free results on maple or other blotch-prone woods, OTHER than putting tint in the top coats?
2. Do my results match your personal experience? I know there's more than one way to do just about anything, but having said that, I was unable to get even mediocre results with some of the methods espoused by those with infinitely more experience than me.
Not having a pre-stain conditioner or gel stain, I've had no opportunity to evaluate those methods. I've read plenty of caveats on relying on either one, though. What's your experience with them?
David
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david,
i, too, am no expert.
ironic that you posted this today... just this morning i spent three hours making a stain sample for a client - they want a very dark, rich finish on hard maple. ouch. this is the second time i had such a request, and i was determined to get it right. the first time was brutal and a difficult learning experience. some observations:
*)    you can add transtint to bartley's gel varnish creating your own gel stain. i have done this, and it works moderately well. but, for what i need, it doesn't quite create a dark enough finish. if i had to do a medium finish, this is exactly the approach i would take, as i love the bartleys - if you don't need a particularly dark finish, gel stains do work. in the past i've used a very light cut of shellac as a seal coat and then two coats of gel stain with success.
*)    for very dark "staining" on blotchy woods, i've found that i have to use dye rather than stains.
*)    dyed toner coats over dye are the way to go - now that i've really figured out how to spray toner coats, i'll never go back. more on this below.
to get the really dark, rich finish, this morning i did the following: i made a dye mix with 50/50 water and alcohol, colored heavily with transtint (two "squirts" from the bottle - probably like 1/4 oz or so). i sanded the maple to 220. i tried spraying it, but frankly, it didn't look good (but didn't spend a ton of time on the setup), so i used a foam brush to flood surface, then wiped off with rag. some blotch, but overall not bad.
next, i mixed up a toner solution. i use target coatings oxford line, USL and/or super-clear poly. both are fantastic. i tinted the poly with the same color transtint, stirred for 30 seconds, then let sit for 30 mins or so. i sanded the now raised grain with 320 (lightly, by hand) and sprayed two light toner coats with a 1MM tip and #2 cap, and the results are FANTASTIC. any blotching that was visible prior to the toner coats disappeared, and i ended up with a nice, rich, even color. i am thrilled with the result, and i am sure my client will be as well.
that's my technique. i've tried gel stains under toner coats, i've tried toner coats with shellac instead of water-based lacquer or poly, i've tried using oil-based poly (tinted) as toner coats instead of water based... the best, by far, is a quality water-base product with transtint. i like USL by target coatings, it's a fantastic product. to get a dark color, i've found that wiped on dye under the toner coats works well. if i have to do a large surface, i'll probably spray the dye instead of wiping.
one more note - this morning i experimented with spraying water-based varathane poly (for floors). didn't work - it doesn't spray well. i'll never try that again - stick with USL.
good luck, please continue to share your experiences!
--- dz
David wrote:

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david, something i failed to mention --- i hear you about scratching a tinted top coat, BUT, with a deep stain via the dye in the wood below, you don't have the issue of scratches showing lighter wood. also, if you use a tough top/toner coat (such as USL) scratches are actually pretty hard to telegraph through the finish. that stuff is HARD.
good luck!
--- dz
David wrote:

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David, thanks for all the info, especially the mention of a product I hadn't heard of: USL. I just checked the Target Coatings site and was reading the product description when it finally dawned on me (duh!) that it is a water borne product! I use Enduro waterborne urethanes. I find they are ok as long as I rub out the final coat with maroon, grey, and white pads to avoid the "plastic" look that I'm prone to getting after shooting 3-4 coats with my HVLP. I use one coat of sealer, and then 2 or 3 topcoats, all lightly sanded.
I've only built a couple of pieces of furniture so I've got little practical experience with horizontal surface's finish durability. I used Minwax poly on a desk last year and am NOT happy with the scratch resistance of that. Two days ago I used Enduro with catalyzer to add hardness to the top coat. I don't know yet how hard it will cure. If I remember, I'll check it in a week with my fingernail to see if it beats the Minwax poly hardness.
I'm curious if you have personally compared the hardness of the USL against poly, nitro, C-V, Enduro, or any other coatings? I'm always willing to try something new if it is tough, clear, and dries fast, without resorting to nasty catalyzers and solvents. When I first looked into coatings for building my desk last year I considered C-V until I asked around about the solvents used. Apparently it uses xylene, a nasty solvent.
Do you order the USL online or can you buy it locally?
I've also added dye to the topcoats to deepen the color, somewhere around the ratio of about 1/3 the darkness of the initial stain. It helps with getting that last bit of color in deep pores that resist water based dyes. I also follow up dark dyes on oak with pigment stain, for the same reason. The fun part is knowing what the final result will be, but with a bit of experimenting on scrap, I've been pretty happy with the results on my projects. Besides, I like tinkering with colors. Applying a stain straight out of a can is no fun! :)
Do you find that alcohol dyes stain deep pores more readily than water based, due to lower surface tension?
David
David Zaret wrote:

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david,
again, i'm no expert. also, i don't have a ton of patience to experiment endlessly - i'm one of those guys that tries to find something that works for me, perfect my technique with it, and not look back. and, i try to buy the best quality that i can afford - i hate cheap crap.
in this case, USL works for me - i don't know if it's harder than CVs, etc., but that's irrelevant because personally i'd rather be working with water-based products, for the environment and for my health. i can tell you that USL cures harder than any poly i've ever used. is it harder than pre-cat lacquer? i don't know. should you use it for a tabletop that's going to see significant abuse? i don't know. for that, i would use the super clear poly (oxford 9000). that stuff dries *hard* but does not burn in like the USL does.
i do not have to rub out the USL or oxford to have an acceptable finish. but typically i paste wax with 0000 wool and end up with a really nice look and feel. i spend the most time getting the HVLP setup perfect for whatever i'm spraying, and i can typically avoid rubbing out.
minwax sucks. i've now convinced that the poly you can buy at a store doesn't cut it for fine furniture. i buy USL (etc) directly from target (online) because there is not a local dealer. they have a list of distributors on the web site. jeff's incredibly helpful, his forum is great.
re: alcohol vs. water for solvent, the only real experimenting i've done is trying it with 100% water vs. 50/50 mix. frankly the only real difference i found was with dry time. i am sure that in a spray application it probably makes a difference, and i'll figure that out soon when i dye a huge cabinet. i'll probably follow your lead and do 100% water, light coats sprayed, no wiping.
i think that the most important thing i've learned is that a slightly blotchy finish evens out nicely when a tinted topcoat is applied.
let's continue to share advice and tips, it's very useful to learn from other's experiences.
--- dz
David wrote:

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David,
I just spent about 1/2 an hour or so reading the forum at Target Coatings. It was quite illuminating!
I was surprised that my water soluble dye went on as well as it did today, remembering the disaster I ended up with the day my first package of dyes arrived months ago. I sprayed way too heavily that time, and got puddling. Wiping it did no good at all; the color was uneven and mottled. Today I achieved what I hoped for, but I still think I should spend a few more bucks on some alcohol solubles for comparison.
I also dislike Minwhacks products, starting with that godawful smell! Their stains irritate my nose and lungs. For oil based stains, I don't mind the smell of Zar and Bonakemi stains. I also hate the smell of curing poly. And Minwhacks stains take way too long to cure.
I bet you are more adept at spraying than I am. (Or I'm using the wrong products! :) ) I too would stick with what works. I like the Enduro, but I'm willing to "expand my horizons".
Have a good evening, David! I'm zonked...
David
David Zaret wrote:

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I had someone insist on dark cherry. I both dyed it and used a gel-stain. Came out great, if you don't mind destroying perfectly good cherry.
Why use maple if you want to stain it? Use something cheaper that stains better.
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1) it's what the customer wants 2) i have a bunch of maple in the shop (>500 bdft) 3) you can still see the grain through the finish, and it looks beautiful
so be it.
--- dz
toller wrote:

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Thanks guys for letting us hear your conversation. To further cloud the discussing Fuhr makes WB finishes as well as a WB stain that Jeff Jewitt carries at www.homesteadfinishing.com. Haven't tried then as been familiarizing myself with using TransTint dyes from Homestead in USL as toner. JJ suggests spraying dye for best results if memory serves.
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What would look nice? I've tried staining poplar. Maybe I'm doing something wrong, but when I stain poplar a medium or darkish color, it looks gross. What would be your suggestion for a substitute for maple? I'm tired of oak...
David
toller wrote:

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What would be your

Soft maple. With poplar at $2.15/bf, and soft maple at $3.10/bf, in the SF Bay Area, there are really very few reasons to use poplar, if you're not going to paint it.
Soft maple is still a lot harder than poplar.
Patriarch
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and soft maple is still very blotchy. i have a huge load of 5-year air-dried spaulted soft maple, and it's brutal to finish. hard maple is more difficult but not by much.
i agree that soft maple is an excellent substitute for poplar for stained work.
--- dz
patriarch < wrote:

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