Staining maple for amateurs


I just built a maple cabinet, and before applying any sort of finish I read a lot about it. The overwhelming agreement seems to be that maple is very difficult to stain evenly. Different areas of the wood absorb the stain differently, resulting in a "splotchy" finish. I've tried pre-stain sealers before on pine and didn't see much of an improvement, and from what I've read the same is generally true for maple.
Apparently, most professionally finished maple pieces are not stained at all, but rather coated with a dye-containing finish. I've read lots of posts by the professionals on the woodweb.com forums, where they talk about achieving excellent finishes on maple through various many-step processes involving countless special chemicals and custom-mixed dyes. In a typical scenario the wood is pretreated, then dyed to a uniform under-color, then sealed, then stained, then sealed again, then finished with a non-grain-raising coating into which custom dyes are mixed, then finally finished with a lacquer or other clear coat.
As a recreational woodworker, this whole process sounds intimidating, time-consuming, and expensive. I decided to try my luck with a simplified version, and I have to say, the results are great.
Here's what I did: First, I applied one good coat of oil-based polyurethane over the bare wood. That sealed it up nicely so that no subsequent coloration would soak into the wood but would instead remain on the surface. I used the cheap Minwax fast-drying poly in the spray can from Home Dep*t or L*wes. After allowing that to dry, I then sprayed on a couple coats of the Minwax Polyshades. That's the stain-and-polyurethane-in-one product. I've heard aweful things about it in the past and as a self-respecting woodworker I never would have used it until I needed to try this experiment. I sprayed it on using a cheap $29 air-brush (also from Home Dep*t) connected to my compressor. I turned the feed down really low, and I was able to spray on the color slowly and VERY evenly. I could even match out some of the color variation in the wood. I just had to be patient and not spray on too much at once or else it would have dripped. Once I had the depth of color that I wanted (more coats make it darker), I finished it off with one more coat of plain polyurethane. It looks beautiful.
Besides being very uniform on maple, another advantage is that glue joints or other places where glue may have soaked into the grain of the wood (this is expecially problematic on open-grained woods like oak or ash) don't show up as light spots in the final product. The color goes on uniformly on top of them just the same.
One disadvantage of this technique over the more complicated stuff the pros do is that if the finish gets scratched, the light wood will show through. Nevertheless, unless Minwax goes out of business, it'll be pretty trivial to fix. Another disadvantage is that there aren't many colors to choose from in the Polyshades line. I wanted a color that was warmer than the stark whiteness of the plain maple (and which would contrast with the bare butcher-block top I made for the cabinet) but not so dark as to darken up the kitchen (I plan on eventually redoing all the cabinets). My wife picked out Honey Maple and Pecan as two possibilities. They were two yellow and too red respectively, so I mixed them 50-50, and the color came out exactly what we wanted.
This might not be the absolute best way to color maple, but it worked pretty darn well and you don't have to be a professional finisher or buy any expensive specialty chemicals to do it.
Josh
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try a polyshade

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Your first coat of poly was unnecessary; the polyshade would have been the same without it.
There is nothing wrong with polyshades; I used some just last week. Some G1S plywood was worse than I expected on the bad side (for the backside of a cabinet door panel); and polyshades hid the defects pretty will. You just have to realize it is more of a semi-transparent paint than a stain.
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The best stains I ever came across, that don't smear, are the gel-stains. Wipe on generously and then use a clean cloth to wipe off the excess. Nothing to be worried about...plain, simple - it works. I use Varathane Gel-Stain and have tried it in several shades .....they all work great and on any wood I've tried. Of course, no matter what you use, Maple simply doesn't want to go dark, by staining!
One of the Fine Woodworking issues has an article on gel-staining - a search would find it.
Keith
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Josh wrote:

These can work well in some circumstances -- and probably less fuss. Aniline dyes from Lee Valley -- or whoever. http://www.leevalley.com/wood/page.aspx?c=1&p 081&cat=1,190,42996&ap=1
But if it works? What the heck why not?

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Will
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Poly takes too long to dry, plus it stinks. Besides which, using it as a sealer is inappropriate and unnecessary.
Here is what you SHOULD have done: Get yourself an HVLP and using a smallish tip/needle combo, apply "dry" coats of water borne dye (or alcohol based if you don't mind the lesser light fastness) to get a blotch free result on your maple. Follow up with what ever floats your boat for topcoats.
Dave
Josh wrote:

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David wrote:

I'd definitely like an HVLP sprayer, but they're fairly expensive. That'll be a down-the-road investment.
What do you mean by "dry" coats? Just really light coats? And what dyes would you use? I've seen that Lee Valley, Workerworkers Supply, etc. sell countless colors of analine dyes. I have to admit, I'm somewhat intimidated by the thought of mixing my own stain colors from primary colors of dye. Is it straightforward to do? And is it easy to repeat?
Oh yeah, and what's "light fastness"?
Thanks.
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I've got water based dye stains from several suppliers. Lee Valley (not too many choices of color), Woodworker's Supply (LOTS of colors). I prefer the Wizard Tints, but they are $17 a bottle, so I have only one - Amber. Everywhere you read, the alcohol based dyes are the least light fast. The others are better; how much better? I've not seen a definitive answer, but I'm guessing if you keep the piece out of near-constant direct sunlight you'll be fine with the non-alcohol based dyes. Others here have years of experience so hopefully someone will chime in. You don't need a ton of colors--you can't mix the dyes to get the exact color you want. I keep primary colors such as yellow, red and green to modify the wood toned dyes I've purchased. 2 ounces of dye goes a LOONG way, so if you aren't sure what colors you need, stick with the small packages. I get Rx bottles from the pharmacy to transfer the dyes that are sold in bags. Lee Valley sells theirs that way. Other suppliers use bottles (yeah).
Dyes are easy to mix (use warm, clean water). If you need to dye a large project, mix up enough to dye the whole thing! When the dye dries it looks NOTHING like it will look with finish, so be sure to apply to a sample board and topcoat to see the final effect. Dark dyes don't get into open grained wood pores like oak, so you might be unhappy with the coverage and will need to tone the top coats are go over the dye with some glaze to cover the unfilled pores.
A dry coat is just a light coat. I usually use .026 tips--that's pretty small.
Repeating? If you mean after a batch of prepared dye is used up? Keep a record of how you mixed up the original batch if you think it may be need for future reference.
I dyed 10 pieces recently, top coated them and installed them. after a week or so, when the light was just so, one piece was lighter than the rest and stood out. I added some dye to the finish and sprayed on another couple light coats. Voila: a perfect match.
There are also solvent based dyes. I've never used them since I don't like solvent based finishing products (but YES, I DO use solvent based stains too).
Another thing; moisten the wood after final sanding, and then gently knock down the nibs raised ("raising the grain") once the wood has dried. Don't sand too much, or you'll raise the grain again when you apply the dye. 320+ grit with a light touch. OR, believe it or not, you can knock down the raised grain AFTER dyeing, because the dye goes into the wood and won't sand out as easily as you'd expect. But again, go LIGHTLY.
Dave
Josh wrote:

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Primary colors are red, yellow and blue. Blue + yellow gets green. Google for "liberon color theory" for a good explanation. www.homesteadfinishing.com designed TransTint dyes that mix with several liquids abd are very versatile. Advantage there are several forums there for questions.

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You are right about the def. of primary colors. I should have said 3 basic colors; and I've never needed blue by itself. Often I need to redden or green up a wood toned dye.
Dave
nospambob wrote:

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Thanks for the info, Dave! I'll definitely try dying next time around. It doesn't sound so bad now that you describe it.
Josh
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Josh, dye is very versatile IF you've got an HVLP. Otherwise it's fine w/o HVLP if blotchiness isn't an issue.
Bob Flexner and Jeff Jewitt both have written excellent books on finishing, BTW.
Experiment.
Dave
Josh wrote:

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spake:

Why is it that you don't buy the proper colored wood instead of wasting time and effort on staining, Josh? Woods come in a vast array of colors and textures. Why not choose a compatible one for your next project instead of discoloring perfectly good wood?
Just a thought.
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Cost? Availability? Grain Pattern?
Dyeing wood doesn't "discolor" it; it enhances it. It's a personal preference.
I try not to talk the OP out of what it is he is trying to accomplish...
Sigh.
Dave
Larry Jaques wrote:

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Aren't you the fellow who was recently arguing against the natural progression of cedar & redwood to that beautiful silver grey colour? ;-)
Patriarch
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On Tue, 14 Jun 2005 22:44:39 -0500, the opaque Patriarch

Ayup. People naturally gray. Wood shouldn't.
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I love the look of natural wood, but lumber is expensive, and maple is what I've got. Besides, my wife is very picky when it comes to the color of her kitchen cabinets. I don't really have the option of trying out a bunch of different wood types, finishing them all, and allowing them all to age to a final color.
If it makes you feel any better, the cabinets I'm replacing are painted maple. What a travesty!
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Nice description and don't let anyone tell you you did anything wrong. This was a little unconventional but got you what you wanted. It sounds like you have a real pro looking finish.
You will find that repairing poly, especially toned poly is really really hard but it can be done. The good thing is that poly is hard as nails so may never need to be repaired.
BW
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Hi,
What you describe is a technique called toning. You can find it mentioned in most of the finishing books. It definitely gives a different appearance than just using a stain alone (adds depth and can fine tune the shade or alter the tone of the finish).
Glad it worked for you. Nice job.
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