Uneven stain


I am having big problems with staining table purchased from a unfinished furniture store. My mother in law bought the dining table (30 in square top and skirt, four very nicely turned legs) for about $150. The wood looks very much like cherry in grain, but is a light pink color, and about the same weight and hardness as cherry.
I suspected troubles with staining, based on the texture of the sanded surfaces, so I applied a wet coat of Minwax pre-stain wood conditioner. In some areas, the conditioner absorbed VERY quickly, so I brushed on more in these areas. (First warning, right?) After 15 min, I wiped the whole peice dry with a shop towel.
After another 30 min or so, I applied Minwax Wood Finish, Provincial 211 (which is more of a stain than a finish) which is quite thin and very dark. I brushed on the stain, let it set for 5 minutes, and wiped it off. In most areas (80% of the peice) I got just the color I was looking for. However, there are very dark areas all over, and on inspection, these are the areas where the grain is not parallel to the surface of the wood (big surprise) and the dark stain went well into the wood surface. I mean, this was REALLY bad -- worse case I have run into so far.
OK, so what went wrong? Several things come to mind. 1) The stain could have been too thin; maybe a thicker stain would not have been as likely to absorb so quickly. 2) If the wood conditioner helped, it didn't help much. I have used a lot of Minwax Wood Finish as stain, and have had mostly good experience with the wood conditioner, and have had **some** issues in the past, but nothing like this!
So here come the questions: 1) Any advice on how to consistantly get even stain are appreciated. I DAGS on the several versions of the topic, but someone else's personal experience is always invaluable. 2) Any way to lighten the dark areas? I tried a rag and mineral spirits to no avail. Any suggestions would be appreciated. 3) If I start over (a real damn possibility here) what brands and/or types of stain, or staining technique, have given better results?
Thanks in advance. This group is a great resource, even for lurkers like me :)
Matthew
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Swingman gave you a good site reference and I can't top that but I can perhaps offer a couple of things you may want to try before you get out the belt sander and back hoe.
Doubtful that you'll lighten the dark splotchy areas much with mineral sprits but try some denatured alcohol on a about 4 layers of paper towel and set it on a dark area and weight it down. After about 3 or 4 minutes and before the alcohol has totally evaporated - lift off the towels and press down with some clean dry towels to try and wick up any stain. The alcohol will absorb into the fibers easier than mineral spirits and displace some of the stain. Question is - will it be enough?
Failing that, I have salvaged a splotchy stain job by lightening the dark areas as above or thru sanding then sealing again. But instead of the thin stain, use a gel stain and follow the instructions. Then - there's always latex paint............
Bob S.

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At that price, possibly alder. Not necessarily a problem, but a different challenge.

Bob Flexner (Understanding Wood Finishing - get it, best $20 you can spend) says that it's no wonder that people have problems with this product. Using it according to the directions on the can is "exactly the wrong way to go about it".

End grain behaves very differently, doesn't it. This is another reason Minwax Wood Finish is not my first, second or third choice these days when changing the color of a piece.

I don't know if salvage is a possibility. But a good acrylic latex paint might be. ;-)
Is there a surface on the underside with this malady? Somewhere you can test the fixes without risking further damage?
Do you have a well-tuned smoothing plane? ;-) Or a belt sander? Because you'll want to get rid of the old, before trying a gel stain, a toned wiping varnish, shellac, a glaze or something else.
The most difficult part of this all my be that the client is near and dear to your wife. Failure is likely a painful option.
Patriarch
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...
I'd be inclined to quietly buy another table for $150 to avoid that kind of noise... ;~)
John
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I think you're right, John.
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On Sun, 28 Aug 2005 18:56:28 -0500, the opaque Patriarch

And clean it thoroughly to remove the skin oils and such,
sand (I would say "scrape" but this is a cheapie table) to perfection,
seal it with shellac,
and use (Ick!) Polyshades (or equivalent) to "stain" it...if he simply must discolor the poor, unsuspecting wood.
She won't know the difference. ;)
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Another "second" on Swingman's' suggestion and another one is www.refinishwizard.com Jeff's' site has search capability which is a great asset.
On Sat, 27 Aug 2005 17:26:38 -0500, "Matthew"

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You must wait about 24 hours after applying Minwax's Wood Conditioner. Even with this, I suspect you still would have had some blotching although not nearly as bad. A gel stain like Bartley's is very useful when it comes to minimizing blotching although you won't get as intense a color. There are some other ways to minimize blotching such as applying a spit coat of shellac or glue size but Wood Conditioner or a gel stain are very easy to use.

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You don't say how long it has been but I am willing to bet that the binder in the stain has set up. Minwax stains won't redissolve in mineral spirits or alcohol once this happens. I can't say for certain but Minwax's Provincial may be a mixture of dyes and pigments. This makes chemically stripping it quite a challange, even if you follow up with bleaches. What you might be left with is a stripped piece that has a slightly different color than you started with. That might not be a problem but you will have to adjust your finishing schedule to take it into account.

As above, try a gel stain. I think Minwax may actually make one nowadays.
Finally, before you do any staining again, try to get a scrap piece of the wood that the furniture is made from, especially a piece that has different grain patterns. Experiment on the scrap. You've already experimented on the furnitiue.
Good Luck.
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Thanks for all the help! What I learned:
1) I have a very understanding mother in law. 2) The wood conditioner product may be up to some tasks, but preventing uneven absorption of dark, thin stain on alder is not one of them. 3) Some experimentation with 1/3# cut of shellac is in order, followed by a thicker (higher viscosity) stain. I have seen this recommendation from a lot of sources.
But the BIG lesson: try it on scrap. I have lots of woodworking experience, but this one taught me a lesson.
We will probably paint the legs and skirt, and make a new top out of (real) cherry. Again, thanks for all the help.
Matthew (three days older an maybe a bit wiser)

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