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
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.