Stains add color, providing a richer look to bland woods. Plus, they can unify mismatched colors, such as uneven tones or bands of sapwood. The final color depends on the wood—even two pieces of the same species can stain differently—and the finish. Experimentation is key. Penetrating stains, such as aniline dyes, add pure, clear color without obscuring the grain. Work fast, because they absorb quickly into the wood. Pigmented stains, such as oil-based wiping stains, are easy to apply, but deposit larger particles that can muddy the grain. Gel stains combine the advantages of both: They’re almost foolproof, absorb evenly and allow the grain to remain visible.

Tips for a Top-notch Stain Job

  • Wear old clothing, a shop apron and gloves, and work on an old bench or cover it with thin plywood. Stains are difficult to remove from you or from the wood.
  • Mix custom colors by combining two or more stains of the same brand and type.
  • When making your own colors, mix enough to finish the entire project. You won’t be able to get an exact match later if you come up short.
  • To test stains on existing work, such as an old table, apply the color first in an inconspicuous area, such as under the top.
  • Thoroughly stir oil-based stains to dissolve the pigment that’s usually sitting on the bottom of the can.
  • When applying oil-based stains, wipe the wood with mineral spirits just before staining to ease and even stain distribution.
  • Try spraying penetrating stains, which gets them on the surfaces more quickly. You’ll get more even cover-age with fewer overlap marks.
  • Use alcohol-soluble stains for touch up. They’re easy to pinpoint and they dry almost instantly.
  • Place used oil-soaked rags in a flameproof, water filled container to prevent spontaneous combustion.

Test your stains on scraps of wood from your project that have even been sanded using the same process. Note the type and amount of stain you use and be sure to apply a few finish coats to get a feel for its final color.

Water-moistened rag

Prewet: When using water-soluble stains, raise the grain first with a damp rag. Sand it smooth when dry, and then stain. Now the water in the stain won’t raise the grain.
Rub. With wiping stains, rub the stain into the wood using a soft, clean cotton rag. Stain in any direction you wish, but always make the last pass in the direction of the grain. If you need to remove excess stain, use a rag that has a small amount of stain on it.

What Are Dyes and Glazes?
Dyes and glazes are stains of a different sort. Dyes are tiny color particles, much smaller than those in pigmented stains, sold either in powder form or as a liquid. They’re great for making custom colors or for staining without obscuring the grain. Glazes are heavy-bodied pigment-type stains that you apply over a sealed surface to add tone and uniformity. Their thick, work-able consistency lets you “age” a piece to make it look old. Glazes come premixed or you can make your own by combining artist’s oil with a glazing medium.

Stain Saver

Recycle your empty pump type spray bottle for spraying wiping stains. Spray a small section at a time, then wipe. It’s a great way to reach intricate areas, such as spindles, and you’ll use less stain than you would brushing.

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