Stains, Dyes and Varnish Options

Choosing the right tone for your wood is a major decision -- changing your mind exacts a heavy price in both materials and labor. Make sample strips of your leading color candidates before making your final choice.

Making samples means more than dipping skinny sticks into a can of stain. Take actual pieces of your wood (cutoff ends work nicely), sanded to the same degree that your finished wood will be, and apply the stain to the sample pieces, just as you would to the finished product.

Wipe on the stain, then apply the same number of clear coats that you'll brush on later. Use a permanent marker to identify each board with the color and brand of the stain you're testing. If you're working with trim, make certain that you're judging the samples under the lighting conditions of the room. If you've already selected a wall color, go ahead and paint the room or at least paint a good-size swatch to help you visualize how the paint and stain colors work with each other. Don't make a snap decision. Instead view the samples at different times over several days.

Oil stains are easy to use, but on softwoods, such as pine and fir, you may need a wood conditioner to prevent blotching. If you can't achieve the exact look you want with off-the-shelf colors, you can custom-mix a stain. Several cautions: Stir well to ensure consistent results, mix stains only of the same type and from the same manufacturer, and keep careful notes of precise measurements so you can duplicate the tone later. Dyes are less likely than stains to produce blotching. If you use a dye that mixes with water, prepare the wood by wiping it with a barely damp cloth. Let it dry. Then, using 220-grit sandpaper, remove the whiskers of wood raised by the wetting before you proceed with the dye coat. You also can choose dyes that dissolve in denatured alcohol. Alcohol dries quickly -- especially in hot weather -- so make certain you allow enough working time to achieve smooth coverage. Whenever you work with solvents, provide plenty of ventilation and exercise extreme caution to prevent fires.


You won't need all the items pictured for each type of finish. Applicators, for instance, differ with the type of finish you select. The personnel in the finishing department at a home center or hardware store can help you find what you need.

  • Brushes are either foam, synthetic bristle, or natural bristle. Natural bristle works best when applying oil-base products. You can use a roller with water-base coatings, but it will add texture. Lint-free cheesecloth is an optional applicator for stains and clear finishing oils.
  • Steel wool in the fine (#000) and finest (#0000) grades smooths a finish between coats. Don't use it with water-base finishes -- small metal particles left on the wood will rust. Woven abrasive pads perform like steel wool, and you can use them on all finishes.
  • Fill sticks repair minor surface imperfections, while wood filler handles larger ones. Putty knives are useful for filling large surface defects.

Clear finishes

Many people believe that successful wood finishing has more to do with alchemy than chemistry. And taking a quick glance at the wide range of clear wood finishes, you may think it will take a miracle to help you choose the right one.

The ideal finish would combine fast and easy application; quick drying; simple touch-up and repair; complete resistance to moisture, solvents, and abrasion; and low cost. Unfortunately there is no one finish that exhibits all these qualities. So choosing a finish involves trade-offs -- you select the qualities that are most important to you and decide whether you can do without the others. Familiarity with the major categories of finishes will narrow your search.


The so-called pure oil finishes -- linseed oil, mineral oil, and tung oil -- don't contain dryers, so they may remain sticky and emit odors for an extended time. But you'll also find oil-and-varnish finishes that contain dryers. These blends each have different characteristics in both their application methods and drying times. Some oil/varnish finishes are sometimes called penetrating oils (but don't confuse this term with the product that loosens rusty bolts). Some common categorical names include Nordic Oil and Danish Oil. Applying either pure or blended oils is easy. Simply flood the surface with a liberal amount of product (a brush works fine), let it soak in according to the manufacturer's instructions, then wipe off the excess with soft cloths.

Oil finishes offer protection to the wood without building a surface film and they're also easy to repair. They are not, however, as durable and resistant to wear as a film-forming varnish. Oil finishes can require a long finishing schedule -- over several days -- which may be a reason for you to choose another finish for trimwork. They are excellent finishes, however, for furniture. To maintain an oil finish, recoat annually.


Many professional finishers choose lacquer because it dries rapidly, which produces two important advantages: airborne dust has little time to settle on a wet surface, and the finisher can apply multiple coats in a day. For large-scale work, lacquer requires a high-quality spray system that can be a substantial investment for occasional use. For small-scale work, you can use aerosol cans. Wear a respirator to protect yourself from fumes during spray application. Effective ventilation is an absolute necessity because the vapors can be explosive. Unfortunately, lacquer finishes can fail when exposed to moisture or even excessive heat and humidity.


Shellac shares lacquer's fast-drying advantage but isn't as durable, and water and other liquids can stain or damage it easily. But shellac is still valuable as a sealer coat for wood and is compatible with most varnishes. (Check with the finish manufacturer or conduct your own test in an inconspicuous area.) Seal wood end-grain with shellac to minimize absorption of stain or finishes.


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