Refinishing furniture is neither a science or an art form, but a combination of the two. Knowledge of the materials used and how they interact is necessary, along with a sense of esthetics to use this knowledge to produce a pleasing appearance. If the piece has no mechanical faults to consider, your only concern is appearance, ease of application, and durability. It’s appearance we’ll talk about this time, specifically color.

On a piece with a clear finish, color is sometimes predetermined by the wood itself. Species such as cherry, walnut and mahogany have a definite color of their own which most people find pleasing. When it comes to maple, pine, and oak, however, the variations in color can be almost limitless.

There are a number of companies that make wood stains, among them Minwax, Zar and Carver-Tripp, to mention some of the more generally available. When choosing a stain, most companies offer color prints or actual wood samples to show you what the stain looks like after application. If you look at actual wood samples, try to find a sample showing the same species of wood as in your furniture. The choice here can be difficult. A painted piece the wrong color can be repainted; it’s not as easy to alter a stain that’s wrong, so you must choose carefully. It is much wiser to apply a stain that may be a little too light; you can usually apply another coat to darken it. It’s not as easy to lighten a piece that’s too dark. One personal note here: there are brush-on products on the market that try to combine the stain and finish in one application. I suggest you avoid them. It is very difficult to avoid winding up with a “streaky” color, especially if the pigment is medium to dark. Aerosols combing finish and color are suggested instead, but they’re usually harder to find. It takes longer to stain and then apply a finish, but it beats having to strip a piece (the second time) because it didn’t turn out right.

Don’t shoot for the impossible. If the piece is walnut, don’t try to make it match a blonde oak piece – it just isn’t going to happen. After the piece is stripped and cleaned, wipe the top down with lacquer thinner or paint thinner; get the surface wet. This is the color the piece will be if you apply a clear finish without any stain at all. You can accent this color; make it more brown, more red, etc., but you probably won’t be able to change it a lot (with just a stain). Maple is especially difficult to stain. Most of the deep reddish brown finishes you see on maple are not stains, as we use the term here – they are shading lacquers (lacquer finish coats with color) applied on the wood – not in it. When you strip off the finish, off comes the color.

You’ll often see the suggestion to try the stain in an “inconspicuous” place first. That’s usually more easily said than done. On a veneered piece, all the veneer shows. Applying the stain to the underside of a drawer won’t show you what it will look like on the veneer. My suggestion would be to try the stain on the bottom edge of the side, preferably the side that will show the least after the piece is in place. As always, follow the manufacturer’s directions…they know their product better than you do.

Questions? Comments?  Leave them below

Until Next Time – Dan @ Wood Menders

George Utley has about 20 years experience in furniture
repair/refinishing/manufacturing. His last full-time job in the industry was
as quality control supervisor for a Virginia mfg. producing solid walnut and
cherry period pieces (Queen Anne & Hepplewhite).