Woodworking Oil Stains

Jeff Vandenberg
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Woodworking Oil Stain (workbench magazine copyright)
There are lots of wood stains on the market these days — gels, water-based — but the bread and butter in my shop is oil-based stain. Nothing fancy. Just your basic off-the-shelf stain that’s available at almost every hardware store.

One reason is oil-based stains are easy to use. And the come in a wide range of colors that are resistant to fading.

Most oil-based stains color wood the same way paint does -with finely ground particles called pigments. When you open a can of paint that’s been sitting for a while, you’ll notice that the pigments have settled into a thick sludge at the bottom of the can. Stirring suspends the pigments in the liquid in the can - linseed oil and mineral spirits.

When you apply the stain, the pigments lodge in the pores of the wood. Since the larger pores of the end grain accept more pigment than the smaller pores of the surface grain, these areas stain darker. To help even out the color, sand the exposed areas of end grain one grit finer sandpaper than the surface grain.

But end grain isn’t always at the “end” of a board. Sometimes it swirls to the surface and produces a series of light and dark blotches. This is especially true of woods like maple and pine. To reduce blotching, try a wood conditioner before applying the stain. The conditioner partially stops up the large pores so they don’t hold as much pigment. The result is a more even stain.

Even something as simple as sanding affects the color. Areas with large scratches left behind by coarse grit sandpaper trap more pigment and so stain darker. If you want to end up with a lighter color, use a finer grit sandpaper.

To check color, it’s a good idea to apply the stain on a test piece. And since different types of wood accept stain differently, use a cutoff from the project you’re working on that’s sanded to the same grit. When applying the stain, the idea is to cover the entire surface before it starts to dry.

One way to do this is (on a large table top, for example) is to keep a “wet” edge by overlapping one stroke with the next. When the entire surface is covered, use a rag to wipe it down in the direction of the grain. The amount of stain you leave on will determine the final look of the project

Jeff Vandenberg aka "Woodsconsin"

Their is a whole skill set devoted to colouring, staining, and finishing wood. My best advise to anyone new is to make sure to read the directions multiple times, then practice on scraps a bunch, allowing to fully dry to see the results, taking the scrap into various lighting conditions before putting anything on your newly finished project. A finish, including stain, can make or break your masterpiece. I always have a couple of boxes of disposable latex gloves in the shop at all times. A good supply of rags can be gotten from a local hotel housekeeper usually if you ask nicely.

CHRIS, Charlottetown PEI Canada. Anytime you can repurpose, reuse, or recycle, everyone wins!