Choosing the Right Stain

After spending hours, days, and sometimes weeks building a project, it comes that time I fear the most. Applying the stain. As we all know, the right color can make or break a project. Your countless hours of designing and building can make a beautifully crafted piece of furniture look like trash if the stain is wrong. So how do you choose the right color stain? Well for me, I first have to choose the right brand of stain.

When it comes to the color of stain that depends on the look of the piece of furniture. I usually have an idea of what I want. Maybe it’s a golden oak, brown mahogany, or the ever-popular, java stain. So with the color in mind, in the past, I would head off to my local DIY store to grab a can of that perfect color. At the store, I pick up the can and it says, “java”. I verify the little picture on the can and it’s confirmed, “Yep, that’s the color I want.”

Back in my shop, I am excited to apply the stain and watch the magic happen. But it’s not magic that happens but gut-wrenching repulsion. The stain is completely wrong! How can this be? The can shows a pretty picture. But my project is on the way to putrid-Ville. What caused this and how can it be avoided? Here are a few tips to help prevent that.

  1. Know the type of wood you are working with.

Some woods are more problematic than others. Birch, Maple, Cherry, and Pine can splotch.

  1. Have a sample of your wood to practice on before applying it to your finished piece.

I will have several pieces to practice with. I also make sure to sand them to the finished grit the same as my project.

  1. Know what type of stain you are using.

Dye stains, penetrating stains, and gel stains are all different and react differently to various types of woods. I did an experiment using three common brands on the market. CrystaLac, General Finishes, and Minwax. And here are the following results.

For my wood, I used a common 2×4 Douglas Fir of the pine family. I applied the first coat of CrystaLac water-based Java stain (on the left), General Finishes oil-based Java stain (in the middle), and Minwax dark walnut penetrating stain (on the right). After waiting 15 minutes here were the results.

The CrystaLac and Minwax stains were light in color. Perhaps this was not the desired color tone I was wanting.  The General Finishes stain was very dark. Appearing more of the color I was imagining. But I wondered, Could another coat be applied? So I decided to add a second coat. I applied the same amount and waited 15 minutes again. Here were the results.

The CrystaLac stain became noticeably darker. It seems to be the same color tone as General Finishes. The General Finishes had no change. And the Minwax had an ever so slightly darker shade. Should I try for more? So what about a third coat? After the same conditions, here are the results.

The CrystaLac stain again continues to get darker and surpasses the General Finish stain. General Finishes still no change. The Minwax also, no change.

The Results

Minwax– In my opinion, this was the least performing stain of the three. Although its color was dark walnut, (not java like the other two) it still seems much lighter than the can suggested. A penetrating stain will do just that. It penetrates the wood and once it’s absorbed in, that’s all you are getting. It’s not possible to get more color into it. You have the option of applying it in three different ways. It can be wiped on, brushed on, or sprayed. 

General Finishes– This stain went on reasonably dark in just one coat. It’s an oil-based gel stain so it’s a surface covering stain. The color does not penetrate into the wood. This explains why multiple layers don’t change the color. This stain is very thick and can only be applied by wiping it on with a rag.

CrystaLac This is a water-based stain. It seems to act as a combination of both the previous stains. The first coat seems to penetrate the wood while each additional coat builds up layers of color from the pigment in the stain. This can be wiped on, brushed, or sprayed. I truly love spraying this stain. If an area of the wood is lighter, I can target that section and with the sprayer feather it out. Making a seamless color tone. 

In the end, we all want a “one step does it all” finish. But after taking multiple hours of building something, I don’t mind spending a little extra time in getting the look I truly want.

I have been using CrystaLac products for several years now. If you are interested in learning more about the various products they offer you can click here for their website

Chad Stanton- Owner of Stanton Fine Furniture 2-24-2022