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I wasn't sure how to stain the 1" side of my desktop (an 80x30x1" red oak panel), so I thought painter's tape would be a good idea to only stain half at a time. (Half while doing the "bottom" of the table, then tape other side and do the "top")

This has left me with a line along the side of the table where the stain is darker on the bottom and lighter on the top, mostly noticeable on the end-grain.

To avoid this result in the future, what is the typical way to deal with having to stain the "side" of a project? Should I have stained the entire side when doing the bottom? Should I stain the side as a separate process from the top and bottom? Clearly painter's tape was not the right method.

Also, what are my options other than sanding the sides down and starting over, to fix the mismatch in color?

  • A photo of the problem would help. – Caleb Apr 28 '15 at 14:14
  • To clarify what happened ... stain works by soaking into the grain of the wood. It isn't like paint that sits on he surface. So when you stained, a bit went under the tape, then when you did the other side more went under the tape from the other direction. The end result is you effectively stained that small line twice. – Daniel B. Apr 28 '15 at 19:15
  • As an aside, I don't think anybody has ever made a perfect project. There are always imperfections, the trick is to make them less noticeable, and keep them where people won't be looking (underneath, inside of legs, etc) – Daniel B. Apr 28 '15 at 19:17
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Stains tend to penetrate into wood and can wick along the grain, especially with an open grained wood like red oak. For that reason, applying tape to the surface isn't going to give you a clean border as it would with paint -- the stain just seeps underneath the tape.

The easiest way to avoid these kinds of problems is to stain the entire project all at once. Certainly, you should at least try to stain each surface all at the same time. Don't try to do one half of a single surface and then the other. If you need to do only some surfaces, stop at the edges and be quick to wipe any drips or beads that might happen at the edges.

To fix the problem you have now, I'd try using an appropriate solvent to re-dissolve the stain pigment or dye and help redistribute it. You'll probably want to do the entire surface so you don't end up with more blotchiness. The right solvent will depend on the kind of stain that you used. Before attempting to fix your panel, recreate the problem on some pieces of scrap and practice solving the problem there; this will give you confidence that the solution will work and also provide an opportunity to practice.

  • Applying stain is quick and easy, I would always recommend staining an entire project at the same time. There is no reason not to and it makes the application even. And yes, tape is completely worthless when applying stain to bare wood. – James Apr 28 '15 at 13:51
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So to avoid this result in the future, what is the proper way to deal with having to stain the "side" of a project?

Normally you stain adjacent surfaces at the same time, so that you can see and work both surfaces in concert and clean up drips/runs across the edge.

In case you were not aware, it's normal for end grain to end up darker (significantly so) as it is much more absorbent than long-grain faces of the same wood. Red oak in particular has extremely absorbent end grain.

Should I have stained the entire side when doing the bottom?

It's not normal to stain the bottom since nobody will see it.

If you're using a coloured all-in-one finish that doesn't require a separate topcoat then it's still not a requirement; finishing the undersides of tabletops equally with the top does not appear to be needed as Bob Flexner writes about here on Popular Woodworking.

Also, what are my options other than sanding the sides down and starting over, to fix the mismatch in color?

Planing or scraping would be preferable to sanding. But if sanding is your only available method then sanding back to bare wood and then applying fresh stain may be your best fix here. Care will need to be exercised not to round over edges and corners in particular.

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    I would probably try Caleb's method of "feathering" the dark spot with a solvent before sanding. The worst that happens is it doesn't work and you have to sand anyway. – Daniel B. Apr 28 '15 at 13:47
  • @DanielB. I agree there's nothing to lose by trying the solvent route, but IME it's usually less than successful. – Graphus Apr 28 '15 at 16:32
  • I actually was aware of the red oak tendency to absorb more product along the end grains. I evidently did not put enough wood conditioner on it to prevent it, however. Also, I stained the bottom side of the tabletop because this was my first project of this size, and wanted to be sure that I had a large surface to practice on before doing the top, which everyone would see. :) I decided to tape over the darker half of the edge, and reapply stain to the lighter half, which seems to have matched up the colors reasonably well. Lesson learned? Stain surfaces at once, or not at all. Thank you! – Jason Cavanaugh Apr 28 '15 at 20:32

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