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I'm refinishing our entire sunroom (we are getting new windows so it seemed like a good time, and apparently I'm a sucker for pain) and the staining isn't going as planned. The sunroom is a bit dark, so we wanted to lighten the wood, but my experiments so far are resulting in wood that is very similar to the original color.

In the image below, the pieces I stained I stripped with Citristrip, covered with plastic wrap for 12 hours, cleaned with steel wool + Kleen-Strip Mineral Sprits substitute for indoor use, dried for two days, sanded by hand 120 grit/180 grit/220 grit. Then I applied Varathane oil-based wood conditioner and the Varathane oil-based stain. As you can see from the image, the color is nowhere near the promotional image for Ipswich Pine or Golden Pecan.

I did a similar experiment previously (didn't get pictures) but had only sanded to 120 grit, and got similar results.

The five pieces of wood from left to right are:

  • The original condition of the wood
  • Stained: Varathane wood conditioner (oil based) + Varathane golden pecan (oil based)
  • Stained: Varathane wood conditioner (oil based) + Varathane ipswich pine (oil based)
  • Paint stirrer last used with Golden Pecan
  • Similar piece of wood after stripping (but not sanded yet)

stained wood samples varathane promotional image

Why is this happening, what am I doing wrong, and what can I do to get closer to the desired color?

Additional information:

As @Graphus pointed out, the reason seems likely that the wood itself is actually a darker wood and not a lighter wood. Since the windows are going to require some cutting, I trimmed off a small piece, did some sanding, and took the following picture:

enter image description here

As you can see, the cut side of the wood is actually fairly rich already, which I guess explains why the wood isn't staining lighter. It's not exactly clear to me what's going on with the other pieces that are stripped but not sanded... my guess is that maybe it's just remnants of the Citristrip that I didn't get all the way out? I did try sanding one that was a bit lighter and the dark wood started coming out. I'm not sure why I didn't notice the darkness when I stained the pieces in the original question, maybe it was just a bit dark in the garage.

I'm not really sure what kind of wood this is, but if anyone can identify it I'd love some thoughts.

Note: Window installer believe it is likely Gumwood, given the age of the house (1920's) and other houses in the area from that period.

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  • From what you tell us you've done everything right. Why are you getting such a different result? Well primarily it's because you're not using it on the wood in Varathane's sample images (they used oak). I'd imagine that accounts for a good portion of this, but saying that your results are very dark by any reasonable standard! Even more surprising given you used "conditioner" first, which should always result in a lighter (or much lighter) staining result! So anyway, have you tried just a clear finish on your wood to see what colour that yields?
    – Graphus
    Jun 17, 2023 at 17:31
  • Kudos for doing the testing first BTW! You'd be amazed how many people just dive straight in on the project pieces without even a single test swatch first.
    – Graphus
    Jun 17, 2023 at 17:32
  • Thanks for the suggestion on the clear finish, I'm going to try that tonight. Jun 18, 2023 at 0:12
  • Re. this being gumwood, that would explain why it didn't look familiar at all :-) Link to a question on Houzz in case you didn't come across it, houzz.com/discussions/3787910/…
    – Graphus
    Jun 20, 2023 at 7:14

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From what you tell us you've done everything right. And again, kudos for doing tests so you caught this early! So why are you getting such a different result?

Part of it is because of a standard caveat in woodworking: wood varies. Some difference in stain outcome is always to be expected when you are colouring a different species than the manufacturer's sample, and in this case Varathane's example pieces are oak and your pieces are not oak.

In addition, you are working with stripped wood, and sometimes stripping does weird things to the surface fibres. I think this accounts for the remainder of the difference.

But even given both of the above your results are very much darker, by any reasonable standard! Even more surprising since you used "conditioner" first, which should always result in a lighter (or much lighter) staining result.

There are certain tricks you can do to try to work around this (using what you already have) but I'd suggest switching to a different colouring product IF you continue with the original plan to stain the wood.

First thing I'd try though would be to try clear finish by itself, on the stripped and sanded wood and see how you like the appearance. Go through the entire finishing process you'll eventually be using, so if you'll use three coats on the project pieces do that on the test piece as well, applied in the same way with the same interval between coats + any light scuffing to de-nib; you'll need this to get a proper read on the finished outcome.

If that colour isn't quite acceptable there's a good alternative colouring product for the DIY-level woodworker, "gel stain", which isn't a stain in the normal sense of the word, but instead a type of coloured varnish.

As "gel stain" interacts much less with the surface fibres of wood it bypasses certain colouring issues normally encountered, and this property may allow it to give the colour you expect with this wood. But unfortunately you'll have to try it and see, since there are no guarantees with this sort of thing.

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  • FWIW I'm sad I didn't catch this 2 weeks ago, but I guess better late than never. I tried a water based polyurethane and some other things and I'm not really happy with any of them. Maybe an oil based poly would have a "brighter" color... or perhaps at this point I need to go find a professional locally. Jun 20, 2023 at 2:44
  • Waterbased finishes are mostly water clear / crystal clear, and truly clear finishes tend to change the colour of medium- and light-coloured woods minimally. Oil-based varnishes (this includes oil-based poly) tend to "add warm tones" in common parlance, although the effect is a bit more nuanced than that it gives an idea. Essentially any oil finish will add something in the warm yellow/amber spectrum, but the underlying wood's own colour comes forward quite a bit.
    – Graphus
    Jun 20, 2023 at 7:08

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