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I'm just getting into woodworking, and I have a number of relatively simple projects (end tables, boxes, bookshelves, etc) that I would like to make, but I want them to match. Water based stain is super cheap and comes in many colors, but I know that it won't work all that well on pine because it ends up splotchy. So what woods work well for staining? In particular, I'd like to see a chart of woods from most to least splotchy, if that makes sense. Because I'm relatively new to this, I've also been looking for some more general advice on common wood types and the "best" approach to finishing them.

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    I suggest changing your title slightly - What woods take stain well? The word "best" is a bit of a red flag around here. – grfrazee Dec 9 '15 at 13:49
  • @grfrazee Great suggestion! Thanks for pointing this out. – Aaron Massey Dec 9 '15 at 14:41
  • "but I know that it won't work all that well on pine because it ends up splotchy" yes pine is very prone to blotching, but that is something you can get control of by various means. However if a viable solution for you would be to work with an inexpensive hardwood instead I'd say go for it because in general woodworking with hardwoods is SO much more enjoyable. – Graphus Dec 9 '15 at 16:10
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The obvious best resources here are the wood-database.com, The Real Wood Bible (book), and Minwax's staining guide. All are excellent sources of information. I would start with Minwax's guide-- it has great layout and is very beginner friendly.

In general, woods with tight grains don't take stain well. The stain will not penetrate maple well, for example.

Don't be fooled though, stain can't always replace buying a higher-quality and more expensive wood.

To save you some reading, here's a summary:

  • Oak: large pores, takes stain very well
  • Ash: takes stain well
  • Chestnut: takes stain well
  • Birch: does not take stain well
  • Maple: does not take stain well
  • Cherry: why would you want to stain? Looks great already
  • Mahogany/dark woods: why would you want to stain?
  • Pine: light stains only
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Aaron - I'd highly recommend red oak. It is easy to work with, relatively inexpensive and stains very evenly.

Most difficult in my opinion next to pine is maple.

  • I've used water-based stains with maple and it seems to take fine. The bigger problem I have with maple is that even the tiniest scratches are very noticeable when you stain it. – grfrazee Dec 9 '15 at 13:50

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