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I'm preparing to finish new red oak shelves I've built in my kitchen. I'm planning to apply a color stain and I'd like it to have a nice, even finish. I'm going for a more uniform appearance, with grain showing of course, but I'd like to de-emphasize the grain as well as the old / new growth. Does anyone have any process suggestions? The more I read about it, the more I'm frustrated by the options, and I'm thinking about things like sealer, washcoating, grain filler, etc.

If you can make recommendations (types of products, not brands) I'd appreciate it too. I've read good things about oil/varnish blend and about wiping varnish. Any thoughts about the difference, or recommendations on what types of products I can use to even out the finish?

Of course I'll make multiple samples of all the potential processes, so if there are multiple processes and products to try I'm all ears! Thanks!

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  • I've edited slightly since product recommendation questions are discouraged on this site.
    – rob
    Aug 14 '16 at 21:48
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The more I read about it, the more I'm frustrated by the options, and I'm thinking about things like sealer, washcoating, grain filler, etc.

This is part of the problem with finishing when you're starting out, all the many options. It's the same starting out in most areas, where you have to learn about lots of things knowing that eventually you'll use just a handful of them 95% of the time.

There are a great many options available and numerous combinations possible on top of that but I know a couple of woodworkers online who use wiping varnish for virtually all their pieces. And I've read on one furniture maker's blog that he uses nothing but linseed oil on his work, saying that if it was good enough as a finish for hundreds of years it's good enough now.

I'm going for a more uniform appearance, with grain showing of course, but I'd like to de-emphasize the grain

If you want to truly hide the grain on oak and produce the most even colour possible then a full grain fill is the way to go but this is a lot of extra work. You can go a lot of the way there just with the right colouring product.

This is the classic case for picking your colouring product with care as what is sold as "stain" is a number of very different things.

Types of "stain"
There are two main classes of stain, pigment stains and dye stains, and they work completely differently. A pigment stain has actual pigment particles (large) suspended in it while a true stain is coloured by dye (very tiny). With pigment stains those particles naturally collect in recesses, actually increasing the contrast and making the grain stand out. Dye stains on the other hand colour the wood fairly evenly so have a natural tendency to reduce the contrast between the recessed grain and the surrounding wood.

There is also something called "gel stain" which isn't strictly a stain at all. It is coloured varnish that has been artificially thickened slightly.

So it's definitely dye stain you want to use here. Get a dye stain or two in likely colours and experiment with them until you're confident in how to apply the product evenly. For your final finish I would recommend wiping on varnish.

I've read good things about oil/varnish blend and about wiping varnish.

Those are both fine in their respective ways and for appropriate applications. They both have the same basic advantage, that of being wipe on finishes but wiping varnish is a better finish in a few key respects, being more flexible in how it can be applied and providing better waterproofing and scratch-resistance.

Make your own
In case you haven't come across this before wiping varnish is just normal varnish thinned slightly. As with "wood conditioner" you pay too much for the commercial variety because they're charging you through the nose for mineral spirits, which is cheap. Better to make your own since it's much cheaper and you can have full control over the level of dilution to suit your own preferences and the weather conditions (the same dilution won't equally suit finishing during summer months and on the coldest days of winter).

All you need to do is take a clean jar and pour in some (gloss) varnish, then add 1/3 or more spirits, shake the jar and you're good to go.

Oil/varnish blends can be made in exactly the same way, usually beginning with a simple 1:1:1 mixture of BLO, varnish and spirits.

Note that shaking a finish is usually discouraged just prior to use because it introduces bubbles but they're irrelevant in a wipe-on finish because the application process will naturally pop any bubbles.

Of course I'll make multiple samples of all the potential processes

That's good. Wood varies a surprising amount sometimes and not least in how it takes finish. So it's vital to do test boards to assess how any finishing regimen will work on your wood.

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  • Confused about your description of how pigment & dye stains work. I would think that the larger particles of pigment stain would sit on the surface, more like a paint, and provide a more uniform coloring. Whereas the smaller particles of a dye would more readily soak into the pores of the grain, emphasizing the different densities of the fast/slow growth rings and highlighting the grain. Of course, this is from me thinking about it, not having done it in practice, so I could be wrong. Would you clarify, please.
    – FreeMan
    Jul 7 '21 at 11:31
  • Pigment grains don't sit on the surface because you wipe excess stain away (normally). Regardless, as you apply stain it naturally builds up in any recesses while being wiped away from the flats to some extent by the application tool, probably most especially if you apply by cloth or paper towel. If you're familiar with cerused oak (limed oak) the basic principle is the same and it's how the grain is made fully white while the flats are only lightly tinted by the whitening agent. By comparison dyes soak into the cellular structure approximately equally over the whole surface. [contd]
    – Graphus
    Jul 7 '21 at 14:15
  • This difference in colouring effect between dyes and pigmented stains is well described in any decent finishing book, and blotch-prone and 'special effect' woods (like curly maple) aside you want to use dyes for the most even colouring and pigmented stains if you want to emphasise open grain, in a single step. I presume you don't own a copy of the book by Flexner, but if you're signed up to Archive.org, archive.org/details/isbn_9780762106219, page 43.
    – Graphus
    Jul 7 '21 at 14:40
  • Not owning any finishing book (hands in his woodworker's card) I wasn't aware of that. Thanks for adding some details, and I'll definitely take a look at the book by Flexner.
    – FreeMan
    Jul 7 '21 at 14:54
  • W-w-what? No finishing books?! ^_^ Actually um ......putting my own card at risk here..... I don't own any either. But in my defence I can borrow any of the ones I wanted to read from our library system. The new loan system and free registration on Archive.org was a godsend during lockdowns when I wanted to check anything!
    – Graphus
    Jul 7 '21 at 16:06
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Applying a sealer before staining will discourage stain from soaking into open grain more than closed grain. Using a tinted varnish rather than a true stain will also help achieve an even wash of color across the surface if that's what you are going for.

Reminder: Always test on scrap pieces of the same wood(s) before finishing your actual project, to make sure you know how it will behave. It's a lot safer to make mistakes on a piece people won't see.

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  • thanks keshlam, i think i'll go with a sealer first, then a stain. would it suit my needs to give the wood a wash coat before applying the stain, or would a wash coast simply result a slower achievement of the same color evenness?
    – william
    Aug 15 '16 at 2:14

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