Enhancing Walnut’s Grain, Figure?

Enhancing Walnut’s Grain, Figure?

I am in the midst of making a sideboard as a wedding gift for my son and his bride. My wife is going to paint the bottom part of the piece an off-white, then use dark antique wax on top of that. For the top, I wanted to get a very attractive piece of wood and apply a natural wood finish to it that would contrast nicely with the bottom. I have chosen to make the top out of highly figured black walnut. The wood is spectacular! My question is, what kind of finish would you recommend I use in to order to bring out the wonderful grain and figuration in this black walnut while also providing adequate protection? The photo, below, is of one of the pieces of black walnut I am using. I spread some alcohol on it to give you an idea of the grain. – Jim Sullivan

Tim Inman: You’re about to step into the wonderful world of dyes and mordants. There are any number of materials that can do what you are asking. George Frank was a proponent of potassium dichromate for your needs. I agree. It is wonderful in the way it can enhance tight grains and accent special wood features. It is considered a hazardous chemical and you should not be naive if you want to try it. It is widely available quite reasonably. George Frank’s first book, “Adventures in Wood Finishing,” would be a good read and a quick resource for you. My book has information on it, too. Other things will also work. Ammonia is simple and effective. Alum works, tannin is effective, sal ammoniac is another one. Then there is the realm of natural dyes and mordants. Boiled American black walnut husks make a super walnut stain. A little lye is the best mordant for that one. So, test and test and try samples. Find the one you like then go for it! Want a really simple good one? Dilute some orange shellac and use that as a “first” coat. You’ll love it.

Chris Marshall: I second the suggestion of using an orange-colored finish as a way to enhance walnut, because it “warms” up the color of the wood beautifully (especially on kiln-dried walnut, that often turns grayish or greenish as a result of drying). I’ve also found that dyes do a wonderful job of enhancing highly figured wood like yours. By the way, it’s really beautiful!

What I’ve done before is applied orange colored water-based dye, then topcoated that with either lacquer or oil-based varnish. The end result will be that rich brown “walnut” color we all think we want from walnut, because orange shifts the wood color to the “warm” side of the color spectrum (so do reds and yellows). You can see an example of what I’m talking about in the photo of the table above: the finish was orange dye topcoated with spray lacquer.) As Tim suggests, though, test the orange colorant and topcoat on a scrap piece first, to see if you like the effect.


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  • bbrown

    I was under the impression that Potassium Dichromate was only effective on woods with a high tannin content, such as mahogany.

  • Foster Mac

    What type of wood is the table (shown in the example) made of? You said you used an orange dye. Can you explain it a bit more (how you did it, etc)?

    • Chris Marshall

      The table is made of walnut, and the coloration of that particular walnut was uneven. One leg also had some prominent sapwood on it, which was cream-colored. In order to even out the overall coloration, I sanded the wood up to 180 grit, wetted the wood with water to raised the grain and then sanded it smooth again with 220 grit when the walnut dried. (This is pretty standard procedure when applying water-based dyes.) Then, I applied Homestead TransFast orange dye — I used the powdered variety that you prepare with hot distilled water (here’s a link to it):


      I flooded the wood with the dye, let it soak in for a few minutes and wiped off the excess. The wood will turn alarmingly orange at this point, but not to worry. Once you apply a topcoat (I used Deft satin lacquer from a rattle can), the brown town is immediately enhanced. Orange dye was the only “stain” I used on this walnut. But, I should clarify: any of the warmer stain colors or combinations of them (yellows, oranges, reds, browns) will improve the color of walnut, too. Orange is definitely not the only option here. But, it is an interesting option to try!