To Stain or Not to Stain? eZine Readers’ Reactions

In last issue’s eZine, Rob said that he prefers not to stain wood, but rather to let a particular species shine through as itself. While many (many) eZine readers agreed, there were a few who had a different perspective.

“ I tend to stain most pieces, for three reasons. Availability: some of us don’t have ready access (in person vs. online) to a good selection of woods. Cost: we all know how expensive some woods can be. Matching: I’m often trying to match some existing piece, often a store-bought item. Finally, I don’t have much experience with dyes, but have read articles how some figured woods react very dramatically with dye, yielding results well beyond their own natural beauty.” – Henry Burks

“I gather you’re not a fan of Mission furniture.  I am.  So I will happily take oak and stain it darker (usually with a dark mahogany gel stain) to get that effect.  It also tends to even out any uneven coloration.  And conquers blotchiness pretty handily.

“Recently I made a changing table for my daughter (my first grandchild).  She was given a crib and wanted something to match.  The crib had a nice honey-toned factory finish.  No way to match it with anything available at the wood store.  I found an oil paint at the art store that matched the shade perfectly, so I made up a wash with turpentine and stained away.  The result was a perfect match.  Daughter is very happy.  Grandson seems to like it also.

“So I stain and stain often.  But I also love the look of natural wood, especially walnut, mahogany, hickory and cherry.  Don’t think I would ever stain those.” –
Stephen Dragg

“Why do we paint and varnish?  The most important reason is to protect the surface we are coating. Using the right materials and the right combination of pigments, we can protect wooden houses and barns with linseed oil and white lead for 300-plus years. I varnish all of my wood creations with polyurethane varnish to protect it from the wear and tear of use and age. As a human being, we coat not only to protect but to also decorate.  The use of a stain on wood is not only to darken or color the wood but to subtly bring out the figure in the wood. Many of us suffer from the amount syndrome: if a little is good than a whole lot has got to be a whole lot better.  However, a light-handed touch with a thinned stain can pick up subtle shading that adds beauty to the wood and brings out the beautiful grain in the wood.” –  Richard Melton

“For me, it depends on what look I’m going for. I’m currently working on a wood American flag. There was no way that the stars would look right, so I painted them. The union field was stained with a dry stain mixed with Minwax stain base; the stripes were stained with liquid tint mixed with the same stain base. But some projects I just clear coat!” – J. Eric Pennestri

“I sure don’t like to paint. That is definitely for sure, but natural is good. Although I do like to make my oak look different, be it dark, light or medium. In my past I can count on maybe two fingers how many times I’ve went natural. One time I was intrigued at trying ebony on oak. Wow! The grain popped and it really looked good with semi-gloss poly. I just did a job for a friend and used ebony.” – Dennis Wykey

“You pose an interesting question. I have been a woodworker (of various degrees of skill) for approximately 50 years. In all of those years I have done both. Most of the times I am simply trying to get a particular shade that I think will look pleasing on that particular project. Other times I may be adding a piece into a room that has aged pieces but needs to be shaded to match the existing look so it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. However, I’ve never been one to try and make a piece of pine look like walnut.” – John Rowe

“If it does not match our existing cabinets, tables, etc., regretfully I, too, have ended up resorting to stain.  I don’t like it, but it must match.” – John Fosdick

For some, it’s not their personal preference, but the desires of customers that dicate the choice of staining or not. – Editor

“I have been doing woodworking my whole life and it baffles me why people use stain. But, with that said, most customers I deal with want me to stain the project for them. The one instance I like using stain is if I do some CNC carving to a piece: putting stain on heavily with a rag darkens the engravings, making it stand out a little more. But there is nothing better than the beauty of keeping the wood natural, even if it is only pine.” – Terry Allen

“I am with you, 100 percent! However, there is one little catch about the finish on woodworking projects in three words: ‘The customer wants …’ And when the customer is SWMBO [She Who Must Be Obeyed], you must acquiesce unless you want to sleep in the dog house. That is just life. So “Cranberry Stain” over beautiful Honduran mahogany? Yep, that’s the color, all right. And I’ll never tell anyone how much it pained me to do that.” – Rich Flynn

“You are not alone as I also dislike using stain.  I would much prefer to let the natural look of the wood shine through.  When I am given leeway, I will pick an appropriate type of wood that does not need a stain to build a specific project.  I absolutely hate to hear a customer say they want their project stained a particular color. Of course, I keep this to myself, as the desires of the customer is always held above my preferences.  The natural beauty of wood cannot be matched by any stain.” – Paul Odom

Not everyone, however, subscribes to this view. – Editor

“One of the first things I explain to my customers is their furniture will not be stained. Stains can obscure the grain and figure of some wood. They also fade over time and show scuffs from everyday use (not to mention shipping). Future repairs are a headache when the color has to be matched. My only deviation from this rule is ebonizing wood with an iron/vinegar solution. Because it is a chemical reaction in the wood, it doesn’t show light scratches and is a cinch to replicate if a repair is necessary. Of course, I have a large collection of (mostly dried-out) cans of stain, dyes, and toned aerosol lacquers for the repair end of my business.” – Laron Algren

“I do not stain; if a client wants darker color, then I provide that species.” – Dennis Ocon

Some had their own reasons for preferring to avoid stain. – Editor

“Like you, Rob, if I am looking for a particular color, I choose the wood to match my ideas.  Also, I really do not like to stain; it is messy and very difficult, at least for me to repair scratches if the object is stained.  Some are likely very good at repair, but for me, to repair the natural color is simple, so, I choose not to stain unless it is a ‘have-to’ case.  It all boils down to what a person really prefers.” – Gerald Jones

“In response to Rob’s ‘Stain vs Nature’ comments, I must agree wholeheartedly. If you want something to look like walnut or cherry, you’re much better off using walnut or cherry. But for me, personally, there is another reason. Because I’m ‘chromatically challenged,’ I can’t rely on my eyes being able to match any color with stain. I do see some color, but shades and subtle color differences are not perceptible.  If I use woods with clear finish, I can chalk up any color differences to the beauty of nature.” – Bruce Millward

“Because I have problems trying to get one type of wood to look like another and usually failing to do so, I also prefer to use the wood that I am trying to emulate. I find that it’s less frustrating to do otherwise.” – Elliott Bogart

“ I have just begun my woodworking journey by mostly making wood toys for children. Wood has some amazing antimicrobial properties in its natural state that it loses when finished. I like the appearance of natural wood, and prefer to use good quality wood with unique grain to showcase. If I use a colored stain, it is usually on pine.” –  Sarah Jensen

“I, too, use polyurethane. But kind of a different reason than you. I do, almost entirely, intarsia and I do not use any paint or stain. I pick the color of wood that I want and then put polyurethane on it as a ‘finish’ (three coats). I think that because of the difference in grains, it would be difficult to try and stain one wood to look like another. I have  been doing Intarsia for 18-20 years, so I have it down pretty good now.” – Jim Palmer

A few gave a caveat that they only stain sometimes. – Editor

“I use stain only when I absolutely have to color-match. I love the natural color in walnut, but my favorite wood is cherry, especially if it’s a rough and gnarly piece with a live edge. Once the outer bark has been removed, the color of the inner bark jumps out at you when it is oiled or urethaned. I use a lot of maple, and curly maple is quite beautiful in its natural state. Another wood that surprised me is beech, which has a lot more natural color than I thought.” – Al McLeod

“The only time I stain wood is to make a cheaper wood look like a more expensive wood, like making tulip wood or yellow poplar look like maple. Otherwise, I just put a finish on.” – Jim Cottingham

“Just to confuse you more, I do both.  I tend to use the wood appropriate for the look I want, but sometimes want it just a little darker to make it look not so ‘new.’ If I am making a specific project for someone that wants that walnut look but doesn’t want to spend the money for walnut, poplar with a nice walnut stain is almost indistinguishable from the real thing.  Mostly I use clear finished because I want all the beauty of the wood to show through in my projects, but there are stains in my paint locker.” – Chuck Chall

“ I prefer the natural wood colors over stained colors. I do a lot of segmented bowl turning and specifically choose woods that provide a variation of colors and tonal nuances. For example, I will choose a piece of walnut that has both heartwood and sapwood to achieve a light/dark shadow effect when the turning is finished.  Applying a stain destroys the nuance of the shadow. However, when I am making cabinets or other pieces that need to match an existing piece, then stain is applied to blend the items. I see a place for both stained and natural items, but my first love is the natural.” – Jerry Van Gessel

And some talked about different supplies, or processes. – Editor

“I do not use stain. Nothing beats the natural beauty of wood. However, I would like to try some dyes, as I have never used them before and in some videos, they seem to enhance the character of the wood.” – Mark Yourich

“I’m like you. No stain, but I dislike polys as well. Give me some BLO [boiled linseed oil] and turpentine if I need to protect. I’ve also just stumbled on to Kramer’s [Best Antique Improver] and love it. It’s really helped the antiques my parents collected for 64 years!” – Elaine Duff

I have taken a liking to amber shellac to enhance the color without the fuss.  Now I am experimenting with adding color to shellac but have not got there yet.  Shellac is so much easier to use and especially to clean up.  I guess you might call this the middle ground.” –  Kermit Huttar


“I just saw your comment regarding your aversion to stains. I happen to agree; however, I recently discovered the age-old practice of ammonia fuming.” – Charlie Speight

And some readers shared their adamant opposition to staining wood. – Editor

“I’m with you: no stain. I want the wood to shine, not to be altered. Like you said, if I want a walnut look, I buy walnut.” – Thomas Spillane

“I am with you 100 percent on this one, and don’t give two rips if we are in the minority!  I like the look of the natural wood, without any unnatural coloring.  If you’re gonna color, why not just buy cheap wood and paint it!” – Dale Wilen

“I like the natural look of unstained wood also. That is why they make clear sealers.” – Mike Grawvunder

“If you want it to look like walnut, use walnut. I don’t stain any project that I build.” – John H Bonnett

“You the MAN! If it is worth doing, use good wood.  I like WATCO oil/varnish finish, natural.  I have, on occasion, used a little of one of their color finishes to bring out some sapwood that lacks color.  If you have a nice piece of ambrosia maple, for example, why would you do anything other than natural finish?” -James Yarbrough

“I think stain should be used to cover up ugly wood to save money for tools, but to change a naturally beautiful wood color and grain with stain is indeed a crime and should be punished with a termite infestation.” – Terry Olges

“I totally agree with you. Walnut for walnut, etc. Using a variety of woods encourages an awareness of the need to preserve wood domestically and globally. Otherwise we can use MDF and paint, or OSB and stain — the HORROR. Using real wood tells the world this has a built-in quality and character from the bursting forth of the tree first sprout to the finished product.” – Roger Cyre

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