Downstairs Built-ins Extravaganza! #9: Figuring out staining

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Blog entry by BethMartin posted 05-16-2009 10:19 PM 4075 reads 2 times favorited 18 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 8: Time to stock up on sandpaper! Part 9 of Downstairs Built-ins Extravaganza! series Part 10: I need help figuring out what to do with these windows »

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’ve been playing with staining and finally have something to show for it. I spent about a week experimenting – and I think I ended up with more test boards that actual boards that needed stain – lol!

After all my tests, I found this woodwhisperer’s video:

Which was EXACTLY what I needed to see. I think I could’ve cut out a lot of testing if I’d seen that first!

I played with a lot of dye/wood conditioner/stain combos. As you know, I’m trying to make maple dark, and maple is one of those woods that will blotch all to hell. I tried like 3 different wood conditioners, but they all SUCKED compared to shellac. Shellac is like a miracle solution for blotching. But shellac didn’t let any color in. That’s about when I found the wood whisperer video where he used a combo of shellac with a General Finishes gel stain in Java. That stain is so rich and so dark, it will color anything, I bet. It is awesome. It is a bit chocolately, though, and I wanted just a hint of red, so I dyed the wood first with Transtint in Brown Mahogany, and that gives the finish its red and the layering adds some depth to the color.

So here’s my finishing plan, which I’m writing down so that I will remember it for the next wave of staining:

Sand to 180
raise the grain with water, let dry, sand to 180 again
dye with transtint brown mahogany in water (I don’t know the exact dilution, it’s about 30-40 drops in about half a deli container’s worth of water – I think the container might be about a quart) I basically just flood the surface with a paintbrush, then wipe off the excess with paper towels. Let dry, any grain that came up this time can be taken care of with a 3M 00 scrubby.
Wipe everything down with mineral spirits to clean it off and let dry.
Wipe on a layer of 50:50 Zinssner Seal Coat shellac:denatured alcohol. You have to be fast and get it on as evenly as you can and quickly wipe up excess. Let dry about 15 minutes.
General Finishes Java gel stain – use a foam brush to slap it on, then wipe off. I’ve noticed that if the temp is 70 or more, then it will get tacky fairly quickly and be harder to wipe off, so don’t cover too much at once before wiping. You have to be firm with the wiping, and get most of it back off. One coat is plenty dark, it’s incredible.
General Finishes Gel Topcoat – put on the same way as the stain. At least 3 coats.

I love, love, LOVE the General Finishes. It even smells nice. I’ve never had a stain and topcoat be so goofproof. I’m so pleased with the finish – it is so smooth and pristine, I can’t believe I accomplished it without using some sort of sprayer. The only downside to this system is that you have to wait overnight between coats, and it makes the process take a long time. The maple still blotches a little bit where the grain is the most dramatic, but nowhere near as bad as a regular stain/wood conditioner. It’s just enough to give the wood some character without looking sloppy.

Other notes:
Shellac is made by a bug! Called the Lac bug. I had no idea! It was cool to see some biology (my field) in woodworking.
Transtint dye in alcohol vs. water. I was experimenting putting the dye in alcohol. It goes on fine, but as it dries, it produces this weird color pattern in the wood that makes it look like fish scales. I wouldn’t recommend putting the dye in alcohol because of this. Water works much better.
The reason I raised the grain first instead of just letting the dye step raise the grain is because sanding the grain back down takes off too much dye if I don’t do it beforehand.
If I was doing some more experimenting, I would try the same schedule, but maybe sand to 240 and use full-strength Seal Coat. I’m a bit curious about how that would look. But I am happy with what I have so far.

Here’s a picture of my final finish, I still haven’t actually put the face frame together yet, but you can get an idea of what it all will look like:

It’s a little blurry since you could see the color better without the flash. Though it still looks redder in this picture than it does it real life.

-- Beth

18 comments so far

View robbi's profile


176 posts in 3373 days

#1 posted 05-16-2009 10:26 PM

WOW!!! That is really nice.

-- robbi-Yadahooty!

View oldskoolmodder's profile


799 posts in 3097 days

#2 posted 05-16-2009 11:03 PM

It’s coming along great Beth. Nice Job.

-- Respect your shop tools and they will respect you - Ric

View lew's profile


11263 posts in 3173 days

#3 posted 05-16-2009 11:19 PM


Ditto what robbi said! There is already a beautiful satin sheen!

-- Lew- Time traveler. Purveyor of the Universe's finest custom rolling pins.

View stefang's profile


15512 posts in 2752 days

#4 posted 05-16-2009 11:33 PM

Very nice finish Beth. I guess you know that this “product” from the lac bug is also used in some candies and ice cream and probably a bunch of other stuff.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View matt garcia's profile

matt garcia

1877 posts in 3089 days

#5 posted 05-16-2009 11:39 PM

You’re right, Java stain have a pleasant smell to it!! I used it on the lingerie chest I made for my girlfriend. My buddy at Rockler told me that Java was their best selling stain, I can see why! Your project looks great, great job, Beth!!

-- Matt Garcia Wannabe Period Furniture Maker, Houston TX

View TheCaver's profile


288 posts in 3257 days

#6 posted 05-16-2009 11:59 PM

Any other pictures?


-- Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known. -Carl Sagan

View Emeralds's profile


143 posts in 2980 days

#7 posted 05-17-2009 01:31 AM

Very nice Beth, beautiful work.

I’m also a big fan of GF Gel Stains, my favorite being “Candlelite” which is a beautiful “old world cherry” stain. Like all gels, it can be applied in very thin coats and deepened to an incredibly large range (depth) of colors.
I actually buy “hues” and have been able to get a wide variety of colors from blonde to almost ebonized with from the same stain.

When Marc first introduced that video, he referenced a Charles Neil video that was also very helpful and informative. If you are interested in using Shellac and want more in depth info, check out that video.

Cheers and thanks for sharing.

Incidently, if you want to try another very effective top coat, use the same 1lb cut of Zinser over the finished stain, allow to cure, scuff with 4k SW or 800 grit wet/dry paper and repeat. Four to seven coats (more coats will generate more gloss) will give you a everlastingly durable top coat.

-- JMP

View Dan Hux's profile

Dan Hux

576 posts in 2792 days

#8 posted 05-17-2009 01:54 AM

very nice work…great job

-- Dan Hux,,,,Raleigh, NC

View a1Jim's profile


115167 posts in 2995 days

#9 posted 05-17-2009 02:41 AM

Hey Beth
great Job it looks wonderful, If you want a full blown course of staining and dying,spraying anything to do with coloring wood get fellow LJer Charles Neil finishing a-z it might seem like its a little expensive but its a complete course on finishing no Doubt were Marc got his info.

-- Custom furniture

View gbvinc's profile


629 posts in 3364 days

#10 posted 05-17-2009 02:58 AM

Looks like the color came out perfect! Nice job!

View Scott Bryan's profile

Scott Bryan

27251 posts in 3239 days

#11 posted 05-17-2009 04:14 AM

Beth, this looks really good. And thanks for the info on the your finishing routine.

-- Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful- Joshua Marine

View 's profile

593 posts in 3389 days

#12 posted 05-17-2009 04:23 AM

It is looking great Beth, I’m very much enjoying your series. Keep up the good work.

View Francisco Luna's profile

Francisco Luna

936 posts in 2811 days

#13 posted 05-17-2009 04:43 AM

Nice Job, the cabinet is looking fantastic!

-- Nature is my manifestation of God. I go to nature every day for inspiration in the day's work. I follow in building the principles which nature has used in its domain" Frank Lloyd Wright

View BethMartin's profile


111 posts in 2795 days

#14 posted 05-18-2009 01:45 AM

Thank you all! Still chugging through staining my other pieces and putting the face frame on to this base cabinet. I uploaded a couple more pictures that I took on the way.

Here is that transtint thing I mentioned in my post. Alcohol is on the left, water is on the right. They both look the same when you first put it on, but the alcohol side dries all weird. I’m guessing this happens because the transtint is meant to be used in water. I just wanted to see what it would do. :)

And this is just a bunch of face frame pieces from the cabinet in the original post after they just got dyed. This is the color Brown Mahogany. It’s all orangey-red.

I’ll have more pictures soon, promise!

-- Beth

View lightweightladylefty's profile


3125 posts in 3130 days

#15 posted 05-18-2009 05:30 AM


You are really thorough in your research. Thanks for sharing it with us. Your finish looks great.

-- Jesus is the ONLY reason for ANY season.

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