Antique pine often has a dark, mellow color.
Unfortunately, when woodworkers try to duplicate
that color on new pine by using stain, the results are
usually disappointing. It’s easy to end up with megablotches
and it’s hard to avoid “grain reversal,” a peculiar effect that
makes stained pine look unnatural (first photo). It doesn’t have to
be that way, though. If you follow the process presented here, you can
give pine deep, rich-looking color without losing it’s natural
Pine is hard to stain for a couple of reasons. First, its grain is
unevenly dense.Typical wood stains cause grain reversal because they
color only the porous earlywood; they can’t penetrate the dense
latewood. Second, pine’s surface is usually loaded with randomly
occurring figure and super-absorbent pockets that suck up stain and
Our staining process includes four ingredients,water-based wood
conditioner,water-soluble wood dye,dewaxed shellac and oil-based
glaze (see Sources, below).Our process isn’t fast,because there are
several steps.But it isn’t hard, and it’s home-shop friendly.You don’t
need any special finishing equipment, just brushes and rags.
In a nutshell, the conditioner partially seals the wood’s surface to
control blotching.Dyes penetrate both the earlywood and latewood,
so they minimize grain reversal. Shellac and glaze add color in layers,
creating depth and richness.This coloring process works on all types
of pine, although the end result varies from one species to another.
Look Before You Leap
Before you touch your project with a brush or
rag, get familiar with the materials and the
process by practicing on good-sized pieces of
scrap. Experiment on end grain, face grain
and veneered stock. Practice until you’re
comfortable with the process and know what
Fix Loose Knots
Before you sand, stabilize any loose knots by
dribbling epoxy into the gaps (Photo A, right). To make cleanup easier, keep it off the
surrounding wood surfaces. After the epoxy
has set, sand it flush with the surface. Clear
epoxy transmits the dark color of the knot. If
your epoxy cures milky-white, touch it up
later, after you’ve dyed the wood and sealed it
A good-looking finish always starts with a
thorough sanding job, especially with a soft
wood like pine.Here are some guidelines:
Sand with a block. Orbital sanders leave
swirl marks that make the stained surface look
muddy. After power sanding, always sand by
hand, using a block, before you go on to the
next grit (Photo B). Sanding with finger
pressure alone wears away the soft earlywood,
creating an uneven surface.
Change paper often.Pine gums up ordinary
sandpaper with pitch-laden dust that quickly
renders it useless.Dull paper mashes the wood
fibers instead of cutting them, which also
creates a muddy appearance when you stain.
Stearated sandpaper lasts longer (see Sources,
Sand up to 220 grit. First, level the surface
with 100-grit paper. Then work through the
grits to create finer and finer scratch patterns.
220-grit scratches are fine enough to disappear
when you stain, as long as they don’t go across
Raise the Grain
Invariably, sanding leaves some fibers bent
over.Water-based finishes swell these fibers
so they stand up, leaving a rough surface. For
smooth results with these finishes, raising the
grain prior to finishing is essential (Photo C).
Two Coats of Conditioner
Water-based wood conditioner (see Sources, below) makes the water-based dye easy to
apply. It limits the dye’s penetration by partially sealing the wood, like a thin coat of finish. Two
coats are necessary to control blotching (Step 1).
It’s important to keep the surface wet until
you wipe it, and then to wipe thoroughly. Any
conditioner that’s allowed to dry on the surface
will seal so well the dye won’t penetrate.
Two Coats of Dye
We used Transfast “antique cherry brown”
water-soluble dye powder (see Sources, below). Water-soluble dye from other
manufacturers will work just as well, although
the color will be different. Dissolve the dye at
the label-recommended ratio of 1-oz.powder
to 2-qts. hot water (Step 2). Be sure to let the
solution cool to room temperature before use.
On the conditioned surface, the dye acts
like a liquid oil stain (Step 3). Let it penetrate for
a couple minutes before wiping. The second
coat of dye imparts a deeper color and a more
It’s tough to get uniform penetration on
end grain. Fortunately, you can minimize any
uneven appearance later with the colored glaze.
When you have a large surface to cover,use
a spray bottle to apply the dye and a brush to
spread it. Simply re-spray previously worked
areas to keep the entire surface wet until you’re
ready to wipe it dry.Spraying and brushing also
works great on vertical surfaces. Start at the
bottom and work your way up.
Two Coats of Shellac
Shellac prepares the dyed surface for glazing
(Step 4). It also keeps pitch sealed in the wood.
Without shellac,pine’s pitch can bleed into oilbased
finishes, leaving fissures or shiny spots
that remain tacky, especially around knots.
Glaze is nothing more than paint formulated
for wiping. It’s easy to make your own proquality
glaze (Step 5). Artist’s oils contain highquality
pigments for pure, clear color. Glaze
medium makes the artist’s oil easy to spread
and quick to dry (within 24 hours).
Glazing adds a second, separate layer of color
that really makes the pine come alive (Step 6).
You need to protect this layered finish with clear
topcoats.Any topcoat will work as long as you
wait until the glaze has completely dried. To
check, wipe the surface gently with a cotton
rag. If it picks up any color, wait another day.
Click any image to view a larger version.
causes blotches and
always makes pine’s porous
earlywood darker than its
dense latewood, just the opposite
of unstained pine (inset).This
transformation is called “grain
Before you stain
A. Fill gaps and stabilize loose
knots with epoxy.Tape the back
of the knot so the epoxy can’t leak out.
B. Sand with a block angled
across the growth rings. Because
of the difference in hardness between
the earlywood and latewood, bridging as
many rings as possible helps to keep the
C. Preemptive grain-raising is a
must-do for all water-based finishes.
After you’ve finished sanding, dampen the
surface, to raise the grain.Then sand it
again, with 400-grit sandpaper.
1. Brush on two generous coats of water-based conditioner. With each application, keep the surface wet for three to five minutes, then wipe off the excess. Let the conditioner dry thoroughly, then sand it with 400-grit paper. Go lightly on contours and edges, so you don’t cut through.
2. Dissolve powdered dye in hot water. When the powder is completely dissolved, transfer it to a lidded container and let it cool.
3. Brush on a liberal coat of dye and keep the surface wet. Wipe the end grain occasionally to check its appearance. After the surface is uniformly colored, wipe off the excess dye and let the wood dry. Then repeat the process.
4. Seal the surface with two coats of 2-lb.-cut dewaxed shellac. Sand after each coat with 400-grit paper.
5. Make your own glaze by dissolving artist’s oil into glaze medium (see Sources, below). You don’t have to be scientific about the ratio as long as you use only one color. Don’t go overboard with the amount you mix—a little glaze goes a long way.
6. Glaze acts as a toner on the sealed surface, resulting in a deep, rich color and a uniform appearance. Just brush it on and wipe it off. Blend uneven areas by varying the amount of glaze you leave on the surface.