Wood stains don’t have to come in ‘wood’ colours

When someone says the words “stained wood”, what colours do you think of? Probably some shade of brown, perhaps with a golden or reddish hue.

When someone says the words “stained wood”, what colours do you think of? Probably some shade of brown, perhaps with a golden or reddish hue.

But the world of stained woods also includes vibrant shades of blue, red green and other colours. Before you dismiss the idea of non-traditional wood stains, consider a man named George Frank.

Frank is recognized as the foremost architectural wood finisher of the 20th century, building his legendary reputation first in France during the 1920s, then spreading his influence around the world.

In his enduring book Wood Finishing With George Frank, the author shows the stunning effects that are possible when rich, rainbow colours are combined with visible wood grain.

This isn’t paint, but stain that lets the natural variations of wood grain show through. Frank settled on a complicated (and sometimes dangerous) array of chemicals to achieve his famous look, but things are considerably easier these days.

The most practical line of modern, waterbased wood stains was introduced by Minwax almost ten years ago , and they still have the largest and most widely accessible range of waterbased stain colors I know of — more than 70 shades in all.

The pioneering work of George Frank proves Minwax didn’t invent the concept of vibrant colors on visible wood grain, but they have made the process simple to apply and easy enough for DIY use around any house

It’s easy to succeed with waterbased stains as long as you start with properly sanded wood and follow three important steps. The first involves applying a pre-stain conditioner. This clear liquid evens out the absorption of the wood, which is essential for creating and even colour. Although you can sometimes get away without conditioning before using oil-based stains, waterbased stains create blotchy and dull results without it, especially if your dealing with softwoods like pine and cedar. Conditioning is no big deal, just brush some on, then let it dry for an hour or two before staining.

As with all stain application, stir the contents well, brush the liquid on the surface, then wipe off everything that doesn’t soak into the wood. Coat and wipe only a couple of square feet at a time, since waterbased stains dry quickly. You’ll know you’ve bitten off more area than you should if the stain gets sticky to wipe off as you progress across the surface.

Two coats of stain develop a richer color than one, so reapplication is worth the extra effort. Just be sure to let the first dry completely before adding the second, and don’t get your hopes up too high. You can never accurately assess the quality of any stained finish before several coats of clear sealer (urethane is easiest to apply) goes on afterwards. This is essential for every kind of stained surface, but especially waterbased ones. Complete sealing brings out the full depth of color, though it matters what kind of urethane you use.

Although it’s possible to use either waterbased or oil-based urethane to seal fully dry waterbased stains, waterbased urethane gives the best visual results when used over vibrant colours. Clarity is the reason why.

Most oil-based urethanes impart a yellowish colour to the wood – some quite yellow. And while often improves the look of traditional, brownish stains, it can make vibrant colours look dull and dirty. Waterbased urethanes all dry quite clear, so they don’t interfere with the colour of stain you’ve applied.

Vibrant stain colours aren’t for everyone and every situation. That said, properly applied, the results look great, even to a wood purist like me.

Steve Maxwell is Canada’s award-winning home improvement expert, and technical editor of Canadian Home Workshop magazine. Sign up for his free homeowner newsletter at www.stevemaxwell.c

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