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Need help matching a finish

Nate Member

I'm redoing some trim in a 1920's house and need advice. I believe the trim is American Chestnut and I'm trying to match the trim in connecting areas.

Luckily I was able to source some similar wood on Craigslist to mess around with. I've gone through a lot of trial and error. My sample pieces are getting thinner and thinner :)

I really want to go with shellac, but I'm just not getting the result I want. So I really need some advice or direction. I've been dying the base then using an oil penetrating stain with a toned shellac top coat. The finish is just too transparent with grain detail. The original pieces almost look like it was done with a glaze or muddy varnish.

Attached are some pictures. Does anyone have any advice on getting a closer match to this finish?

View higher quality, full size image (792 X 1188)

View higher quality, full size image (792 X 1188)

View higher quality, full size image (1188 X 792)

11/23/15       #2: Need help matching a finish ...

I did something very close to this is QS white oak. First coat was 1 lb. clear shellac tinted with yellow dye. Second coat Minwax Golden oak. Final was a black pigment (used to color latex paint)that was rubbed off to leave only some material in pores and nooks...

11/23/15       #3: Need help matching a finish ...
rich c.

Bill has a good method. You might experiment with orange shellac, or button shellac to get a heavier yellow orange.

11/24/15       #4: Need help matching a finish ...
Leo G

You need a stain that has gilsonite in it. That will give you the dark graining.

11/24/15       #5: Need help matching a finish ...
Nate Member

Thanks everyone for replying and the advice. Bill - I think I am leaning toward a method that is very similar (i.e. seal coat, pigmented coat, glaze, topcoat). I just haven't worked with glazing though. So this would be new for me. Why would you follow up a seal coat with an oil based stain? Does it act as a glaze? I thought oil stains don't bind?

11/24/15       #6: Need help matching a finish ...
Paul Snyder  Member


Nate - your description of the existing finish provides the best clue on ways to match it -

" I've been dying the base then using an oil penetrating stain with a toned shellac top coat. The finish is just too transparent with grain detail. The original pieces almost look like it was done with a glaze or muddy varnish.”

To produce the "muddy" look (which was common during that period) you need to use pigment, not dye - some combination of a stain, glaze, and/or toner.

It's impossible to tell from the picture if there is pigment in the finish but that's a possibility. Using dye in your toner keeps the finish clear. Using pigment in the toner masks the grain and looks muddy - especially if you use too much. If the "muddy" look is on the surface of the wood and not above the wood (in the finish), then that's just a pigmented stain. The stains we use today provide a lot more clarity than the ones from that period so you may have to adjust for that.

There’s often more than one way to do a finish and get similar results. Here’s the approach I'd use.

  1. There are two colors involved – the primary burnt sienna orangish color and the darker color in the pores (by the way – the wood looks like oak to me). First stain the wood to get the BU color. If the stain needs to look muddy, I’d probably use a spray stain and over do it a little to mask the grain.
  2. Seal the wood with a wash coat and scuff it very lightly to smooth.
  3. Use a glaze to color the pores. For this effect I like to spray and wipe a liquid glaze.
  4. Topcoat with lacquer (or shellac).

Here’s a door I finished using these steps. Keep in mind that the color of the stain has to be lighter than the final color you want because the glaze adds to it.

View higher quality, full size image (426 X 568)

11/24/15       #7: Need help matching a finish ...
Nate Member

Paul - Very cool! Thanks for your advice. It's aligning with what I'm thinking. Mudding up some shellac or varnish then doing a dark glaze over top to darken the deep grain.

Does anyone have experience with mixing universal colorant/mixol/pigment in a dewaxed shellac?

As far as the wood type. I first thought it was Ash, but the grain is very intense throughout the pieces and the end grain aligns with chestnut from what I can tell. It doesn't have the density or seedy grain like oak.

11/24/15       #8: Need help matching a finish ...
Nate Member

Here's an unfinished piece to see the bare wood closer.

View higher quality, full size image (792 X 1188)

11/24/15       #9: Need help matching a finish ...
Nate Member

I'm seeing it in person and I have a hard telling if the pigment is on the wood or in the finish!

View higher quality, full size image (792 X 1188)

View higher quality, full size image (792 X 1188)

11/24/15       #10: Need help matching a finish ...
Paul Snyder  Member


It looks like the Chestnut is a good choice Tate. It’s light enough for the color you’re matching (hard to match a light color with a dark wood). I would have guessed the piece of bare wood you show is ash.

Your pictures seem to show that the color of the finish is darker and more orange when viewed at an angle (down the length of the board) and a lighter shade when viewed straight on, up close. If so, that indicates there is some orange coloring in the finish (toner). From what I can see, it looks like the finish does not have pigment in it.

One of the boards looks very orange and the other is almost a gold color – is that a matter of lighting or are they really that different? The finish on the piece that looks more like golden oak seems to just be a stain (and glaze if needed). Adding an orange toner will give you the other, darker color.

11/24/15       #11: Need help matching a finish ...
Denny J

We match colors like that frequently. For us we would start with 1/2 Dark Walnut and 1/2 Golden Oak and add some amber trans tint dye to the sealer coat.

11/25/15       #12: Need help matching a finish ...
Nate Member

You guys have great eyes! I think I'm on the right path. I just did a small sample and the results were good. Working on a large sample with some tweaks.

Golden Oak was the ticket. Luckily I had some, I also had dark walnut so I using as a glazing.

Sample: Golden Oak oil stain, seal coat (1lb clear shellac), Dark walnut oil stain to darken the deep grain, Md Bn Transtint Shellac top coats (3lb amber shellac)

The color is looking good straight and angle. Seems to have the depth. brown on yellow is making the orange. I'd like to get the brown tone lower in the finish, closer to the wood.

Next Sample: Gld Oak stain, dyed seal coat (1lb cut shellac, md bn transtint), Dk Walnut stain/glaze, dyed top coat (2lb cut shellac, md bn transtint), 2nd top coat matte h20 poly

Thanks again guys for all your help and direction!

View higher quality, full size image (4752 X 3168)

11/27/15       #13: Need help matching a finish ...
Paul Snyder  Member


Looks like you're very close Nate. It also looks like the original finish does have some pigment in the finish which is masking the wood grain. A little burnt umber color in the finish should do the trick.

11/28/15       #14: Need help matching a finish ...
Denny J

We often use Old Masters stains for this type of work and have found that their wiping stain base does a better job than their penetrating stain base for getting that look, The wiping stain is a heavier bodied stain that I believe has more dye which allows it to color the wood more evenly and not look as "Bright" . To my eyes your sample looks like we would expect the penetrating stain to look. Obviously you may use a different stain and I have no idea what base they use in the stain they made for you but I can tell you this is what works for us and we get basically dead on matches.

Also, the look you are seeing is a combo of the stain and the patina of the varnish or whatever coating they used on it and that can rally have an impact not only on the initial look but how it looks over time as your wood develops it's own patina.

One trick that I have found very helpful over the years is to take a look at the back sides of the wood and find ares that have not had the finish applied or the direct exposure to sunlight as they will give you the best visual to what the stain color needs to be. Then look for some unstained wood on the back that doesn't have stain but does have some of the clear coat on it.Usually this is an area with drips or overbrush and it can help you dial in the topcoat tint. Put those two together and you will get a much better representation.

11/28/15       #15: Need help matching a finish ...
Rick Mosher  Member


You got a lot of great information already so I just have one more tip to add on matching aged finishes which is what I presume we're doing here. There is always some yellowing that occurs on old finishes (from the yellowing of the finish, changes in color in the wood and even from smoke and dirt)

You can see your sample is a little too clear from using the dye stain. I would mix a thin toner of yellow oxide or raw sienna to give it that final aged patina. This can also be added as a glaze if you prefer but that would tend to color the pores more than you want I think.

Try it on a sample and see what you think, you may have to modify the color a little with a little burnt or raw umber but the yellow should help a lot. In some cases I have even added just a drop of white on orange based colors to help muddy the color even more. (There is a bluish cast to most whites which greys down the orange)

11/29/15       #16: Need help matching a finish ...
Nate Member

Thanks everyone for the additional guidance. What you guys are saying is aligning with the larger sample. I wasn't able to add enough brown to the tone using dye and there was still a lot of grain detail.

I went and grabbed some Old Masters wiping stain for the base and some Old Masters gel stain. Messing around with that I was able to get the color and muted grain to match the original trim. The gel stain did not like the alcohol based top coat.

So I ordered some burnt umber and yellow oxide colorant. Hopefully the pigment will be able to create more brown and mute the grain.

12/2/15       #17: Need help matching a finish ...

Question...when you are matching an aged color, do you have to worry about your new finish looking different when it ages? Wondering this especially about matching something like cherry.

12/2/15       #18: Need help matching a finish ...
Robert Member

Yes DJW, the color will eventually change, but to worry about it......nah. Explain it to the buyer and then have em sign a consent form.

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