Achieving Even Color on Cherry

More advice on a perennial challenge: getting consistent color when finishing Cherry. August 26, 2006

What is the best way to get an even tone when staining recess panel cherry doors? This is a large kitchen (76) doors, all stained with a custom blend stain, and CV topcoat. This customer wants as even a tone as possible. Of course the doors are overall fairly even in raw wood, but there are a lot with pinker rails than stiles, plus the difference in the veneer center panel. Also even though the raw wood color is close, the soft/hard difference is a challenge too. My tests on the back sides of door fronts bring out the orange cast - brown on some rails versus the grayer brown of the stiles. I went over the rails after sealing with a dark walnut stain (green-gray cast), then resealed. That knocked the orange down fairly well. But is there an easier way? When the grain stains with a yellow cast, what will bring the yellow over to the gray-green cast of the brown? I can't get the color too dark. My first step is using clear stain base as a wood toner, then wiping stain, seal. This does help get more even color and darkness, I just need a little guidance on my steps and I can nail this.

Would I be better off spraying dye on all the faces to bring everything up to similar tone? Will that be easier than toning after sealer? My experience spraying dye is that it is very tricky getting even tones - slower passes, wetter passes, more passes all affect the result. What do furniture finishers do to get the nice even tones? I realize these are just cabinets, but a 43K kitchen gets some TLC. Any recommendations or help would be much appreciated.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor A:
The way I have done it on a large entertainment center was by using toner coats. Like you, I applied a conditioning coat (clear stain base) to all of my cherry surfaces. I let that dry an hour or so. It seems the longer you let it dry the easier the evenness of color will happen, overnight being best. After the condition coat dries I apply my stain - this is a sprayed on and wiped off stain. Make sure the stain is not darker than the final color. You can tone it darker but you can't tone it lighter. At this point, while wiping off you can do some adjusting of tone. Wipe harder and longer on the darker areas and shorter and lighter on the lighter areas, starting with the dark areas first. Do small areas, like one side of a cabinet at a time so your stain doesn't soak in too much in the more porous areas. After you wipe down and let dry according to the instructions, mix up your toner coats. This would be a mixture of dye(s) with thinner and lacquer or sealer. I usually use 2 oz dye 8 oz thinner and 4-8 oz of lacquer, depending on how many coats I am planning on applying (find out by doing samples). This is where you can adjust your evenness, spraying more where it is lighter and less (or none) where it is darker. After you get the color youíre looking for, spray your topcoats. This is the way I have been doing it and I get pretty good results. One thing that I did notice is that the toner coats, as they flash off seem to get darker than when they are wet. Be aware of this so you don't make things darker than expected. Go slow until you figure out the schedule you need.

From contributor B:
What brand is the custom stain? You have a lot of surface there, so you definitely want to think hard about each step and run some samples. Sprayed dye on the bare wood is a good step and often necessary. If you do your wipe stain right over a sprayed dye, this will usually even out any lap marks or inconsistencies you're seeing in the dye application. Generally you want to spray your dyes barely wet at low pressure, 15-20 pounds. I ask the brand of wiping stain you use because some are better than others on blotch-prone woods. I've been pleased with Sherwood wiping stains for cherry and other blotch-prone woods. If the natural variations aren't too great, depending on the color choice, I have been able to avoid the dye step and get a very even result. The other things I think are special about this stain is it has a good open time, and is forgiving if you miss a spot and try to go back and wipe it in. Some solvent stains are a bear to wipe evenly and/or won't allow going back over it to touch up a miss once it flashes without rewiping the whole surface.

Take the time to hit that color on the bare wood if at all possible and save time going simple clears the rest of the way. Not that I'm opposed to adding a glazing step in there if you can get paid for it because this adds nice depth - but 76 doors and associated casework and trim is a lot of surface. A little spot toning is fine where you need it, but I don't see building color this way on a big job.

From contributor C:

You may want to try MLC Woodsong II stains and their clear stain as the conditioner for the first coat, although dying the wood is probably going to achieve the most even results if the cherry is all over the map in grain and color. As everyone knows who posts on this forum, make sure you keep notes and formulas for all the sample boards you prepare.

From contributor D:
Just a thought - I personally prefer using a pigmented toner - this is a translucent toner. I aim to get a color as close to the woods background color as I can. I like being able to use the white in my toners, which is something you can't do with dyes. The key to pigmented toners is to thin it out so you do not block out the woods grain - you want the stain or the glaze to bring out the contrast in the grains. Once I have the color, I thin out, and spray it out. The color should be thin enough that I need to make a few passes to bring the color up. I may seal the toner, and then either stain or glaze it. Depending on my start to finish sample, I may go either way, because with these types of jobs, you must make up samples to know what the final finish will look like.

For a Cherry, I use a flesh colored toner. I start with a white lacquer, then add some Burnt Sienna - this like a terra cotta color. I then add a little Van Dyke Brown, and once I get the right color, I then add the proper thinner and reduce the color strength. I then make some passes - I want the toner to remain translucent - I don't want to block out the wood.

You could also make up a toner without the white lacquer. You could use these same colors and make up a stain, and use some of your clear coat, or use a drying oil as the binder. Remember, itís the finisher who paints the wood, it's not the toner.

Always, make up start to finish samples. That's how we learn to do it right. We get to know if all the components are compatible with each other, and if needed, we can make adjustments before we start the projects.

This is one way of doing it. Please note the translucency during each step, and at the end of the process. I want to note, that pigmented toners are not intended to paint the wood. If you want to paint the wood, then you use a base colored coating. If you thin out a base colored coating, you can make your own translucent toners.

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From the original questioner:
The stain is Sherwood wiping stain, custom blended to my customerís choice. I do like their stains, but the only problem is the grain and raw colors do vary, so that some door fronts will take too much stain and go very dark. Then some harder grainer wood wonít take enough and stays yellow. She definitely does not want too yellow or too red, or too dark. Her color is actually a medium darkness cooler brown absent of orange, but with a very slightly green-yellow-gray cast.

When the raw color is fleshy gray on the stiles, and pink on the rails with gray in the veneer center panel, I see I have no choice but to tone the grain first, I did mix up a small amount of gray-flesh dye, lightly sprayed, then wiping stain cut 1/3 with clear stain base to allow the added color of the dye, and two seal coats. The colors blended together nicely and came out perfect except for the center panel (which is not sanded on the back as good as the front).

To contributor D: I never thought of making a starting toner from the stain itself. My only worry with that is the ticking in the grain on some cherry boards is quite heavy and the black can overpower and take the piece too dark.

I'm going to have to note which backs do go dark and stain those fronts diluted to be safe. I see I will need step boards to verify each sprayed piece comes up to the target at each step. At this point I think I'll set it up this way: 1. Clear stain base for grain conditioner. 2. Light spray of fleshy-gray dye, or diluted pigment toner. 3. Seal and test color tones. 4. Toner/sealer if needed. 5. Topcoats. If I have wild doors they may need special attention.

To contributor D: With your base toners made of the wiping stain, thinned way out this way does it still need wiping? There wouldn't be very much pigment left but the Sherwood wiping stains definitely have to be wiped or I can get lifting. Also, getting out the yellow without going too red or green - what is the best color toner?

From contributor D:
Toners are used to uniform the woods color Ė itís the base of the entire finish. As an example, a yellow toner is only used to bring all the woods color together, after that you go for the color that the customer selected. When a stain is used as the toner, itís only for color. The stains color maybe needed to be thinned out to keep it translucent. Just as the dye stain can be sprayed, so can the pigment stains. It takes some practicing, because the particles are bigger. You must allow the stain to flash dry before you can make another pass - where the dyes will easily be absorbed into the wood, the pigments and solvents need more time. You can only use one gun at a time, so you only need one gun. The main reason why you need to wipe off pigmented wood stains is only to uniform the stains color. When youíre spraying pigmented stains, its like fuming or misting on the stain Ė itís almost like a dry spray. As I like to say, practice make perfect, and perfect takes a lot more practice.