Approaches to Matching a Stain

Finishers advise on a puzzling stain-matching problem. October 14, 2006

I'm a finish carpenter. I am modifying some mahogany cabinets and am working with a finisher I know to match the new pieces to the existing ones. I need suggestions on how to zero it in, because we arenít there yet. The original contractor was fired, and has since become uncooperative and says "they never wrote down the formula for the finish" - no brand, type, steps, color, nothing. We're trying to re-invent the wheel.

We both work high end, and expect clients to be demanding and discerning, but we just can't figure what the original guy did. The cabinetry is a combination of veneered MDF and solid woods. We've been too brown, too red, and too glossy but even allowing for the natural differences in wood tone, and grain, there is something more elusive. It's as if their finish has minimized the differences of color within the wood, whereas our staining is accentuating it. Their finish seems darker than what we're coming up with but we can't figure out how. My guy went to his color match expert and that guy says it's just stain, no toner or anything else. Frankly, we're stumped and if someone said that putting lime jello on the wood would get us there, I'd sign up.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor A:
I'll bet that there is more than just stain. If you have the basic color there but need it darker, try glazing. Most guys use a black glaze on mahogany, however it could be VD brown and black or just VD brown. Try samples of this and see if that doesn't bring down the color to darker.

From contributor A:
Just a suggestion - get the original contractor to come to the site, place five $100.00 dollar bills in front of him and have him show you his method on a raw piece of mahogany in exchange for his time and effort; give over the $500.00 and move on.

From contributor C:
I never try to figure out how the other guy did it. I work with my materials to match the look. This approach has been vastly more successful than trying to match steps. Why worry about whether the first guy used stain or glaze or toner? Use what you need to, to get the look right. Evening out the wood grain contrast is usually best done with toners (for light streaks), veiling coats (to darken/lighten and cut contrast) gel stains (to limit blotching or as a second stain to darken), spray on stains. What I call veiling coats are simply transparently tinted clears. Several may be applied if needed. You can go all the way to black, so there is no reason for stopping with the color too light.

From contributor A:
After re-reading what you said about how theirs evened the differences in color to be same and even darker, that sounds like toning to me - and all about how passes are made to get the darker look. We can tell you a lot of different things here, but as far I'm concerned I can't really tell you how until I see the actual sample from which to start.

From contributor D:
Usually when their stuff is darker and redder and you can't match it, my guess would be that they used a spray on dye stain and you're trying to match it with a wipe on oil stain.

From contributor E:
Did you try slowly sanding on the original finish, and then looking at the sandpaper for color clues of what was used in the finish? Another technique to consider is using color washes to kick the color over to whatever color you want or need.

Click here for full size image

From contributor F:
A lot of wiping stains have white in them which blocks and stains at the same time giving the wood an aged look. Also, when I want to match something right on I have to wait until the next day to be sure because things change as they dry.

From contributor E:
One of the first things that one learns about color is that it must be "clear coated" to see the "true color." When matching color, one must also consider, using the water clear coatings, or the amber color coatings.

From contributor G:
Since the wood is open grained, have they filled the grain? Are you doing the same? Perhaps the filler you are using is different? Also, there is a difference between pigment based stain and dye based stain. Since their finish accentuates the grain they probably used a pigment stain. Pigment stains have larger particles that are usually visible to the naked eye if you look really carefully. Dye stains will totally dissolve in the solvent so they have more of a tendency to soak in evenly and even-out the character of the wood. It's probably obvious but I'm a cabinetmaker not a full time finisher, so take my comments with a grain of salt.

From the original questioner:
To contributor G: We're the ones with the accentuated grain, the original finisher homogenized the color and pattern. Since I'm not the finisher I'm not sure what steps my guy has taken; I only see the result and know it's not there. I'll try to get him to post.

From contributor G:
If the grain doesnít show through, the finish could be either dye based stain or the finish is toned. I would try going to someone who specializes in repair and refinishing. If you don't know of someone in your area call some local furniture movers. Those guys usually know the best locally as they have to deal with this type of thing on a regular basis.

From contributor H:
Iíve been a finisher for 35 years. Since the grain seems muted try this: sand and seal coat the doors first, then lightly sand with 400 paper. Now youíre ready for color matching. Try oil base UTCs mixed with paint thinner - a combination of red black, and yellow should come close. Obviously youíll practice on the inside first right? If the color doesnít work you can clean off and try again.

From contributor I:
Your finisher should be posting. Many finish supply houses have tech support that is good enough to look at your project and come up with coloring schemes/finish schedules/recipes. After this is all over, your finish guy needs to learn some coloring techniques. There are many ways to match a look and as finishers we should be aware of them. It's not about matching a color. That's done with opaques, not with wood tones. It's about mixing colors and developing the "coloring". In the short term I am going to go with contributor Hís suggestion as the quickest way to get from point A to point B and further.

In this thread, one of the participants, contributor E, is a fellow who has written the definitive articles on color matching. His method makes it easy, if color matching can ever be considered easy. Here are links to two great articles on developing color: Related Links: Tinting Toner Tips; A Guide to Mixing Colors

If I was on a desert island and I could choose only two essays on finishing to take with me, they would be the ones I listed above. I use them. They work. The first of the essays is the most important. It deals with how to read a color and plot a matching scheme. The second is unique. It deals with a coloring step that needs to be more widely known by small shops (the big and best shops and the manufacturers all know this): equalizing techniques.

It's nicest to know the original finish schedule. But to get jammed up because the information is not available does not have to happen. Contributor Eís articles are the type that help to dig us out of holes that we sometimes find ourselves in.