Finessing Oak Color Differences

Ways to tone away the color variations in a batch of oak mouldings. June 8, 2008

I am machining a large millwork package - 100 lineal ft frame and panel wainscot, beam wraps, jambs and assorted moulding. I always have a hard time choosing which boards to use where because of differences in grain type and board color. This is especially true on this batch of oak lumber because some boards are very brown, some are lighter brown, some are pinkish and others have a bit of light grey streaking. How concerned should I be about color difference in oak lumber that will be stained fairly dark brown? Also, I mainly have experience with pigmented wiping stains. Would dye stains be better at hiding differing board colors?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor C:
A good finisher can even out your colors quite effectively... though it may require more than just staining to do the job. Are you finishing the wood yourself?

From the original questioner:
Yes, I am the woodworker/finisher. Stain and pre-cat. Just curious if it is a big concern with oak color difference and a dark stain. I know how to tone, but hope to avoid the extra schedule!

From contributor C:
Dye stains tend to be more transparent and thus are less likely to obscure wood color variations. The more that you change a wood's natural color, the less you have to worry about variations in the original coloring... still, unless you go very dark, major variations will need some toning to become insignificant. I have found my Iwata Eclipse airbrush saves a lot of time for such work and does it quite accurately too.

From the original questioner:
Thanks... sounds interesting. Can you describe how you use the airbrush to quickly tone a job? This is a large package and the thought of air brushing sounds slow and fastidious but I don't really know the process.

From contributor C:
The airbrush is most valuable when toning sapwood or other streaks of mismatching color where you have to tone to an edge accurately. I would just use my regular gun (Accuspray) for toning whole pieces. I find I am able to tone even very light streaks (such as cherry sapwood next to heartwood) with excellent accuracy and the superb shading ability of the airbrush gets the job done in one or two coats where I might use three or four with a brush and the brush is also significantly slower per coat. This is a skilled operation, so practice helps. I also use a brush on some areas where I need to add graining... I doubt you'll need much of that when working with oak. I usually use a clear coat that I have tinted with pigments for this. Usually two or three tints and proper shading will do an excellent job. Where I do any hand brushing I try to get it on first so that I am finishing up with the airbrush and the brushstrokes and coarse graining are veiled and blended nicely.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. The terminology throws me a bit. I call adding color to lacquer and spraying it "toning." I always shoot a clear coat over the toning coats to make it repairable for scratches without the need to strip or shoot colored lacquer. What is shading? Is that different than toning with color in the lacquer?

From contributor J:
I stain a lot of red oak with lots of variations. I just use a wiping stain and it is what it is. Definitely still have a variety of colors but when it's all up, you don't really notice it too much. You can try to match the woods while you are putting it up. It will help, anyway. If it is a big concern I would stain everything. When you lay it out to spray, have a separate gun with some green in it to hit the redder pieces. Either dye stain or add some dye in your sealer. Or you could seal everything, see where you're at and add it to your topcoat. I feel if people want to use cheap wood, it may not be cheaper in the long run if you have a lot of prep work involved.

From contributor C:
When I referred to shading, I meant the smooth fade effect and the gentle build of darkness/opacity that is one of the airbrush's fine qualities. I tone similarly but tint acrylic (mostly) rather than lacquer. I too like a clear coat (untinted) for a topcoat but sometimes skip it where little wear is expected and time is tight. I do make a habit of keeping all my major color effects closer to the wood while finer adjustments and clear/near-clears go toward the surface.

From contributor T:
We just finished a batch of solid core oak doors for a customer who was not happy with the finish the painter did on site. The schedule we used was 1 coat of dye stain to even out color variations, 1 50/50 wash/seal coat, 1 coat of stain and 2 topcoats. Search this forum and you find a good array of answers. You should be able to achieve what you are looking for very easily. Just remember those two words... test sample. Do as many as it takes to develop a good schedule.

From contributor K:
We do a lot of dark stained red oak. First off we try to use consistent color with hardwoods and sequenced sheets of plywood (lumberyard loves it when we roll through a full unit for five or ten matching sheets). We use oil base stain from Sherwin-Williams and Valspar cab acrylic lacquer with great results. When you stain hardwood it is always lighter in color than veneer plywood, so we usually have to stain the hardwood twice. If we have panels that are different in color we will either stain them a third time or simply tint the sealer with a little bit of universal tint (a little bit goes a long way). Red oak for some reason has become more and more difficult to stain even than it was in the old days (20 years ago). Must be the way it's farmed or something. Tinting the sealer a bit is really the key, especially on a large run of wainscot like you described.