Hard or Soft Maple for Stained Cabinets?

Thoughts on choosing Maple for cabinet frames, and on staining versus applying dye and toner. April 9, 2008

I have to do some built-in cabinetry in stained maple for a client, and I don't know if hard or soft maple would be better to combine with maple plywood. Anyone have a preference? I have only done a couple of maple faced cabinet jobs, and they always had a clear coat only. On these, I used hard maple, but didn't really like the color.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor K:
Soft maple will blotch with stain, more than hard maple. It is easier to shoot toner over either maple than to stain it.

From contributor G:
Soft maple will actually absorb stain, thus making it easier to get deep colors. If blotching is a concern, try a light seal coat to even it out. There's lots in the Knowledge Base about blotchy maple. Hard maple is difficult for stain to penetrate. You can get around that by water-popping hard maple before staining, or using a spray stain.

From contributor J:
There are far better choices for stained cabinetry than either soft or hard maple. If the customer wants to go dark, I'd recommend you suggest a different wood such as alder or cherry.

With that said, 90% of what we've built in the last year has been with soft maple. We've found that if the customer is looking for a light to medium color, contributor K's suggestion works great. Put the toner right in the lacquer and build the color you're looking for. Our favorite method to do this is with a 50/50 mix of MLC Magnamax, MLC standard thinner and a couple of ounces of their Microton toner. Clear coat first with Magnamax, next do the thinned color coat, followed by another clear. Practice this on large scraps of plywood to work out your technique so you don't tiger stripe your project. When you get the hang of this (which doesn't take long), you'll find it's a really pretty finish that accents rather than obscures the grain.

If it's got to be dark and it's got to be maple, both of contributor G's suggestions are on the mark. Soft maple in my opinion stains better than hard, but still blotches like crazy. A wash coat works wonders.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the quick replies. The color would be a golden brown, not very dark. I am familiar with the wash coat process, and have used it quite a few times on other woods, just not on maple. I had not considered that the hard maple would be difficult to stain. At the same time, the soft maple will be more apt to blotch. Spraying on a dye is the way I will proceed. So, if I spray a dye and tone my lacquer, would you say it really wouldn't matter which species of wood, hard or soft? Can someone tell me if maple cabinet ply is typically soft maple? It looks it to me, but I am not positive.

From contributor C:
The maple ply we get here in MS has soft maple veneer. I think you'd be okay whichever lumber you decide to go with. Hard and soft maple are so similar in appearance to me that even after using them for almost 20 years, I often have to pick the boards up to actually tell which is which. Also, don't know how pricing is in your area, but for us hard maple is at least $1 per board foot more than soft.

From contributor J:
I think a lot depends on what species of soft maple you have available to you. I use a lot of both soft and hard maple and to me they look very different. Hard is usually very clear and light in color and what I expect maple plywood uses. Soft on the other hand is usually a little darker (more silvery) and tends to have a lot more mineral streaks in it. It's what I use predominantly for paint grade work, not what I would call a nice wood to be under a clear finish. But from what I've read on these forums it sounds as though other species of soft look a bit more like hard maple than what I'm getting? So I'd say it depends on what's available to you.

From contributor T:
Skip the staining part entirely. It will only frustrate you, as maple is not a stain wood at all! Buy some Transtint Vintage dark maple and Medium Brown. Mixed 50/50 with the appropriate thinners will give you a color very close to golden brown... Or Minwax golden oak. Spray light coats until you achieve the desired color. The dyed color will be much different than the final color after your topcoat. Make several samples with your topcoat.