Oil-Based Stain for a Bookcase

A professional who has used lots of oil-based Minwax stain describes its characteristics. September 18, 2012

I'm trying to figure out a stain to use on my bookcases. I do not know enough about stains to know a good stain from a bad stain. I have always used Minwax just because it was available in my area. I don't live near a big city so I donít have many choices. It seems that a lot of people don't like Minwax and for what reasons I don't know. I've never had any problems myself at least not that I know of.

I'm going to use Waterlox as my finish - two coats of sealer/finisher and one coat of Satin. I just want to make sure that everything is compatible together. I built kitchen cabinets for our house a couple of years ago and used Minwax stain and then put a coating of Minwax water based poly over that. What a big mistake. I don't like the finish especially around the sink areas - water spots. I know the whole issue is me, I just don't know enough about applying a stain and finish properly. Iím hoping to be guided in the right direction here. I went to Woodcraft Supply the other day and checked out their stains. Is General brand better than Minwax? I'm not able to spray on a finish.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor C:
I use Minwax too. Most pro's like other brands for different reasons. One, Minwax is slow to dry. I've used Minwax for over 30 years and never had any problems with it. Nothing "wrong" with their stain, it holds up just fine, except that they've changed a couple of them over time so they don't match my old stock. Recently I've noticed their cherry stain is noticeably different than the old.

From contributor M:
Rule number one - you have to experiment. Get some different products and try them. Make mistakes on scrap, not your customersí projects. If youíre doing this for a living, spending a couple hundred bucks on different finishing products to try and learn with is money well spent. Get some experience and you won't run into serious problems when it matters.

There is a time and place for just about each and every finishing product on the market. To suggest one or another without more details is not really possible. The bottom line is you have to try different things, and see what you like best, and what you feel most conformable working with.

Regarding the technical side of things I would suggest getting a book such as Taunton's complete guide to finishing, by Jeff Jewitt. If youíre using Waterborne coatings you have to be careful about top coating oil based products. Sometimes itís ok if you allow them to dry properly, with others you may need a barrier coat of dewaxed shellac. Follow the manufacturerís recommendations. Finally, if you want to do professional work you should really consider finding a way to spray if you can.

From contributor B:
I use a lot of Minwax and I have for years. I use Target waterbase topcoats. I always use a shellac barrier coat between the oil base stain and waterbase varnish. Typically I use Zinser Sealcoat available at about any hardware store. It is a ready mixed number two cut of dewaxed shellac. Two thin coats as a barrier is what the label calls for.

From contributor J:
Minwax works wonderful on oak, but without a lot of extra work, that's about it. Try putting it on maple or cherry without something to guard against blotching and it looks terrible. Give Sherwin Williams wiping stain a try. It's thick pigment-based and won't soak in so drastically, causing blotching like Minwax.

From the original questioner:
I've never had a problem with Minwax stain myself. I just have heard a few comments about it lately and it put a seed of doubt in my mind. I will try the Sherman Williams gel stain as that is something I can get now.

From Paul Snyder, forum technical advisor:
The relative merits of Minwax stain - I haven't tried the newer water-base stains Minwax has, but have used plenty of their solvent based stain in the past. Minwax "wood finish" stain does a fine job and in the right applications it's an excellent choice. Here are its properties/ strengths/weaknesses to consider before choosing whether or not to use it.

Minwax stain contains pigment and/or dye. Some colors do not contain any pigment at all and those that do contain pigment usually have a relatively small amount. As a result, their stains are not "muddy" looking and do not obscure the wood grain excessively. Stir well before use. The stain is oil-based and it contains linseed oil, a modified soya alkyd resin, and mineral spirits (paint thinner). Minwax calls it a wood finish because it contains linseed oil and the weak alkyd.

As a finish, drying oils like linseed have poor moisture resistance, stain resistance, heat resistance, scratch and wear resistance, and overall poor durability. For better protection, use a more durable finish over the stain. Being oil-based, it dries slowly. If top-coating with a hand applied finish (oil-base varnish) or a waterborne finish, allow each coat of the stain to dry overnight. Allow even more time if the temperature is below the mid-sixties, the humidity is high, or it's sitting in a dark place.

If the stain isn't dry enough when you topcoat, applying a varnish by hand will smear it and waterborne finishes may not get a good bond to it (some are better than others). On oak and other woods with large pores, oil-base stains like Minwax can soak into the pores and then puddle out as it dries and expands. It creates little dark spots around the pores that take a long time to harden and look bad. It's especially bad if you set the freshly stained piece in the sun.

Once the stain is dry, you can wipe on a second coat of stain for added color. Once the stain is cured, it takes a strong solvent and some scrubbing to remove it. Sometimes when re-finishing pieces, I'll find it pretty easy to remove the clear coats but I have to use Scotchbrite and stripper to get the stain off. I can tell it's stain because there's still a little sheen on the surface of the wood after the clear coats are gone. If it was just dye, the wood would look completely dull and the color would come out easily with bleach.

During application, it is relatively easy to get lap marks and drips/runs using Minwax. It's important to apply it quickly and maintain a wet edge as you go. If you get a drip or run on an adjacent surface, quickly wet the entire surface with stain. When you apply the stain, think of it as rubbing it in rather than wiping off the excess. I use a rag that is damp with the stain when I rub it in. If you use a clean, dry clean cloth to wipe the excess, you will remove too much and the color will be washed out. Don't wait 15 minutes to rub in the stain, it will be too sticky.

Drying oils, like linseed, produce heat as they convert from a liquid to a solid (autoxidation). If you use rags for staining, lay them out flat to dry or immerse them in water. Balled up, the rags can spontaneously catch on fire. Oil-base dyes are not as light fast as some other types (metallized acid dyes). The reds in Minwax Mahogany and Red Oak colors start out pretty bright, but fade to a more moderate color (more brownish) before too long. The fade is less obvious with other colors.

Outdoors, the fade is more pronounced. It is not easy to blend repairs when using Minwax. For example, if you find a glue spot or scratch when applying the stain, you have to sand it out really quickly (before the oil starts drying and bonding to the wood fibers). If you wait too long, it will be difficult to blend the spot with the surrounding wood. You may have to sand and re-stain the entire surface to get it to look good. Most brands of stain are prone to blotching on woods that have varying densities (alder, apple, aspen, birch, cherry, maple, pine, etc.).

Thick gel stains are a good choice if you are using hand applied finishes and want to minimize/avoid blotching, but every brand of stain has some colors that do a much better job than others. For example, Minwax has a color called Colonial Maple that worked well on maple when I used it. Their Cherry didn't cause blotching on cherry wood (but I was never too happy with the color). The same is true of other brands of stain. Some colors work better than others and you'll have to do some testing to see if they work in your application.

Many professional finishers apply their finishes with spray equipment. As a result, the stain does not need a strong binder like linseed oil; the sprayed finish will not smear the stain like brushing or wiping would. Most professional stains contain a very weak binder which makes them easier to blend in repairs and they dry in under an hour. It's important not to leave too much excess with these stains so you don't introduce a weak layer in the finish that can cause it to peel or get damaged easily.

If your finish of choice is sprayed nitrocellulose lacquer, you can topcoat oil-base stain like Minwax the same day you apply the stain and it will bond well and look great. If you use waterborne or catalyzed finishes, the stain needs to dry thoroughly to ensure the finish bonds well. As an added precaution, you can use vinyl sealer over the stain and then topcoat. Vinyl sealer does a good job of adhering to oil-base stains and glazes.

If you're using hand applied finishes, explore some of the other oil-base stains besides Minwax. Thick gel stains like Wood Kote or Bartleys do a good job to prevent blotching and other brands like Zar or Old Masters have a wider range of colors to choose from.