Red Oak Finishing Basics

Advice on sanding, formulas, and schedules for good results with Red Oak. June 28, 2006

I have managed to avoid red oak since I taught myself to finish a few years back, but now I am faced with finishing a large set of cabinets in red oak that I am currently building. I have gotten fairly good with a spray gun but stains are trouble for me when I must match existing ones.
I am using Mohawk products as far as staining and coloring go and I have a large selection of Mohawk Pigmented Stain Colorant Base Concentrate.

I have Flexners book, but when it comes to red oak it doesn't have a lot to offer. I do top notch woodworking and I want to install these kitchen cabinets with a quality finish. I don’t want to over do it and finish them with a finishing schedule meant for fine furniture either.

The client wants a medium stain on the cabinets. Can some of you pro finishers give me a finish schedule for red oak kitchen cabinetry that is in keeping with higher quality kitchens? I am sanding the solid wood and veneers to P180 final grit. I don’t want to grain fill unless that is what is typically done on a red oak kitchen. I have the base colorants, but if pigment stain is not the way to go I can use a different product (dye stain) hopefully by Mohawk. I will be spraying satin pre-catalyzed lacquer and I use a vinyl sanding sealer. Please give any details you can, I don’t know much but am anxious to learn.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor B:
Red oak is not a difficult wood to finish. I typically use Sherwin Williams Sherwood Wiping stains which I apply by spray. I then spray a sealer and a medium rub pre-cat. I finish sanding to 220, although the 180 would be fine. I don't fill the grain and I doubt that you will find that many do in building kitchen cabinets. I've had to match existing colors fairly often and I have found that red oak is not difficult to match. Stain a few pieces when you are testing as red oak does vary somewhat in coloring.

From contributor D:
I have heard that red oak is difficult to machine, but as far as staining and finishing, it is very easy. For finishing sanding, depending on the color, 150 – 180 grit is all you need. It stains well with wipe stain. In my opinion, not so well with spray stain. This is because the stain has to be wiped in order for the grain definition to show. If you want dark grain, use gilsonite, VDB or other dark colorant. Dark colors go straight to the open grain.

Be careful to let all the stain evaporate out of the grains before finishing to avoid bubbles. Red oak is made up of tubes which will hold stain for some time. It is interesting blowing air on one end of a board and watching stain bubble out of the other. I like a high solids lacquer for red oak because it smoothes out the grain and gives a nice feel. I also like the decorative grain-fill techniques that can be done.

From contributor T:
I think oak gets a bad rep because there are so many different things you can do with it to get different looks and some folks just don't like the look of oak no matter what you do. A few tips:

1. Sanding: the finer you sand, the more pronounced the difference in color will be between the early and late wood. I don't sand below 150.

2. Base color: I like to set a base or background color using a light dye. Mohawk ultra penetrating stain (actually an NGR dye) with a touch of retarder is a good choice. For your end result I would use a warm sienna or a thinned burnt umber; lighter if you want more open pore contrast, darker if you want less. This step is not essential but I think it results in a good consistent color in the late wood and adds a bit of interest to the end result.

3. Seal Coat: Lock it down and seal the wood. I like de-waxed shellac but sanding sealer will do just fine as will a thinned coat of your final finish.

4. Decorate: This is when it can get fun. Remember that when you add color now, it will accent the pores and grain and muddy and/or darken the color. If you want an open pored look, use a wiping stain to add more color. If you want a partially filled look (good for a kitchen) use a gel stain. If you want filled look, use a heavy body glaze or colored grain filler. If you want to de-emphasize the pores, stick with a color that is close to your background. If you really want to jazz it up, use a complementary color. Lots and lots of options and this can be multiple steps.

5. Seal, tone and/or shade if desired. Toning and shading can add depth but this is more of a furniture thing. If you are just sealing, build and sand enough to get the degree of pore fill you want (or don't want).

6. Top Coat: pre-cat is good in a kitchen. It really is fun, not hard, but I strongly recommend that you do some samples to develop the end schedule and to get your customers approval.

From contributor M:
Here is something to think about – whenever you’re working with open grain woods, you need to be aware of "trapping solvent bubbles in your coatings." Don't apply heavy coats, (too many passes at one time) allow each full pass to first expel there tail end solvents before you make your next pass. Trapping solvents is a common problem with open grain woods.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
I read your comments on finishing red oak. It is one of the hardest to finish if you are doing it with natural color due to the tannins bleeding out of the wood. All the description says is to use a sanding sealer when finishing. That is not specific; the sanding sealer must be compatible with the finish.

I did a job on red oak using Zinsser's Seal Coat, which is an outstanding product. I finished with Crystalac water borne lacquer. I will never use any water borne products again. The tannin bled through and I had to have the doors stripped. Red oak is one of the worst woods to work with for tannin bleed.