Refinishing Old Pickled Oak

A finisher needs to strip and refinish a 100-year-old staircase that has been "pickled" with white stain. A lively discussion ensues about dyes, stains, toners, strippers, samples, and the risks you take on one-of-a-kind old work. October 28, 2005

I am refinishing an oak stairway, stained dark brown English oak in 1918, and bleached and pickled in the '70s. I'm stripping the pickling and bringing it to a deep reddish-brown. I can't get all the white pickling base out of the pores, and the work required to do that does not fit in the project time frame.

I found that pigment stain stands out too much and does not cover the white. Although I can remove 98% of it, in wide areas of early wood the white becomes very noticeable. I'm thinking of going with a dye, but I have no clue how much or little dye the white picking base will take and I have no scrap for testing.

I like the look of crimson red dye covered with black mahogany gel, but I'm worried that the occasional white specks will pick up too much red and become crimson specs, or they won't take dye at all and will still manage to peek through the black. Does anyone have any experience or suggestions?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor A:
As another option, use a tinting toner to cover the white and to give a uniform color base. I would then apply a seal or clear coat to protect the background color.

You could then use a colored glaze to color out the open grains, or use the gel stain if you prefer.

Remember - samples, samples, samples.

From the original questioner:
The samples idea makes me nervous. I don't have any 100 yr. old stained, bleached, pickled-then-stripped oak scraps lying around. It's definitely not going to take like the fresh oak scraps I have. I would have no choice but to use a not so prominent part of the staircase.

Does tinting toner penetrate deeply? Or can it be lifted with the chemical stripper I'm using? It lifts the original brown stain rather well. Maybe I can use an area that can take some heavy sanding if I get bad results?

From contributor A:
You don't have to replicate the wood or the old finish. Just get a piece of Oak, and apply the tinting toner, sealer, glaze/gel stain, and clear coats.

If you’re happy with your sample, you will get the same results on your work. Just follow your sample.

From Paul Snyder, forum technical advisor:

A brass bristle brush does a pretty good job of removing the white pigment from the pores. Do your first strip and remove most of the sludge, then re-wet with stripper or solvent and scrub the grain with the brush. Use a natural bristle brush for the final cleaning. Most of the white should be gone.

Dye won't mask the white very well. After dying the wood, you can either seal the wood with a wash coat and use the gel stain as a glaze, or you can use it right over the dye. Either way, the gel stain should do a good job of masking the remainder of the white.

I'd go ahead and do a section that could be sanded easily and see how it looks to the customer.

From contributor C:
If the problem is the white color remaining in the pores, you might think about using some grain filler to cover it with.

One possible schedule would be: After stripping, cleaning, and sanding, dye the wood with your crimson red dye, then seal. Sand the sealer and apply alkalyd based pore filler that has been colored with black Japan color. The black should go a long way toward covering up the white pores.

Wipe the excess filler off according to manufacturer's instructions and wait at least overnight, again following the manufacturer's instructions. Follow up with a black wipe-on/wipe-off glaze (your gel stain should work).

This will add another layer of color over the pores as well as giving the depth of finish and color that you favor, then topcoat.

As contributor A says, test the system on a sample to make sure it all works.

From contributor d:
I disagree - a new piece of oak for a test piece will not look the same as what the original questioner is talking about.

Start coloring while stripping. Add a little stain to the stripper and work it in cross grain, with the grain etc. and see what happens.

From contributor A:
If the wood is stripped, and is going to be refinished, the age of the wood for the sample really doesn't make a difference.

The concept of making up start to finish samples allows the finisher to improvise so he can come as close as possible to match any finish.
A good finisher doesn't care if the wood is the same or not. He makes up the samples to see where it will bring him, and then he takes it from there and makes any adjustments necessary.

From the original questioner:
I think contributor A was talking about a more opaque toner, in which case he'd be correct about the underlying wood. But I'm not going to do that, the wood is too beautiful. Transparency is a must! The 100 yr old chemically treated wood is much drier, or spongier, than new. That will definitely change how the dye takes.

The brass brush does do well, but there isn't enough time to get it 100% clean. A carpet runner is coming, on a non-negotiable deadline.
I'm thinking about starting with the red dye (H2O) in increasing strengths until I match the test on new oak, then using black gel stain directly on top. It tests well on new oak.

Whether the dye takes to the white or not shouldn't matter because the gel should blacken the grain anyway. If the white or red specks still manage to peek out in places I'll dry brush black glaze to hide, which I'm doing to shade crevices and corners anyway. I’ll use dewaxed orange shellac then clearcoat.

From contributor A:
Tinting toner can be transparent, translucent, or opaque, depending on the colorant you use and how you make up the toner. A toner can be made up with either dyes or pigmented colorants.Tinting toners are used as a base or as a background color, depending on the finish. It also can be a finish itself. In other cases it could be a stain, colored glaze, shading stain, or a combination of all three mediums.

You mentioned a deep reddish brown color, and without seeing the actual color I would visualize a Burnt Sienna tinting toner, a sealer, and a Burnt Umber Glaze (which is a reddish brown). You could adjust the color of the glaze to bring you to your targeted color. This is what I would do and it would not be opaque.

From Paul Snyder, forum technical advisor:
Your schedule and back-up plan (glaze) sounds good.

From contributor A:
Red + Black = Red Mahogany
Red + Brown = Brown Mahogany

You can get different shades of these colors depending on the color red you choose. There is more than one color of red.

There is also more than one color of black, and more than one of brown. These are all factors that you might consider whenever you are trying to match colors.

From the original questioner :
The color I want needs to compliment an oak floor, which has red tones. The stairway can stand to be slightly redder. Less red doesn't look right. So, the dye is more towards wine than fire engine. The black, a brownish black, tones down the color and provides contrast. Shellac enhances depth and adds just a touch of brown

From contributor D:
Samples are great and absolutely necessary but unless you want to spend your life making start- to-finish samples then you need to use the right background color to start with or you'll be making adjustments all day and never complete the project. There is a distinct difference in trying to color old stripped wood and new wood.

From contributor A:
To contributor D: I don't even think about the woods. Old or new, it doesn't make any difference to me.

I make up one sample, and then make adjustments after my clear coats are applied, so I see the true color. I don't make a second sample. I know what I need to do to get the color, and I improvise the rest on the work.

I see no reason to dirty the wood by adding stain to the remover. If I want any color, I just add it to my sample.

The original questioner found his colors on a new piece of oak, which is exactly what I would have done.

From the original questioner:
Yes, I did find the color on a new piece of oak. But I have nothing that proves that it will produce the same finish on old, broken-in oak.

Compared to the final product's oak, the new oak has a higher moisture content and is heavier. The wood fibers are much more intact. There are no minor remnants of white pigment, no remnants of dried stripper, and it has never been chemically bleached - not to mention missing 100 years of accumulated exposure to UV, oxygen, body oils, thousands of footsteps tracking stuff in, atmospheric contaminants and daily use. Sanding can't make all of that disappear.

My common sense tells me to believe that it is different. I highly doubt that all finishes will come out the same on all wood, regardless of age or chemicals previously applied, especially when a dye is involved. I'm using new oak as a ballpark guide, and expect I will have to alter the recipe a bit when translating it to old wood.

One other point to make is that this stairway winds up an entrance foyer the size of a tight two car garage, up three floors with two landings and eight doors. Making adjustments will be very difficult and that is the reason for gathering this information beforehand.

From contributor E:
To the original questioner: I think your approach is the right one. If any white spots show up, just touch them out after.

To contributor A: Sometimes there's just not enough time, especially in high production environments, to do all the samples or tone all the wood. I wish I had the option of telling the boss that I have to do samples for the customer to approve, or to have the time to tone my wood to all match before it has to be hung on the cabinets the next day. Circumstances are different in every case.

From contributor F:
The original questioner’s plan sounds reasonable based on all of the factors mentioned. I understand the reluctance to experiment on the stairway itself, but ultimately you have to. You were smart to do some preliminary sample work, so take a small section and have a go at it. The worst that happens is you strip it back off of a small section, which is no big deal.

Ordinary fresh laundry bleach will cancel any dye used, if you're concerned about that.