Resolving a Stain-Matching Dispute

By its nature, matching stain is an imperfect process. Here, a finisher's story about a problem with a customer leads to a discussion of contract terms and policies for matching stain. June 23, 2006

I am having problems with a customer. I signed a contract to build him an entertainment center using maple and a specific stain. The customer said that he would like me to hold off on staining and give him a week to find a stain that matched his existing cabinets. He went to Vista Paint and they matched the stain… so he thought. He provided a piece of maple ply that was pretty rough. The kid at the supplier mixed up some stain and gooped it on pretty heavy and did not wipe it off. The color was pretty close, but since it was improperly applied, it was very inaccurate. My wife picked up the stain from the customer, who held the stick up to his cabinets and said that the color was just a little off, pointing out that his cabinets were a little lighter in color, but it was close enough. My wife brought me the stain and I stained all the cabinet plywood pieces in preparation for top coating and assembly.

This customer was pretty particular about the finish not having a shine. I stained up a piece of scrap ply, applying two coats of 20° sheen lacquer. The next day it looked very nice, but it had a little bit of shine to it. I wanted him to see the sample to get approval before top coating the project. I also wanted to see if I could get less shine. After doing some research on WOODWEB, I quickly stained up a piece (not getting a good representation of the color in favor of speed) and put a single coat of lacquer on to minimize the sheen. It worked well. The samples were provided and it was pointed out that the color of the lighter piece was not accurate, as the intent was to show the differences in the sheen. He liked the one with less sheen and said nothing about the color of the darker piece — the one that accurately reflected the finished product.

I proceeded to apply top coat to ply and stained the solid wood pieces (face frame and doors). The solid wood pieces were coming out pretty light, so I applied used scrap wood, stained, sealed and applied a toner to verify the process would get me the right color. It did, but obscured the grain quite a bit. I brought him the sample and he went nuts. He doesn’t like the color at all and gave me the sample he received from the paint store. I pointed out that it was on unsanded wood and gooped on. The true color was only near the edges of the blotch, where it was thinly applied. I tried using dye to adjust the color, tried applying different stain over the top, etc. Nothing worked, as the stain he provided wasn’t even close to the drawer front he wanted to match. The guy mixing the stain for him really screwed it up and gave a sample that was improperly applied. Now the customer is getting pissy with me and doesn’t feel he should pay to replace the materials so I can start over.

I was going to go back to the paint supplier today and see if they could provide a solution. If they can’t fix the current material, then it all has to be replaced at a cost of about $900. Who should pay for this? Me for being dumb enough to not have the customer sign off on a sample before staining anything and assuming the stain he provided was the right color? Him for providing the wrong color to me? Should I just refund the customer’s deposit, write off the material and move on smarter? (I can afford this and the customer has been a pain, so this may be the best option). The bid for this was too low, so at best I will come out even after making the unit twice.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor D:
Back out now. If you will only break even by re-doing the project, you will come out ahead by not re-doing. Give him his deposit back and get back to making money.

From contributor J:
Yeah, what contributor D said. If he provided the color, it's his problem if the color is wrong. You are just applying what he provided. For my own business, the first thing I tell someone who wants to match existing furniture is that it will never be a perfect match. This way, I know from their response if they are going to be a pain. Most of the time they are fine with getting a close match and when I deliver and it's very close, they are happy.

From contributor J:
When I had my contract made up, I put right in the contract that there would be variations in stain colors and that matching existing cabinetry may not be possible. If they sign, they say they understand... according to my attorney.

From contributor A:
What does your contract with the customer say concerning the finish? Mine has a paragraph explaining that finish samples are not going to be exactly the same shade of the finished product and color is not guaranteed. If you don't have this and have to redo the work, I'd refund the deposit and get on with it. Don't just break even. Spend next week making money. I've also found that on the rare occasion I've handed a deposit back out of the blue, they tend to back down and let you do your job.

From contributor W:
I'd add one additional thought: I had a very similar experience (three tables rather than cabinetry) where I allowed the client to provide the stain. Never again. If I'm going to be accountable for the finished product, then I'm going to control everything that goes into it, including all of the finishing materials, hardware, etc. I learned the hard way that trying to accommodate a client who doesn't know quite what they are doing (but thinks so) is a recipe for disaster on my doorstep.

From the original questioner:
In my contract, I have a section for writing in the finish. Below it I have a clear disclaimer that I use wipe-on stains and I can't guarantee an exact match in stain due to variations in wood, finishing products and processes. We visited our supplier today and the manager was upset that her guys mixed an obviously bad batch. She spent an hour or so mixing up a new gallon that matches very well. She applied it to our pre-sanded board and then lacquered half of it to verify the sheen and color. She feels that a heavy coat left to soak for a day will re-stain the board we had already done. If the stain takes over the old stain then we are okay. If it doesn't, I will do as suggested here - refund the deposit and get back to making money.

From contributor H:
Give him his money back... now. Even if you redo it, he is already p.o'd. Who says you're going to get the full amount in the end even if you do it correctly? He will next pull out the "I've been inconvenienced" trick and take a discount. Stop the hemorrhage! Give him back his money and don't let him talk you out of it. He will try, that's for sure. I've been there. Clients like that hate when you cheerfully refund their deposit and you admit that you cannot work to their satisfaction.

From contributor N:
I would say you should have made a sample that he could approve! Secondly, don't argue with the customer - the customer is always right. It sounds like he went out of his way to get you stain mixed up... Thirdly, get the stain mixed by a competent person, make him a new sample and redo the way he wanted in the first time. Make him happy, then you will have a customer for life. Plus he will tell his friends that know he is a pain in the butt and they will have confidence in your ability to do their projects too. If you say "here is your deposit back, find someone else to do it," you're going to piss him off more. So, look at the long term, take care of it and win him back over! If you were to get a $50,000 job from his neighbor next week, would you really care about the $900 lost?

From contributor V:
*Always* make a sample yourself on plywood and lumber. Apply the stain and finish with your technique and get the samples signed by the customer

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

Comment from contributor R:
An off the cuff analysis of this fact pattern indicates that you are in the right. Generally, the standard to which you perform (unless otherwise set out in your contract) is to do your work in a "workmanlike manner." In short, did you do a decent job? It is a question of fact, not taste. If you set out in your contract that you would perform the work to the customer's personal satisfaction then you might be on the hook.

There is a wrinkle here which works in your favor. The customer picked the stain and he apparently changed the contract specification which called for another type of stain. Once he supplied the requirements of the use of a particular stain, and you properly applied it, you have the better case. Your written contract will control, but the oral modification will be recognized since both agreed to it and you performed in a "workmanlike manner."

It seems to me that in most instances a small claims court would be able to handle this. You would not need a lawyer. You should be paid for what you have done and that means you should collect the balance of the contract price less an allowance for the remaining work. That is a reasonable approach. The question is whether you want to fool with all of that and what affect it will have on your business. That is a business decision only you can make. I would not be quick to return the deposit, though. You earned that and likely more.