Revealing the Grain in Maple

Maple is tricky wood to stain. Too light a sealcoat, and the results may be blotchy; too heavy, and the grain may not show. July 17, 2008

I am about to stain a piece of cabinetry for a client in a medium brown finish. My samples so far have been finished by first spraying a medium brown Transtint dye, followed by a coat of Sealcoat shellac thinned 50% by alcohol. Then I am applying a gel stain, followed by a barrier coat of Sealcoat, then topcoating with waterbased lacquer. The problem is that it looks lifeless, not really showing the grain of the wood very well. The plywood test panels look worse than the hardwood - they almost look like luan ply, only in a brown tone. Did I possibly seal off the grain too much with the seal coat? I did sand after the seal coat with 320 grit prior to the gel stain. Is that too fine of a grit?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor P:
I'd blame the gel stain. They can go on pretty heavy. Dyes rarely obscure the grain. SealCoat usually enhances the grain, in my opinion. Do you need the gel stain to achieve a dark color?

From contributor A:
Is this hard maple? If so, this can be a difficult wood to finish well because of two properties: it can splotch, and it's difficult to get stain to take on hard maple. You can try wetting the maple with distilled water, allowing it to dry completely, and sanding very lightly before staining. This will open up the grain somewhat, and allow the stain to get more bite. Preventing or controlling splotching is a balancing act: too heavy a seal coat and the stain does not go heavily enough - or as may be the case with a gel stain, it goes on so evenly that it looks artificial or dead; too light, and you get some splotching. For washcoats, you generally want to have a solids content of 5 - 10%. If you cut the sealcoat by one-half, you may be at or above the 10% point. I would suggest, as a starting point, try using a more dilute washcoat, and consider using a wiping stain.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. I don't think the gel stain is obscuring the finish, as it is not on very thick at all. My guess is what contributor A says could be true - I may have too many solids in the seal coat. I will try lightening up on this.

From contributor P:
Pigment-type stains (such as gel stains) definitely obscure the grain to some degree, almost always more than a dye stain. If you dilute your first sealcoat or sand with coarser grit, it will intensify the effect of the gel stain, making it darker and further obscuring the grain. Could your TransTint mix be too heavy? I think it's one oz TransTint to one quart water, but that's just a rule of thumb. How are you applying the gel stain?

From the original questioner:
Thanks. I am using the Transtint per instruction. I think you are right that my seal coat may just not be sanded enough, not allowing the gel stain to absorb into the wood as much as it should. I am going to try sanding it out some more. I was applying the gel stain with a rag, then wiping with a clean rag. I may try using a brush to apply, to speed it up some.