Staining Poplar Trim to Match Existing Stained Maple

Poplar is usually a paint-grade trim material. But here, finishers discuss using washcoats and dye stains to persuade Poplar to stain evenly. September 10, 2007

I'm staining poplar crown to match some existing stained maple casing (reddish brown). I bleached the crown and plan to spray a wash coat or two, then wipe on an oil-based wiping stain (Zar). I'm finding that this step is difficult when using a typical oil based wiping stain with pigment, as the pigment wants to really lock into the softer areas? But I tried a dye stain (Mohawk) and it just muddied/hid the grain - maybe a dye glaze would work? Is there such a product or do I have to make that myself? Seal that in, tone/shade with a dye. (Mohawk Ultra Penetrating Stain diluted as needed with acetone? Seems to really cut it when cleaning out the gravity cup, so I figured it's compatible... or should I use lacquer thinner?) Then topcoat with a NC lacquer. So, should I just dilute some gloss lacquer way down (4-5 thinner to 1 lac?) as my initial washcoat and after stain as a seal coat, or is de-waxed shellac cut way down (1/2 pound cut?) better to use for this application, followed by toner and topcoats as mentioned above?

P.S. I normally would use maple crown, but it's only available in 12' lengths and my room is 14.5' x 14.5'. I avoid splice joints in stain-grade crown like the plague, but after wasting half a day experimenting with different combinations of stain/dye/washcoat, I'm still nowhere close to what I want! So next time I will consider the splice plague.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor P:
Can you describe the final color you want or have a link to a clear picture of the color? What's the color range of the poplar you have? Any really dark wood? How much sapwood (the stuff that's light tan, not some shade of green)?

From contributor B:
Seal with lacquer sanding sealer or vinyl sealer, sand with 400, and stain.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the replies. As for the final color - reddish brown (medium mahogany) to match stained maple casing. Color of poplar - I spent at least a half hour picking through the rack to get the lightest, least amount of green in 16' lengths. 2 pieces are virtually green free, mostly just the typical off white/very soft tan color, the other 2 pieces are a mix of the aforementioned and some swaths of poplar green. As mentioned, I did use a 2 part liquid wood bleach to try and lessen the green. It didn't do much though. But I am not planning on another coat.

Contributor B, solvent based lacquer throughout - is that just what you use too, or are there problems with mixing the shellac and lacquer systems together?

From contributor B:
Forget the bleach. Seal with lacquer sanding sealer or vinyl, depending on your topcoat, sand with 400, then stain. I would use a walnut to get the brown base coat, then tone with a mahogany to get the redness. You don't need to use shellac in this case. As far as the dark areas in the poplar, you can blend them in with your stain and toning.

From contributor P:
The picture below is a piece of poplar casing I did a sample finish on. It's a medium mahogany color, a little on the orange-red side.

Here are the steps for this type finish:
- Apply a dye to the bare wood. I used ILVA cherry dye and diluted it 1 part dye to 5 parts thinner. This dye color is fairly orange. Substitute with a walnut or burnt umber dye to get a brown color. Dilute the dye as needed to get the shade you want. For even coloring, spray a light wet coat of the dye and do not wipe.

- Partially seal the wood with a washcoat. With lacquer topcoats, you can use shellac (waxy is fine), vinyl sealer, or the lacquer itself to make the washcoat. Take a look at the link below for info on making a washcoat.

- Scuff sand the washcoat very lightly to smooth.

- Apply the stain or glaze. I used a burnt umber wiping glaze, but you can use a walnut or mahogany color depending on the final look you want.

- Seal the glaze with a coat of finish. Vinyl sealer is a good choice for the washcoat and sealer whenever using a glaze.

- Scuff sand smooth.

- Make up a toner by mixing a little dye in with your finish (e.g., 1/2 - 1 ounce of dye per quart of lacquer) and spray an even coat over the sealer. I used a mahogany dye for the toner on the sample. Follow with another toner coat for added color.

Do some test samples to make sure you've got the steps/colors worked out.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

Related Article: Making a Washcoat

From the original questioner:
Many thanks for the detailed post! I actually visited your site yesterday and used the info on making a washcoat - nicely explained in understandable terms and it helped me feel confident about that step in the process. I was pressed for time and had not received your post yet, so I already started with a slightly different schedule. After bleaching, light sand, shellac washcoat (5%), light scuff sand, stained with oil pigment stain. That's where I'm at and plan on a lacquer sealer coat next, then a toner to get final color, 2 lacquer topcoats to finish.

I would have tried the dye first as you suggested, but I didn't have the right dye color for the background (more of a medium tan/light walnut). Anyway, as far as the toner, I understand the formula to make my own, but I do have 2 Mohawk products that I want to try - one is their Ultra Penetrating Stain (and NGR dye, right?) and their Wiping Stain (a lacquer type stain since it's recoatable in 30 minutes). Could I use the wiping stain as my toner, or should I use the Ultra and make my own?

What's the formula for a wiping glaze? And is that used primarily when you want "hang up" in the detailed areas?

From contributor P:
Mohawks' Ultra Penetrating Stain is a dye that's compatible with solvent (alcohol, lacquer thinner, acetone) based finishes and also water-based finishes.

Their wiping stains, like many fast drying stains, don't use linseed oil as the binder. Instead, they use a small amount of a fast drying resin. You can still thin the stain with mineral spirits for slower evaporation and more working time or naphtha for faster spray and wipe. Because the stain is oil base, you have to be a little careful adding it to lacquer. Petroleum distillates (mineral spirits, naphtha, zylene, toulene) used in the stain can kick the lacquer out of solution and you get little white chunks in the finish.

To get around the incompatibility, I mix the stain with lacquer thinner and then add it to the lacquer. By using a small amount of stain (e.g., 1/2 - 2 ounces per quart) and mixing it with a lot of lacquer thinner compared to the amount of lacquer, it blends safely.

Because the stain contains pigment, it will start to mask the grain of the wood pretty quickly when you use it as a toner. Generally speaking, using 1 - 1 1/2 ounces of stain per quart of toner and applying a single coat is about all you want to use unless your goal is to get a very uniform color and play down the grain of the wood.

On the subject of wiping glaze, it's an actual product that's only meant to be used over a sealed surface. It's not a stain and isn't intended for use on bare wood. Glazes are typically fairly thick. But you can use stain as long as it's not too thin/runny. You can use a glaze on an entire surface to add a thin layer of color and accentuate the pores/grain - and you can also use glaze to accentuate the profiles. I use it both ways.

In the steps for the finish I used on the sample in the picture, I omitted the glazing step I used to accentuate the profiles on the molding. But you can see the darker areas wherever there's a ridge in the wood. I also forgot to mention that green poplar (heartwood) takes stain a lot better than the tan poplar (sapwood) does. As long as your final color is dark enough, it's good to start with green poplar!

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the tips and especially the one about poplar's heartwood being a lot easier to stain than its sapwood. Never thought of it that way - if your final color was not going to be real dark, could you spray a dye that neutralizes the green? What color would that be? Pure yellow? I know red would make it go brownish. I guess that's a good color to start with for almost any end color. I read something about Bleachtone from Mohawk being used - I checked their website and it's pure white? Also semi-transparent, so it would mask the grain at the first step? Have you any experience with that product - good or bad?