Touching Up Furniture that Won't Take Stain

Sometimes a piece is still sealed, or has been sanded down to a glue-saturated veneer ply. Here are tips on restoring color to those pieces. May 24, 2006

I do a lot of furniture repair and restoration and once in a while I run into a piece that just won't take a stain. Im wondering why this is. Has anyone else run into this? What can I do to remedy this?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor C:
It's due to the previous finishes and/or polishes, waxes, strippers, etcetera, which have soaked into the wood. It is rare for stripped woods to stain nicely. If you use gel stains or tinted topcoats (like the minwax polyshades) you'll have better luck.

From contributor D:
You are stripping the old finish off right? Shading lacquer (aniline dye added to lacquer 2 to 8 oz. per gallon) has been used for years but is best used clear over dyed and strained wood. Mohawk sells an Oil penetrating dye wiping stain (bites well on previously finished wood or raw wood) which works well over dye (aniline) sprayed on raw wood first to get other effects. After stripping the old finish sand up to p220. If you sand any higher your stain will continue to lighten. Fix the color first then add clear lacquer (nitrocellulous) and your finish is going to look good and the wood will look nice too.

From contributor T:
I have a table with deep scratches that had to be sanded out; construction is walnut veneer over maple. I cannot get the stain to take using minwax oil based walnut. I have sanded to clear wood but cannot sand any further or I will go through the veneer. The stain is having a very minimal impact.

From contributor C:
To contributor T: It is likely that you have sanded down into the lower layer of veneer which is saturated with glue. No way that's going soak up any stain. You'll have to use glazes/toners (basically tinted clears) to get color to stick on that table. Even then adhesion is uncertain. Its probably not good to sand that deep and while rescue is not out of the question it is certainly risky.

From contributor C:
To contributor D: You are correct in that many furniture manufacturers do use NC lacquer for their furniture products. This in no way indicates that it is a superior finish to the polyshades (which have vastly better durability).

From contributor T:
Im not clear if your project was stripped or not. If not, the wood is still sealed from previous finishes and the only way I know of to correct/add color is with touchup techniques - colored markers and/or graining liquid w/dry pigment powders.

If your project was stripped like Tom's, all is not lost. Sometimes the wood is retaining a sealer but as often as not it's been sanded to too fine a grit. I don't know what your level of experience is but most anyone should be able to do the following schedule:
1. Sand project very evenly with 120 grit, certainly not more than 150. Pigmented stains will not work very well if there's no place to "settle in" which happens if you've sanded with too fine a grit.

2. Stain with a gel stain. I like Bartleys, GF its ok. This is the only pigmented stain I know of that will darken with additional coats so if the first isn't dark enough, let it dry and do it again. If it's too dark to begin with, wipe it down with MS before it dries. You can also mix an mfr's stains to get a custom color if you need to.

3. If the color is ok - finish it. If not you can tweak the color or add some character by either glazing or toning. Remember that glaze will obscure the grain even more than the stain did. Toner will not obscure it as much. Poly shades is a toner but it's based on a polyurethane and once dry can not be reversed. Reversible toners (lacquer or shellac) are easier to fix if something goes wrong.

4. Whether to seal before top coat or not depends how much decorating you've done and what your top coat is. I like to seal between coloring steps with dewaxed shellac and it's a good final seal coat too. Almost all top coats are self sealing, but I've never been sorry I took the time to add a coat of shellac: it "lifts and separates" (coloring steps that is).

From contributor T:
To contributor C: I tried Minwax polyshades and they have good adhesion. I am working with three colors and am very close for color but could use any advice/comments about blending/feathering around the edges of the repair area.

From contributor C:
To contributor T: That can be tricky, thinning the poly helps to get a thin feather edge. I often work with sort of a pointillism technique using a very small brush and making little micro-dots and dashes. Sometimes you can sand a little with very fine grit (I like 320 grit sponges) to level but be careful or you'll make a lot more work. I also use a product called Hydrogold wipe-easy finish (waterborne poly) by Star for re-sheening and/or feathering. This product is water thin and so feathers to a disappearing edge. It can also be tinted with glycol tinters or acrylic paints. For a nice brush fade use an angled shader (these shade are darker toward the point). Black Gold (brand name) makes a nice shader that's pretty reasonable. An airbrush can be useful too. Sometimes a little fine spatter tinting will bring it all together.

From the original questioner:
Some I simply cannot try due to owner/operator mandates at the shop, therefore no Poly, shellac or most of what was suggested. Here's a clearer picture they table was stripped by a temp employee. It was first rubbed down with Lacquer thinner and 0000 wool. That didnt work so a commercial stripper was used. It stripped unevenly, will not take stain, and has been left to me to fix. The table is mahogany veneer. I have tools at hand and am using minwax, dalys, catalized laq, and mohawk toners.

From contributor C:
Try tinting your lacquers. Use just a small amount and then try to even up the color, followed by an overall tinted coat that will (hopefully) obscure any small variations that once existed. If you can darken it overall that will help you but be careful because it is a lot of work to have to go back to lighten it whereas you can go darker with ease and speed.

I sometimes use a fine semi-transparent spatter shading coat for evening things up or to add dramatic shadings. The spatter does not need to be flowed out and it can be applied slowly and built to just the right shade. It sometimes adds interest to bland grained pieces too.