White Stain for Cabinets

Here's a long discussion with some detailed advice for staining wood white in a way that allows some grain to show. January 14, 2009

I have a client that would like to have a kitchen done in a white stain. She would like this to look pretty close to a white paint but still have some of the grain show through. I have done this in black, using a black stain and a black toner to make it look like paint until you examine it carefully and you notice the grain shows through. If I recall, there isn't a white dye. How would you go about toning the white stain until it is just before opaque? I usually use MLC products.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor B:
The same way you do a black. There's a white pigmented stain that Campbell has or other companies like Gemini, SW, etc. Then do a toner with this stain until you get the look you want.

From contributor G:
Keep in mind that the wood will impart a tinge of color that will show through the stain - for example, red oak will look pinkish. Also (you already know this), any other strong colors in the kitchen will cast reflection in the white. So make sure the customer knows this - show the sample in the kitchen with their usual lighting.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the info. Kind of what I figured. I don't really like spraying a pigmented toner, as it will cloudy up the clarity. But what can you do with no white dyes? It will probably be done in a hard maple, so the color cast will be a little to the yellow side. Probably to my advantage, as I think they are going for an off white look anyway.

From contributor G:
If the budget is there, you could try bleaching the maple, then using a lightly tinted white toner.

From contributor D:
Sherwood Vinyl Basecoat (white) is an easy way to get there, especially if you want an opaque look. SW Vinyl Basecoat is a very thin product, so it will allow grain texture to show fully, unlike a standard primer or paint, but the color is strong enough to block the natural color entirely. To allow some transparency, simply thin the product to whatever gives you the desired result.

From contributor F:
General Finishes makes a waterbased pigment stain called Whitewash. I've used it several times on oak furniture and cabinetry. Customers were pleased with the look. If you want to try, do sample(s) and get customer's okay.

From contributor J:
Remember to topcoat with a non-yellowing product.

From contributor T:
The way I achieve this finish is to start out by wiping down the product with white wiping stain. This fills the pores with white, and allows the grain to show through. Next, I tone the product, but not with the stain added to the lacquer. This takes way too many coats to build up the necessary level of white.

Instead, I add white lacquer to my clear lacquer. By using the pigmented lacquer, I can achieve the necessary level of white in one coat. Then just shoot a clear coat over it all, and it's done.

My MLC rep taught me this technique, and it has proven to be a real timesaver over other methods, while providing excellent results.

From the original questioner:
Any chance you can tell me the white to clear ratio that you were using?

From contributor R:
Secure a quart of titanium dioxide, obtain some paint thinner, get a hold of an MT can, locate a stir stick. With these ingredients, you can make a white stain to any opacity your heart desires.

To make a white toner, just mix some unadulterated titanium dioxide into the same solvent you use to thin your coating and then mix that mixture into your coating. Once again, you can make a white toner to any opacity your heart desires.

If you're staining a wood that has a real open pore, like oak, and you want the pores to really accept the white, mix an extra scoop of the titanium dioxide in naphtha instead of paint thinner, wipe it on (it will dry fast) and wipe it off with some burlap.

White wash finishes on oak were popular many years ago and it seems as if the finish is mounting a comeback. A non-yellowing coating works best to keep the white as white as possibly possible.

From contributor N:
I did just this job two years ago with MLC products. The wood was maple, stained white, then used their shading lacquer to get to the desired color. The white stain didn't impart much color to the wood, but in effect was a sap stain. I top coated with Krystal. I did samples with Magnamax but didn't like the yellowish hue. I was at the customer's house two weeks ago for some additional work and the kitchen looks great.

From contributor T:
The ratio varies depending on how much transparency you are going for. I wipe on the stain to fill the grain, then seal with vinyl sealer. Next, sand the sealer, and shoot with the diluted white lacquer. I usually start out by adding about 4oz. of full strength white lacquer to a quart of clear lacquer. The ratio will vary depending on how much transparency you want, and how heavy you apply your topcoats, so experiment on a sample first.

The idea is to get the look you want in one color coat, and then cover with clear. I find that this works much better than trying to use white wiping stain as a toner. You can only add 2oz./qt. of stain to the lacquer, and this gives a very weak color coat, requiring many coats to get the result you need. This is time consuming, and expensive, since it uses much more lacquer.

You can add as much pigmented lacquer to your clear as you want, without worry since both products are lacquer. There is no chance of chemical reactions like you take the chance of using stain toner.

Once you try it, I'm sure you will be pleased. I wish I had known about this technique back in the eighties when pickled finishes were all the rage.

From contributor I:
Sherwin-Williams sells a white water based wiping stain you can thin with water and spray like you did with the black.

From contributor R:
Why make a toner out of a stain when you can use pure titanium dioxide colorant and make your own toner? Just mix some pure color into some clear lacquer and you have a toner. With a pure colorant you can mix the toner to any degree of opacity you want. White lacquer which you buy from your supplier is simply pure titanium dioxide colorant mixed into a clear lacquer. The White Vinyl from Sherwin Williams is simply pure titanium dioxide colorant that's mixed in their clear vinyl sealer.

If you look at the ingredients listed on a can of store bought oil stain, you most likely see that it contains color, paint thinner, and some type of long oil. Be that as it may, you could probably buy a gallon of paint thinner, a pint of long oil, and a whole quart of pure colorant for about the same price as you paid for that fancy store bought stuff. If you went that route, you'd have enough stain or toner to do a bunch of kitchens and you would have saved a bunch of money.

From contributor D:
Since the need for staining to color the open pores of oak has been identified, I would point out another large time saving feature of the SW vinyl basecoat product is its rather unique ability to color the open pores of oak uniformly, eliminating the step of wipe stain or glaze for that purpose.

The surface tension of most topcoats is such that they do not bridge (or flow out) real well over open pored woods. You don't notice it so much with a clear coat but it becomes conspicuous when you add any substantial amount of color to the topcoat. The fix of course is to stain or glaze to take care of the pores and this is the way I did it for many years till I followed a suggestion to this product.

From contributor M:
Contributor T, what Campbell stain are you mixing into your lacquer? The only one I know of that is compatible with their lacquer is the Amazing Stain, which has a touch of vinyl in the stain base. The only catch is, this is a spray only stain as-is and one wouldn't need to put it in their lacquer to tone with, unless it was a last case resort - not being satisfied with color depth after applying first coat of clear...

From contributor D:
Contributor R, yes, you make a fair point, but there is more to the SW product than just white added to their vinyl sealer. I know that because I've tried to reproduce the effect by doing the very thing you suggest and thinning to various ratios. It worked, but the flash qualities were different and the bridging was not quite as good. I suppose I could play with it enough to figure out the chemistry, but on the other hand, when I have a product that works right out of the can, why question it? In any case, just wanted to clarify my suggestion a little better for you.

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

Comment from contributor S:
Another way to achieve a beautiful white finish is to merely bleach red alder with wood bleach. It is amazing how nice that looks. Finish with coats of clear lacquer. It does not achieve a bright white but rather more like real ivory with all the richness of the grain in evidence. It is one of my favorite wood treatments.

Comment from contributor L:
About twenty years ago I had done some oak cabinets with a white stain. If I can recall we had made it using one part white paint (oil based) and three parts linseed oil. Wipe on wipe off, let dry for a day and top coat with clear of choice.