Why Finishers Use Samples with Customers

Customers don't have the vocabulary to describe finishes, or to understand how you describe them. That's why a signed sample is your best assurance of a clear agreement. August 29, 2011

We did work for a customer last month who called us this week stating, "We do not like the work because we can see the grain of the wood coming through the stain!"

There is nothing wrong with the finish job. All color and finish is uniform, but as with most finishing work, you can see the wood grain coming through.

I want to tell the customer, "Well, you should have painted the wood instead of asking us to stain the wood." How would you handle this?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor P:
Easy. Provide finish samples with shop drawings for approval. Client to sign off prior to build. If they don't like what they see, don't proceed until you have found something they do like. Good luck next time!

From contributor K:
Isn't that sort of the goal of staining? To enhance or make more uniform the grain of the wood? What were they using as a reference for the finished product?

From contributor A:

I imagine they wanted a filled finish, but didn't know how to express that.

From contributor J:
I agree with contributor A. In my experience, many people don't know the difference between stain and topcoat - it's all "stain." And "grain" means virtually any visible quality of the wood. The arches in flatsawn wood are grain, the open pores in oak are grain, etc. Thus you have to ignore much of what they say, and rely on samples.

From contributor E:
Contributor A echoes my thinking, that the client is saying "grain" when they may mean something more like "texture."

Contributor P is right, a finish sample takes care of this beforehand. At this point, the best course of action is a good sales job. You should wax poetic about what a rich and skillful finish it is; the grain underneath and the texture shows that it's handmade. They certainly wouldn't want it to look too uniform and plasticky, like IKEA... and so on.

Some salesmanship along with some education about wood finishes - I'm thinking that's all you'll need.

From the original questioner:
This is exactly how we are handling it. I turned it over to my sales executive.

We do have samples, and all of them show wood grain. I think we need to change up our stain choice confirmation by not just asking what stain color you would like, but also asking if they'd like standard grain look or a filled look.

From contributor S:
Every so often you get a customer who defies all logic and understanding. Sometimes you can show samples, pictures, and explain things until you are blue in the face, and they still complain about something. I had a customer who wanted the bow window and front wall in his house covered in oak, along with some fake beams. We showed stain samples, etc., they went away, and we did the job while they were gone. They phoned when they got home, and said it looked great but they wanted to know why I didn't use oak. Their neighbor had an oak bar, stained dark, so they thought oak was supposed to be dark. They never once mentioned wanting it dark - they just assumed oak was dark. I asked why they had picked the medium stain sample I showed them. I hadn't showed them a dark one. They said they just picked the one they liked out of what I showed them, but that wasn't what they really wanted. They still never said a word about wanting it dark. From then on, we always showed samples and had them sign their name on the sample of their choice.

From contributor C:
I agree with contributor P: stain samples. This is something that I learned from this forum about 8 years ago. I bring two identical samples with me of the finish that they have selected. Normally it is the same piece of wood simply cut in half. And, if possible, it is of the actual wood from their project.

After they say they approve of the sample, I ask them to select one that they get to keep. I then hand them a magic marker and have them sign and date the back of the second sample. I tell them that this will be the control sample that will be used in the finish department back at my shop. Included on each sample is some basic information like date, wood species, color, etc. There is enough information to identify the sample, but not give away any secret recipes that I may or may not use (e.g., blotch control, toning). When I get it back to the office, I slip it into a zip-lock bag to keep it clean and prevent any over-spray from getting on it if it does go into the spray booth. Sometimes I have an identical third sample that I can use as well. The signed sample will stay in the job folder forever.

I also explain that wood is a natural product and that the final finish may be a shade or two different in the case of stain grade. Or, if it is paint grade, that I will be spraying the finish so it might appear to be lighter/brighter in color than any matching brushed woodwork that may have already been installed in their home.

This has worked for me. And the client, or their designer, often appreciates having a sizeable (8"x10" or so) color sample that will enable them to pick other room colors, fabrics, etc. This turns a potential misunderstanding/disaster into a win-win for everyone.

Thank you, WOODWEB.

From contributor A:
This is our default clarification on finish (unfilled, no toning or wash coat): Finish system shall be WI system 2, clear, satin sheen, fill to be semi open pore, without a tint wash.

From contributor M:
I typically prepare a sample, and cut it in half. The client gets one half, and I keep the other. My contracts require an approved sample, and also contain a disclaimer on how wood is a natural product.

A few years back I worked for a nonprofit, and we had a cabinet shop donate an entire set of doors from an $80,000 job because the homeowner was not happy that they could see grain through the glaze. I am sure on such a job samples were carefully chosen, and signed off and approved. I think the homeowners ate the cost for new doors, and refinishing.

From contributor E:
Clients are not stupid. People are more knowledgeable today than ever before. In 30 minutes on Google they can see more designs, finishes and stains than our fathers did in a lifetime.

But they are not carpenters. Words like grain (something that describes salt), tint (like the windows on my car), solid tinting (all wood is solid) are lost on our clients. Just read a consumer oriented design magazine. You have to really work hard to extract what they want from their brains. 3D renderings that reflect the actual grain and stain/paint are great tools. The finished sample is the last double check.

To answer your initial question, yes, hundreds of times I have heard people not satisfied with the finish on the cabinetry they received, especially stained wood products. Half of the time it is due to the client not being able to communicate their idea and the carpenter not interpreting their meaning correctly. The other half is the carpenter was unable to produce the finish the client wanted. It can be very difficult to recreate someone else's finish. The third half of the time it is a combination of the two.