Each wood species absorbs stain differently.
Some receive stain really well and enhance the natural grain of the wood. Others get really splotchy and end up causing headache after headache.
Before you commit to a wood species for your stained cabinet doors, there are a few characteristics of each wood to be aware of.
In this blog post, we give you tips on how to choose the right stain, what woods work best with stain and which ones are more problematic. Let's go.
First off, what is a stain?
A wood stain is a thin paint consisting of a pigment, a binder, and a solvent. Typically oil, water, or lacquer based.
The pigment is a finely ground colored powder, the binder glues the pigment to the wood, and the solvent liquifies the binder and holds the pigment so you can spread easily.
It can either be sprayed or wiped into wood to alter the color, tone, or shade. The pigment collects and builds up in the cracks and crevasses of the wood to enhance the grain pattern.
How to choose the right stain
There are several factors that impact the final color and affect how a stain looks on different species of wood. Here's what you need to consider:
1.) The grain of the wood
Wood grain varies from species to species. And stains are known for enhancing wood's natural grain. That means it's important to consider how the grain will look with the stain you pick.
For example, hickory is a light wood with a darker grain. Picking a light stain will really make the dark grain stand out - giving it a more dramatic look. But picking a dark stain that's closer to the color of the natural grain will give it a more cohesive and subtle all-over color.
From left to right: hickory with natural finish, hickory stained with American Walnut
2.) How well the type of wood absorbs stain
Wood is made up of thousands of cells, some large and some small. The large cells collect more pigment and go dark, whereas smaller cells collect less and appear light.
So when you stain, you're actually highlighting the cell structure of a tree.
Different wood species have different cell structures - with different ratios of large to small cells. And this affects how the stain absorbs into the wood.
Stains absorb really well into woods with larger cells, like oak. And woods, like pine, with smaller cells take stain poorly.
In general, woods with a tight grain tend to have issues with absorbing stains.
3.) Work with the undertone of the wood
When you're picking out a wood to stain, it's also important to consider the undertone of the wood.
The two types of undertones are warm (red, pink, yellow, orange) and cool (blue, purple, green).
Why is this important? A great example is Red Oak. Red Oak's undertone is obviously red. So picking a stain with a warm undertone will only bring that red out more. It's always best to be aware of the wood undertone to help you pick a wood species and stain color that works together and flows with the tones in your overall cabinet project.
Whatever you do, work with the undertone of the wood instead of against it. You'll get better results instead of forcing a color on a wood that just isn't there.
4.) Always sample
We've all been there. Staring at muddy tones and ugly splotches... wondering where it all went wrong.
Sampling the stain is key to getting what you want. You need to know how the wood is going to react to the color and it'll help determine if it's the look you're trying to achieve, before you start wiping stain on the final piece and getting frustrated with the results.
When you're staining, always remember: the larger the sample, the more accurate the stain color will be.
And always use two coats of stain. A single coat will look darker and not show off the same amount of gloss and sheen a second coat will give.
Woods that are easy to stain
The type of wood your doors are made of will affect how a stain looks. Here are the ones we think are the easiest to stain.
With a strong grain pattern and large open pores, Oak takes stain very well. But be careful. Stained oak cabinets were very popular in the 80's so it can look a little dated, especially stains with a red hue.
For a more modern look, we suggest staining white oak with a cool toned shade.
With similar grain patterns, Ash is often compared to Oak. And it takes stain really well, too. It's lighter in color so it's a bit more versatile with different stain colors.
Ash with natural finish on left, stained with "Espresso" on right
Hickory is very easy to work with once you know how. And after a good sanding, hickory takes stain really well. But that's the key. You need to sand it really well.
To open up the pores, start sanding with heavy grit sandpaper - we suggest starting with 100- grit.
Woods that are difficult to stain
It can be really frustrating staining certain wood species. Some get blotchy and some just don't absorb stain at all. Here are all the woods we've had the most trouble with over the years and a few tips to make staining them a little easier.
Birch does not take stain well. It absorbs pigment unevenly and gets really splotchy, especially with dark colored stains.
From left to right: birch stained with Harvest Oak, birch stained with American Walnut, birch stained with Charcoal
In the example above, you can see how blotchy and uneven the stain is on these birch doors, becoming more noticeable the darker the stain gets.
However, Birch's grain pattern closely resembles Cherry, Mahogany, and Walnut. So it's definitely a cheaper option that, with the right stain color, can end up looking more high-end.
To have an easier time staining birch, we suggest using a pre-stain conditioner. The conditioner will help partially seal the wood's surface to control blotching.
Staining maple can be extremely frustrating even for experienced finishers. Since it's a tight-pored wood, it really doesn't absorb a lot of stain. And with an uneven grain pattern, the stain it does absorb ends up blotchy.
From left to right: maple stained with Harvest Oak, maple stained with Espresso, maple stained with Rich Cherry
The darker the stain, the darker the blotches will be on the less dense areas of wood. So if you do want to stain maple, we suggest avoiding dark colors and only sticking to light or medium stain colors.
Poplar is one of the softest hardwoods. Which means it takes stain very unevenly. The stain soaks in and usually ends up looking blotchy and lifeless.
There's also a lot of natural color variation with Poplar. Sometimes it can be white, a darker yellow, almost grey tone, and it can even be slightly greenish. This makes it extremely difficult to achieve an even color with a stain. And with a green undertone, a lot of stains can bring out that green shade even more.
A sample of poplar showing off the color variation
If you do end up choosing poplar to stain, we suggest picking a darker poplar. The darker shades of poplar generally have a denser grain and stains a lot better.
Pine has an unevenly dense grain. This means the stain will have a harder time penetrating the denser parts of the wood.
You can get a nice stain out of pine if you choose lighter colors. Stay away from dark colors, though. Pine really sucks up stain around knots and blemishes, which is a lot more noticeable with dark stain colors.
With proper preparation, Cherry really isn't a difficult wood to stain and offers a high-end look with a luxurious feel. But it does have a bit of a reputation for blotching which is why we put it here on this list.
The grain in the wood absorbs different amounts of stain color at different rates and depths. Which results in some areas to be darker and some lighter, creating that blotchy effect.
Cherry naturally has a distinct red hue and is beautiful on its own, so staining really isn't necessary.
Sanding is the most important step
When it comes to stain, it's all about the preparation. And sanding is the most important step in preparing doors for stain.
The end-grain of any type of wood is typically more porous and absorbs more stain, so to get a consistent color all over, make sure to sand the end-grain with finer sandpaper. If it's not sanded properly, your end-grain will end up absorbing more stain than the rest of the door and appear darker.
We suggest using a 180 grit on the majority of the door and a 220 grit on the end-grain for color-consistency throughout.
Variation is normal
Always remember, variation is normal. It's not easy to get a super consistent color with stain since wood is a natural material and that variation is what makes it beautiful. Just make sure your customers know that before committing to a wood species.
And at the end of the day, staining wood comes down to preference. If you like working with wood, you'll develop your own opinion and preferences on which types of finishes you like for different wood species.
Here at Ruck Cabinet Doors, we use M.L Campbell's Woodsong II line for staining. The majority of our stains are sprayed, then hand wiped to achieve maximum grain clarity. If you want to know more or want us to stain your next cabinet project, check out our finish page.