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Quality / Durability of different wood stains

When we bought our house last May, I was in love with the blond wood in the kitchen. I quickly found out that the cabinets are actually oak, and any varnish/stain/finish they had on them wore off years, if not decades, ago.

I am not particularly fond of traditional oak color, which is what we get if we put on a clear stain. My husband doesn't want anything that looks like "the paint is worn off," meaning there will be no pickling or whitewashing of the cabinets.

The ceiling, surprisingly, is also wood, so we will not be painting the cabinets (which go all the way up to the ceiling).

What I'm looking for is some advice on the quality of various stains that are out there. We obviously want something durable and long-lasting, and don't want to cut corners. My husband won't let us use Minwax polyblends, and thinks that the water-based stains that are tinted won't hold up as well as the standard pre-mixed ones.

I'm wondering if there is any validity to that. We live near a Home Depot (several, actually), so Minwax is easy to get. However, there is a Lowe's in the area, and last time we were there I picked up a Cabot brochure. They have some lovely tinted stains, but again, I'm concerned about quality.

Keeping in mind that we're fairly inexperienced (but have a wealth of information at our disposal via friends and family who have done furniture refinishing), what recommendations can you make for stain for kitchen cabinets?

A. Spruce
Re: Quality / Durability of different wood stains

I am not a fan of polystains because they are not really a stain. The colorant is suspended within the poly finish so it has no penetrative power, resulting in a finish that is not unlike paint - on the surface only. When finishes of this type get chipped, they reveal bare wood underneath that has no coloration at all, which is particularly noticeable with darker finishes.

The type of stain you use will make a difference in the ease of use, penetrative power, and overall satisfaction with the project. The best, IMHO, are oil based stains. These have great penetrative power. Water based stains are ok, they do tend to raise wood grain a little more than oil based stains do. Then there are gel-stains which are about as worthless as a bicycle without tires. Gel-stains are messier to use, harder to clean out of cracks and crevices and overall have poor penetration abilities. Finally, there are aniline dyes, which I have no experience with at all.

The top coat is equally important, you not only want something that is going to be durable, you want it to be easy to use. STAY AWAY FROM MINWAX POLYs!!!! These horrendous atrocities are difficult to use and result in a poor finish. I've always had excellent results from the McKloskie's brand, others here highly recommend General brand finishes.

When choosing your stain and top coat, you need to make sure that they are compatible, otherwise you may experience any number of problems from the finish self destructing, to premature failure. The only way to truly be sure they're compatible is to do a test either in an inconspicuous spot on the cabinet, or better, on a scrap of wood.

Cabinet prep will also be crucial. Any remnants of the original finish will prevent stain from penetrating, resulting in a splotchy finish. The cabinets need to be clean and free of dust, dirt, grease, and grim. They also need to be completely dry.

As you get closer to starting the project, we can discuss more details. :cool:

Re: Quality / Durability of different wood stains

I'm a little confused, you say stain but it sounds more like you are talking about finishes. Water based poly is clearer than oil based poly. Oil based adds a slight amber color when applied. My preference and the only poly I use is OldMasters brand. It has a excellent self leveling properties and dries to a hard durable finish.

Re: Quality / Durability of different wood stains

I share Spruce's concern that you properly prepare the cabinets for staining. If the cabinets originally had a varnish finish , you can be assured that there is still much varnish left on them. Varnish does not just disappear all by itself. Try spraying a little water on them in different locations. If the water does not immediately darken and soak into the wood, there is something on there that is going to prevent the stain from penetrating also!

When removing a varnish finish, I like to use chemical paint removers. It is too difficult to get the wood grain evenly opened up with sand paper. I prefer to use the remover and steel wool. What residue that remains, will be evenly distributed and affect the new stain evenly. I generally use a final wash with laquer thinner and more steel wool.

Polyurethanes are generally compatible with oil based stains. The exception would be those stains that are not wiped and leave a lot of pigment on the surface, i.e. brushing stains and pickling stains. I have learned the hard way to NEVER put tape on cabinets that have a pickled finish. When pulled, the varnish and stain come off with the tape, leaving the bare wood showing!
All that surface pigment prevents the urethane from bonding to wood itself, although the urethane does dry.

As Spruce recommends, it is worth making a test panel before committing to all the cabinets. I usually practiced on the back of the most inconspicuous cabinet door - usually the small doors over the frig. You can test both the stain color and how the varnish will react with it.

When choosing a stain color, it is much easier to stay close to the original depth of color. Stripped wood is never as open grained as virgin wood. You will have a much easier time if you don't go too much lighter or darker, but merely change the tone of the wood. Also, You rarely get all the old color out, so staying in the family makes for a more uniform new color.

Re: Quality / Durability of different wood stains

Thank you all for the great advice! Now that I have some additional information and clarity, I think I know what I really want to know.

If I'm looking at water-based stains (I will look for oil-based ones, but have not seen any at the stores I've been to recently), the ones that are tinted (nothing too drastic, just the "custom tint" instead of premixed ones, like cocoabean from Cabot - sample at the bottom), does the pigment sit on top of the wood or does it penetrate? The basic pre-mixed colors don't quite match the ceiling, but there are several custom tint options that would work.

Thank you for all of the advice about preparing the surface, as well. One of the lower cabinets was removed by the previous owner and has been in the garage. We've been experimenting with it. Between sanding (using a power sander and by hand), using a chemical stripper (with steel wool and a brush), and wood bleach (which did not do what we thought it would), we've think figured out how to best get rid of what's left of the finish. We have experimented with using pre-stain conditioner, water-based "natural" Minwax stain, finished with clear poly. The color was not what I would like (very... oaky, making our cabinets look like everyone's basic traditional kitchen, since they are not very inspired style-wise). We have the frame and one whole door to continue experimenting with.

So as far as durability, from what I've read here, stain is not the issue at all, but the top poly coat. Is that correct?

Thank you all for the advice, input, suggestions, and instructions, and for sharing your experiences and wisdom.

A. Spruce
Re: Quality / Durability of different wood stains
kls987 wrote:

does the pigment sit on top of the wood or does it penetrate?

That will mostly depend on whether this is a stain only or a stain/poly. Stain only will penetrate, stain/poly will not. Read the label for directions of use. Generally, stains are wiped/brushed on as evenly as possible, left to sit for a period of time, then wiped off.

kls987 wrote:

So as far as durability, from what I've read here, stain is not the issue at all, but the top poly coat. Is that correct?

Yes, generally that is the case, but there are many many reasons why a finish will fail. Improper prep of the surface or incompatibility with other finish products can cause immediate failure. Poor application can cause shortened lifespan. Poor quality products are miserable to apply and generally have poor performance. The list goes on. As I mentioned earlier, Minwax poly's are terrible products that are hard to use and result in a poor finish quality. Minwax stains are for the most part excellent and compatible with most brands of poly and top coat products. Still, always do tests before committing to your project.

Re: Quality / Durability of different wood stains

As others have stated here...avoid water-based stains!

Water-based topcoats are OK...IF you put LITERALLY 6+ coats on.
* H20 polys dry thinner than Oils.
* Depending on application method, you'll need probably twice as many coats of an H20 Poly.

One brand of stain that's very easy to control color is ZAR.
* MUCH more pigmented than the "coffee-like" stains, such as Minwax and many others.
* ZAR isn't a Gel-stain. It's considered a "wiping-stain". Penetration is controlled by how opaque a coat you leave. It's nice to use, because it doesn't soak-in so fast, like the conventional stains.
* ZAR Oil Polys are popular where I work. Used it myself too!

A REALLY nice up-choice is one of the Eurothanes from FPE.
* Not the cheapest stuff out there, but if you see some pieces done with it...you'll know why!
* I've used one of their paints at home, and sampled other products at work. Wow...once you use this stuff, there's no going back...!
* Good info. on this link...



Re: Quality / Durability of different wood stains

Interesting. Well. So many options on this one. Here are a couple.

1) You could try bleaching the oak to get the blonde again. There are products for that purpose. The only thing with that is - its unlikely those cabinets are fully free of stains and clears so you may need option 2

2) You could strip them and clear them if #1 isnt an option. if they are worn as much as it sounds then this could be an easy strip.

3) You could clean them up as best you can and apply a thin graining base tinted to the color you want. This will kill the redish oak color if you want too. Its like white pickling stains but you have control of the color (blonde) and the amount of the natural wood you want to show through. Graining bases are typically oil-based and you could essentially make a stain color you want off a paint chip. Sample graining base straight then thin until you reach the transparency you want.

All said and done, clear it. I've done this on poplar trim and doors to get a natural bare wood color to match cabinets. Poplar trim has lots of purple, black, green etc in it. Graining base can cover that up. I use Old Masters Graining Base.

Re: Quality / Durability of different wood stains

kls, sorry just saw your other reply. If your color went dark on you then consider the graining base. Heres the deal with that. You can apply such a heavy coat of a "blonde paint color" and watch it fade into the oak. When doing those samples, let them fully dry. But what goes on looking solid and heavy does not typically dry that way.

Also, from what it sounds, all you need is a fast thin coat of a blonde graining base, that will kill the redish oak color and fade into the oak and not allow your clears to darken that color much if any.

Go to link below and take a look at what im talking about on poplar. Look at the window trim and door casing trim. What you see there is near impossible to do but we did it with graining bases. That window is as pale as the face of the cabinet doors.


Re: Quality / Durability of different wood stains

I have a couple problems with using glazing techniques or brushing stains on kitchen cabinets: Kitchen cabinets are heavy
abuse areas. They are subject to much handling, knicking and scratching. When the surface is breached, the natural color of the wood shows through. This is also the problem that exists with Poly-Shades type pigmented varnish/stains. It is also similar to why I never liked putting faux grains on entry doors -too prone to disturbing of the imitation grain. Once scratched, the true nature of the underlying surface shows through and it is difficult to touch up.

Lastly, the high amount of pigment left sitting on the surface of the wood lessens the ability of poly-urethanes to bond to the wood. You risk outright failure of the urethane. If it does not peel of its own accord, don't ever put tape on the surface - even painters tape!

Re: Quality / Durability of different wood stains

I should clarify. Graining base is an oil-base primer with a sheen


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