Stain Application: Spray Versus Wipe

      Pros discuss the fine points of stain application, with a view to good results. November 8, 2007

I have always wiped on the majority of my stains, but recently I've talked to other finishers that strictly spray nearly all their stains over a sealer. I've been pretty impressed with the results, but what are potential drawbacks to these methods?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor L:
Big learning curve. You have to have your equipment tuned in perfectly or you get streaking. It is only a surface coating. Hard to get an even coating inside boxes near the inside corners. If the woodwork gets nicked, the raw wood will show through, as opposed to a penetrating stain which will make this not as bad a problem.

That said, when you figure all that out, it is quicker and easier, with less steps. I have done it on occasion and the results are good. But because of the other issues, I tend to stay with spraying and wiping my stains.

From contributor J:
Spraying a pigment stain over a full strength sealer coat is a bad idea. The stain usually won't have enough solvent strength to bite into the sealer, and adhesion of additional coats will be compromised at best. Using a pigment stain over a highly thinned sealer (wash) coat is okay, as the wood is only partially sealed, so the pigment will still get a hold on the wood. You will still need to wipe off the excess stain, as leaving too much pigment on the surface can effect adhesion as well.

What these people that you have seen may be doing is using a toner. Toners are made of a colorant (I prefer dye), a vehicle (usually lacquer thinner), and a binder (sealer or lacquer). The binder helps the color melt into the previous sealer coat rather than lying on top of it, greatly improving adhesion.

Care must be taken to use only compatible products when making a toner and not to go overboard with how much colorant you put in or how much you spray on.

As contributor L pointed out, there can be a big learning curve with this technique, and fixing a piece that's been toned too much will usually involve stripping the entire piece. There can be a fine line between toning and painting!

From the original questioner:
Thanks a lot for the responses - they helped a lot.

From contributor D:
We spray all our stain, but wipe it off.

From contributor M:
Pigmented stains should be wiped off, regardless if they are sprayed, wiped, or brushed. Dyes dry too fast to wipe or brush, so they should be sprayed only, and wiping should not be needed if you do not flood the dye, and you apply uniform passes with the gun.

From contributor S:
If an item gets nicked, it makes no difference how deep the color goes, whether into the substrate or not - it needs repair. Go ahead and nick or gouge any store-bought cabinet and piece of furniture. Raw wood. I touch up nicks and gouges everyday. The distribution center where I work is sending out tens of thousands of pieces a week. The standard in finishing is not to completely saturate a substrate with color or even to work any color that deeply into the whitewood phase of the finishing project. Rather, the standard in finishing is based solely on how the item looks when completed. Multi-step finishing and layering of colors is one way to get consistent and predictable results each and every time, cutting after cutting, run after run, batch after batch, from one piece on a suite to the next.

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