Advice to a Beginner on Finishing Maple

The best course may be to hire a pro who has the right equipment and experience. But failing that, here are some ideas about finishing Maple with wipe-on products. March 13, 2014

I'm building a cabinet and canopy for an aquarium for a client out of maple plywood and hard maple and need to finish it with a red mahogany stain.

My first attempt was a disaster as I had never worked with maple before and didn't realize it has blotching issues like pine and cherry. I had no choice but to start over and build another canopy it was so bad. What are the steps and products I need to complete this with a professional looking finish?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor M:
Perhaps you should consider hiring a finisher? Might be cheaper than to keep rebuilding it.

From contributor B:
Congratulations - you've just jumped into the deep end of the finishing pool. Cherry is a piece of cake compared to maple. Why not use mahogany to begin with? General Finishes RTM stains work pretty well with maple, as they're a pigment/dye mix. You'll still probably want to tone it some after staining. So dilute your stain some and add some stain to your sealer coats until you the desired result.

From Paul Snyder, forum technical advisor:

The easiest solution is to build it with mahogany. It will look really nice and you won't need to use stain. If you must use maple, you can try the process outlined at the link below. Subcontracting the work to a finisher is a good option. How were you planning to waterproof the wood?

Staining and Blending Difficult Woods

From the original questioner:
Unfortunately I'm stuck using maple. Waterproofing is easy, we always use a couple of coats of Kiltz stain and water repellent on the inside of the canopy and cabinet. The white helps with light reflection and is easy to keep clean. The outside is usually polyurethane. Are you saying I should use a clear (no color) sealer as a first coat and then with subsequent sealer coats add some diluted stain until I get the desired color? Also, does sanding with finer grit than normal help reduce blotching and close the wood pores?

From contributor M:
It's not that difficult. And a finisher could have it stained and sealed and topcoated in a couple of hours. You will still be experimenting and hoping for an acceptable result in those same couple of hours.

From the original questioner:
Well, I'll check into a finisher and depending on the cost I might just do it. The canopy is 48"x13"x10" with a full length piano hinged front opening. And the front panel also has a false flat panel door mounted on it. The cabinet is 48"x13"x40" and has double flat panel doors on the front.

From contributor B:
Don't sand it too fine - you could have adhesion problems. 180 max. If you seal it first it'll help with blotching, but you'll also have to increase the intensity/steps of your staining process to reach your desired color as it won't penetrate as well/deep. Paul's technique is money, but it helps to have some experience with toning.

Also you could make it a lot easier if you can pre-finish your pieces before assembly. This would really help with overlap in corners, etc. Then maybe just clear coating if necessary.

From contributor V:
I used to be right where you are now. My dive into the deep end of the pool resulted in a diploma from the National Institute of Wood Finishing (at a cost of $8,500.00) and two years in the trenches of a cabinet shop finishing department. I can now proudly say I can finish maple without blotching. Good luck brother - you're gonna need it!

From contributor Y:
I have built quite a few aquarium stands and have found using white marine epoxy paint on the inside gives the best performance. I have also built several tanks out of plywood where I lined the inside with fiberglass resin and used the epoxy paint over it.

As far as the stain, I agree that using GF stains would be a great choice and you may even want to start with spraying a dye stain to tone the wood and then stain over that to get the color and depth. You can also spray their stains which will give you an even look on the maple.

From contributor J:
Paul's article pretty much nails it. If you are concerned about the blotching, I'd definitely wash coat over the dye before deepening the color with any pigmented stain - especially if you are going to wipe the pigmented stain. The dye alone does nothing to seal up the more porous parts of the maple that trap the pigment particles into a blotch. Also I have seen the solvents in stains solubilize certain dyes and make a mess.

So to get started on a test panel, I'd suggest:
-sand 180 max
-dye coat(s) to base color
-thinned sealer
-light scuff 320 (or 220 soft sponge)
-wiping stain (consider it a thin glaze)
-seal to set the color and protect the stain
-see how close you are to the desired color and decide if you need to tweak any of the prior colors or, if you are close
- scuff 320 or abralon

- glaze (for a larger color shift) or tone (for evening out sections and a more slight color shift)
- topcoat(s)

From the original questioner:
Thanks everyone for your responses. I found a YouTube demo where they first showed what happens when you just use an oil based wiping stain like Minwax. They used dark walnut for the demo. They were also using alder, not maple, but it came out as expected.

Then he put on a sealer coat first, a #1 cut of shellac, then the wiping stain. Looked really good but the color was very light. He then used a gel stain instead and got the appropriate color. Looked fairly straightforward.

Contributor J, can you brush or wipe on the dye as I have capability to spray? Also, not sure I understand glazing and toning? Are they the same except that for one you thin out the stain to get less color depth? And when you say in the step to seal it, to set the color, are you talking about the same thing as I was describing for sealing?

From the original questioner:
I picked up some supplies and started making some test pieces which consisted of a piece of maple plywood with maple hardwood trim on it. So far I've coated one section with some red mahogany dye and a few other sections with a #1 lb cut of sealing shellac. The person who made up the dye sample for me said I could just put a layer of gel stain over the dye after it dries, but I notice contributor J says to put a thin sealer coat on first. I guess I'll try both ways to see what it looks like, but for the thin sealer coat what cut weight should I use? Is the same #1lb cut okay, or should it be thinner?

The layer of dye looks pretty nice by itself. My problem is that I have no spray capability and don't know if I can apply it fast enough with just a cloth rag.

From contributor M:
The procedure contributor J lined up for you is meant to be sprayed on. A toner is a colorant mixed in with a clear finish and then sprayed on in very controlled thin layers. That way you can achieve both depth and clarity. Dye stain is very difficult to apply when brushed or ragged on the surface. I would never ever apply a dye by brush or rag. Without spraying this is going to be difficult if not impossible.

From contributor N:
You've been given some great advice in this thread. I have taken Mr. Snyder's and contributor J's advice before, which has resulted in a beautiful job, a happy customer and money in the bank. The only thing missing from their advice is mentioning the many thousands of hours they have spent working at their craft.

From the original questioner:
I understand about the dye stain needing to be sprayed on. The video I saw of using first a washcoat of cut shellac followed by a gel stain produced pretty nice results so we'll see what that ends up looking like. Unfortunately I can't afford to just sub out the finish work on my projects or I'd have to charge so much most of my customers would not be willing to pay the price. I've been toying with the idea of adding a finish room to my shop, so this may just push me over the edge to do it. Also, I'll never learn the spray techniques if I don't start to work on them. I'll just get through this one project and then avoid woods in the future which require this or dark stain colors until I become good at it. I've been building for over 20 years but with woods like walnut, oak, mahogany and teak so I've had this issue before.

From contributor J:
Since you don't have spray gear, you can use a water soluble aniline dye to get a deep base color in the maple - if the piece will not be exposed to UV, as they are far less lightfast. But they can be sponged on and wiped off and really sizzle the character of the wood. We can chat further about them if the UV is not an issue.

From contributor D:
The base toner coat makes the wood a more uniform color. The wash coat, seal coat or whatever name given to it acts like a thin barrier to prevent the following stain layer from random absorption patterns that give a blotchy appearance. Then the final stain coat gives the color and depth to the wood. Using toners or spray stains is the best way to get really rich, dark colors. When they get really dark I generally use WB stains and will spray the first coat of stain as a toner then mix the stain at about 10% into the sanding sealer and then follow it up with a clear coat. When Espresso was all the rage this was my method of choice, which thankfully is dying a quick death.

This is where I will give a shameless plug to General Finishes. There are a lot of companies offering a lot of products but I really like the way General Finishes set up their product line.

They introduced a mixing station that consisted of pigments and dyes that were used to tint all of their products so you could have the bases for their clear coats, dyes, stains, paints, glazes, etc. and use the same colorants to tint everything so you could take a dye base, tint it to a color and spray as a toner, then take a stain base and tint it to match the toner dead on and apply that. You could then add the same colorants to the clear coat or sanding sealer and spray it. Everything matched and was compatible. It gave a lot of flexibility which was great.

From the original questioner:
UV will not be an issue where this aquarium will be in the home so I'd like to hear more about using the water soluble aniline dye.

From contributor B:
WB soluble from Lockwood (aniline dyes) is nice. I used them for years but switched to GF's dyes as they are metalized (for color fastness) and frankly easier to use. One of the biggest problems with Lockwood is the contamination aspect. I was getting specs of dye showing up in pigmented finishes, etc., after extensive clean ups.

Also GF's dyes are WB and I have hand applied them in certain circumstances. Not my favorite method and on maple wouldn't be my first choice, but if you do it dry brush fashion (don't flood it) you'll have a fighting chance.

From contributor W:
Spray some dye and then use a Zar type gel stain.

From the original questioner:
Unfortunately I have no spray experience or capability so I'm going with water based aniline dyes that I can wipe on and then tone with a gel stain if the color is not what I need. I picked up a couple today at Woodcraft and tomorrow I'll mix up a batch and try out on my test boards.

From contributor P:
Lockwood now offers a line of waterbased metal complex dyes. I've been using them for a few months now. My only beef is that the range of colors is not as extensive as their other line.