Coloring Oak Grain

Tips on how to replicate an Oak stain with pinkish grain in the pores. November 11, 2008

I've got a job that has stalled because I can't get a good stain match. I am a finish carpenter, not a finishing guy, but I am in charge of making sure my work looks good.

The job: existing red oak cabinetry, stain grade and probably polyurethaned. My part is to modify and add some wood components and make it all look like it belongs together color-wise.

The problem: every finish guy or supply house I've talked with or had take a crack at this has tried to make a single color stain do the job. So far the results have not been acceptable. As you know, oak has a grain that alternates quite open and porous and some less so. When stained, it goes much darker in the open grained part. The original finish seems to not only minimize this difference between summer and winter grain, but also there seems to be a pinkish pigment filling the open grain. (I've seen this before as a whitewash and wondered how it was done. In the current job, it's pinkish-red.)

My guess: a filler of some type was used and that filler was pigmented (to the pinkish hue) and this absorbed in the open pores much more than the less open wood pores. Then they either stained over that or topcoated it all and pigmented the topcoat, which has the golden hue of aged polyurethane, but with the pinkish fill where the wood normally would have been strikingly darker.

My question: What may the process have been, and how can this be achieved? The woodwork has been done for two weeks and needs to be finished before I can install it and get paid.

I understand my optimism at asking this question without a visual sample for you to see. It is just as frustrating to have neither the finishing experience nor vocabulary to fully explain what seems readily evident to my eye when talking to finish guys. Please give me answers that an intelligent tradesman can understand, even if he doesn't have the hands on finishing experience. I will still need to explain what you tell me to someone else.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor K:
Oil based stain will always sit in the open grain and make dark streaks there. You can try sealing a piece you already have stained and glazing to get that look you are after. But... Starting from zero, I would mix Gemini or Transtint NGR dye stain into the seal coat. Then lightly sand just to knock off the nibs, and topcoat. When you spray your colors on like this, the grain doesn't pop. I use vinyl sealer and pre-cat for a topcoat, but I'm sure other products will work. At this point you may still want to do some glazing to get the color of what is in the original stuff. I have never seen someone use pink glaze on purpose. My guess is that is some polish or wax that has built up over the years.

From contributor G:

How pink is it? This is limed oak.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

From the original questioner:
Contributor G, you are the first person so far to really understand at least this much of the puzzle. Where your piece is the whitest (limed) is where the wood I have to match is pinkish (the color is actually like a dull pinkish-orange).

Here's the catch: the overall wood looks like honey-oak or maybe even just an aged urethane or some tinted topcoat. The only place that I have the pink is exactly the part of the wood where your example is most white (which if stained conventionally would normally go darker, not lighter).

So, how do I get the pink in the most porous parts of the grain (like a background flavor rather than the main taste of color) and still get the overall finish to be golden-honey-oak-ish?

From contributor K:
I don't think you really understand. Get your base color first. Then seal coat it to lock it in. Then get a glaze to hang up in the pores, a matching color to what you have. The reason for sealing the base color first is that you don't want glaze to hang everywhere, just in the open pores. If you don't want the open grain to take a darker color than the rest of the wood, you have to shoot the dye on and not use oil based stain. If you are trying to get a one step product that will make the wood honey colored and the grain pink, It ain't gonna happen. I have never tried to buy pink glaze, but they can make it any color you want.

From contributor R:
Match your golden oak color with dyes, apply and let dry. Spray on one coat of sealer. Scuff sand with 400 sandpaper. Mix a white oil stain to your pink. Wipe on and wipe off. You'll have to make samples to get the exact colors and "liming," but that's the basic procedure. Dye, sealer, white stain, topcoats.

From contributor G:
The pink comes from the tannins in the oak mixing with the white color. One of the things about oak grain is that the colorants will go straight there and stay. With white stain (disclaimer: I've never used WB white stain, so this may be different if you don't use a solvent stain base), the white pigment gets in the open grain and meets the tannins and you get pink. Some oak is different than others and you will have to adjust the pinkness of your new work to match the aged pieces. Same with the ambered topcoat. After you seal in the white - limed oak is just TiO in stain base - you may have to slightly tint your topcoat amber to make it match. Perhaps shellac as a sealer will get you there. Matching existing, aged finishes is a job for a pro and you'll most likely find one at an industrial coatings distributor - a large one with a color lab.

From contributor D:
You achieve the golden oak background color by spraying dye. Dye, when sprayed properly, has the unique characteristic of staining open grained woods like oak uniformly. Seal in the dye. This can be done with a wash coat or shellac as was previously recommended. Mix up a pinkish glaze and apply. This will fill the grains and you simply wipe off whatever isn't in the grains. Topcoat with C-V, pre-cat or whatever, but for this you will need to spray, as brushing will move the glaze out of the grain.

From contributor R:
I finished a kitchen a couple of months ago where I had to match existing original stained oak cabinets, newer stained oak cabs and new oak cabs that I built. I used a dye/toner basecoat on the new cabs (after some sample tries), then used a darker dye/toner on everything. After discussing with the owners that in order to get as close a match for everything, we would generally have to go a bit darker than the darkest existing finish, they understood and were very pleased with the outcome.

From the original questioner:
Thank you very much. I now have a much better sense of what needs to be done and why. WOODWEB has proven yet again to be a valuable resource.