Dye Stains and Gel Stains for Difficult Wood

Dye stains or gel stains (or a combination of both) can produce good results on blotchy woods and detailed profiles. Here's a detailed discussion of product choices and application methods. April 20, 2011

I use SW S 64 wiping stains. They really blotch on alder. I made samples using 1/2 strength clear as a wood conditioner, which helped. Also sprayed on thinned light coats of stain, which helped. All this seems like a lot of extra work. There has to be an easier way. What works?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor J:
Easier? Maybe... depends on your opinion. Better? Absolutely! Find a dye stain close to the color you are after and reduce it down so you have to spray a few coats to build the color. Spray even coats that are just barely wet, and do not flood or dry spray. When you are close to the final color you want, spray a wash coat mix 50/50 sealer/thinner, dry, and give it a light scuff with a sanding sponge. Then apply the wiping stain or a glaze to fill in profiles and obtain the final color. Dry, seal, scuff and topcoat.

From contributor R:
Try some of the newly formulated gel (type) stains. You might be pleased with the results. As with any finishing procedure, it's wise to make up a few samples. The larger the sample, the better.

From contributor M:
We recently stained and finished around 40 interior shutter panels that we made from knotty alder. I just looked to be sure, and we used the dark oak SW s64 wiping stain and had no problems with blotching. We actually mixed in a 1/3 mix of Minwax red oak on this order, which I'd think would have increased the chances for blotching. I will say the surfacing of the wood was really good and slick, which was a big plus. We do however hand wipe our stains on shutters, so maybe that is why we had no problems. Would hand wiping be of any help? Definitely not a time saver though.

From contributor O:
Gel stain, hands down.

From the original questioner:
I've heard about the gel stains. Could you do it on a whole set of cabinets, or is this just too much hand work? I normally spray and wipe my stain. Does anyone use just dye stain, sprayed? Contributor J, what brand of dye stain do you use?

From contributor J:.
I use Valspar dye concentrates and reduce them way down myself, but you can use something that is less concentrated such as the Ready Mix variety from Valspar, Mohawk or MLC Microtone and not have to shell out so much.

Using just a sprayed-on dye is possible, but may not be practical depending on what you are finishing. If you are spraying raised panel doors or any type of moldings with a profile, it is almost impossible to get the dye sprayed evenly into the profiles. Many people give up when they try this and get light grooves and dark spots around the profiles from trying (unsuccessfully) to air brush it into the profiles. The trick is to spray the door as if it were just a flat panel and not worry much about the profiles. Then do the wash coat and let the stain or similar colored glaze fill in the profiles.

Furniture factories do this all the time and call it fill glazing when the glaze is the same color as the dye as opposed to a darker, highlight glaze. If everything is flat with no profiles, then dye alone is more practical; just make sure you get one that has good lightfast qualities. If you are not experienced in spraying dye, make sure to thin it down, spray even coats to avoid streaking, and build your color in multiple coats. Also keep in mind that dye dries very quickly and looks different when dry, but gets darker and more vibrant when you clear coat over it.

From contributor R:
You can stain just about anything with the gel stains, but they don't spray due to their consistency. As far as the time is concerned, you're going to be building up the dye color and not trying to achieve the end results in just one pass.

With the gel stain, it is what it is - wipe it on and wipe it off. If you're not used to a dye stain, you can get up to your ankles in trouble, pretty quick like. I'm not saying to forget the dye stain, as they do yield a brilliant color, but you do need to feel comfortable with their application as contributor J points out.

The gel stains give you some decent open time, and since they are the consistency of whipped cream, a little goes a long way. They might come in handy if you're staining a large refer panel, as they won't run like a regular oil stain will.

Regardless of what you decide, it's a good idea to get a small quantity of the various materials and give 'em a whirl - you can never have enough ammo in your finishing arsenal.

From contributor N:
General Finishes makes a new semi gel that you can spray on and wipe off.

From contributor M:
I tend to shy away from gel stains on shutters due to a problem we used to have. Whenever we wiped over an area a second time, we would pull the color from the surface, leaving a light area. If we reapplied the gel stain, we just usually made it look worse. It was almost like the original application would seal the wood, so we could not get a second application to take. Has this been corrected in today's gel stains?

From contributor J:
Most wiping stains, whether liquid or gel, are really designed for only one application regardless of what the instructions on a can of Minwax says. Minwax might get a bit darker with a second coat because some of the colors contain an oil soluble dye in addition to or in place of pigments.

Wood can only hold so much pigment and if the solvents in the stain are strong enough it will re-dissolve itself on a second application, making it lighter. If not it will just lay on top and get a painted look and probably screw up the adhesion of your sealer and top coat.

This is the great thing about dyes - the size of the color particles is so small you can spray many coats without obscuring the grain and then you can still put a wiping stain over the top of it.

From contributor M:
We do at times apply a dye and then go over with another regular wiping stain. This I would say is our best work. However, most projects, due to budgets, get only one application. For the most part I like gel stains, but usually the problem happens on long pieces or odd situations where we overlap the stain in a way that some wet stain gets on some that has dried for a little longer. The places that lose the color are usually small, bigger than a quarter. But it seems they are also in places that it just looks like crap. Not a big deal, but sometimes pretty aggravating.

From contributor R:
I understand the issues you're having, and shutters must be a real pain to work on. Even if you were to stain all the slats and then cut them to size, you would still have the ends of each slat to stain. Although we don't do many shutters (can't stand them myself) the Wood-Kote brand of stains yield real nice results. Once in awhile we have had to alter a particular color and found the powdered anilines to work the best. Each project presents its own challenges, be it staining or finishing. My hats off to you for choosing such a challenging and time consuming item.

From contributor B:
I've been staining alder for years using WB dyes. I now use General Finishes dyes exclusively, as they are metalized (for better color fastness). The advantage of WB dyes over NGR dyes is that they don't dry as fast. Thus getting into corners and striping is not a problem. They do raise the grain some, but it's not really an issue.

The best way to apply is spraying, as others have noted, and you can build the color very evenly. I just stained an island cabinet yesterday using this method. A mix of GF's light brown/vintage cherry dye. It looks great, nice and even (as even as alder can be without toning, which I think kills the life of the wood).

From contributor M:
We actually cut out the shutter parts and hand stain each one. I decided shutters were not already hard enough to stain, so I made it a lot harder. Ha ha. I am thinking of going back to spraying on the stain over the assembled panels, but I always believed our current method yielded the best results.

From contributor T:
I also have quite a bit of experience with alder, and with a wiping stain, it does blotch similar to pine or other softwoods. I have had great success using custom dyes that are a combination of fast solvents for quick sealing times and water infused to even out the color. I prefer to glaze over my dyes to create a deeper, more beautiful piece. The gel stains work, but they have long dry times and are not compatible with some finishes. They do stain nice.

If the other suggestions weren't enough, you could dye, washcoat, and then use a wiping stain. I use this when I need to get darker, but want it to appear like a wiping stain.