Evening Out Cherry Color Variations

A discussion of ways to address lightness and darkness differences between Cherry lumber and plywood. December 14, 2009

In using cherry lumber my shop always has a problem that I would love to solve. With our cherry lumber/plywood that we receive, it is always considerably darker than our outsourced doors. The end product always appears this way but until this day no customer has turned it into a problem. My assumption is that my door supplier is covering their lumber up at the shop while plywood suppliers has aged somewhat. The doors are a very light pink while the frames/boxes are a deeper red.

What is the easiest way to for the end product to be the same? Keep in mind we don't tone nor use dye stains. We washcoat with 50/50 Shellac, oil stain, and then topcoats. My assumption would be to turn up the washcoat to like 80/20 on the frames/boxes while using the same 50/50 on the doors. Considering we do not want to tone or use dye stains is this the best method to control the end product? What do guys suggest?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor R:
Put the doors in the sun.

From contributor F:
Well considering that you don't want to use dye, your options are limited. A lighter wash coat as you suggest will make the doors take the stain darker but may also increase blotchyness. You could try a different stain or sanding the doors slightly rougher than the sheet goods.

Putting the doors in the sun for a while as contributor R suggests will also darken them up, but if your reason for wanting to avoid dye stains has to do with time issue you probably won't like the time it takes to sun age them either.

A grain popper mix of 50/50 water and alcohol sprayed on the wood before staining will make the stain take darker but only really works if you are not wash coating. Dye staining or toning really are the best ways to take care of this as I suspect you already know. What, may I ask are your reasons against it?

From contributor R:
How about getting your two suppliers on a conference call to see if you can find out what the difference is. Perhaps the hardwood dealer could supply the material to the door shop. Cherry coming from two different parts of the country could be two different colors.

From contributor S:
This question is like saying "I want to lose 50 pounds and a want to eat all the pizza I can stuff in my mouth." A uniforming spray dye using a Minigun is the solution but if you're unwilling to do that you're not going to succeed.

From contributor O:
The doors will sun darken within hours on a bright day with direct exposure. I took a cherry cabinet to a street fair and it changed color so much that there were lines on the FF's from the doors.

From contributor M:
Are you guys using a seal cote and then dye on top of that, then pigment stain? If so, doesnít the dye stain dissolve the wash coat? We donít use a ton of dye or stain finishes, but when we do we dye we washcoat and then stain, occasionally mixing a small amount of dye in finish for toner as needed. Have we been doing this wrong or making it harder? All products are solvent based MLC.

From the original questioner:
I am new to finishing, however I have about four months of painting/staining/topcoating under my belt. Before I began I did a lot of reading to help me understand the basics of finishing. As far as dye stains/toning I have yet to spray a stain alone. I feel that if I plan on wiping a stain why not just use an oil base for ease of use. We could wipe dye stains but do you recommend wiping dye stains with the same method as with oil. I am aware I can add a retarder to the dye stains making it easier to spread but dyes along with wiping tend to blotch more, am I correct? Does washcoating before dye prevent blotchiness as well as it does with oil stains. I want my finishing steps minimal as possible so I never see using dyes in conjunction with wiping stains.

With toning, that is a small possibility but I think I need to experiment instead of learning on my customers doors. Just today alone I took the master doors which are cherry and finished and placed them outside for most of the day. The result is my doors are considerably darker and with one more day I feel I will be there. We have another set of cherry cabinets coming up soon and I think we are going to try and place the unfinished doors outside before finishing to try and even up the color. Any other advice?

From contributor R:
Dye stains are really just meant to be sprayed. The base solvent is usually methanol or acetone which flashes off very fast. They are usually dry by the time the whole door is sprayed. Since it is spray only and no wipe it is more difficult to recover from a mistake. If you spray it heavier or lighter it will be lighter or darker. I would suggest getting a finish rep, like from Mohawk or MLC, over to your shop to teach you how to use them. Once you learn how to use the dye stains, the work moves much faster and there is no blotching on woods like maple and cherry.

From contributor B:
I've dealt with this exact thing for years. First off be careful if you start trying different methods to even up the colors you'll end up having to come up with multiple recipes as cherry lumber these days varies with each shipment you'll get. Secondly have you looked at one of your jobs a few months later? Chances are the woods will have blended nicely. Thirdly, if you choose to try/use dyes start with a waterbase dye. They are much more user friendly, depending on where you live most solvent dyes are acetone based and dry real fast (even with retarder) so you have to know what youíre doing. I've used WB dyes from time to time on your type of problem, usually by diluting the base dye/stain on either the doors or ply, whichever applies, with good results.

From contributor P:
The dye will dissolve the Sealcoat if you use alcohol-based dye which may or may not give you trouble. Try it first. I use waterbased dye myself, so I don't have that problem. What contributor B said sounds like good advice. Dyeing and toning is a good approach to deal with a mixture of heart and sap wood, but that light cherry you're talking about is probably light because it's freshly milled. So if it looks great when it leaves the shop, it might not look so good after it's aged a bit. The "suntanning" method works quickly on a sunny day. You're out of luck if you hit a cloudy spell though.

From contributor O:
The sun will darken cherry pretty quickly. I would listen to the advice of previous posters, if you start mixing different colors to even everything out in the beginning, later when everything starts to age, you could end up with several different shades.

From contributor F:
As contributor R mentioned dyes dry too fast to be wiped on, they are for spray application only. Thin the dye with the appropriate solvent to the point where you have to do multiple coats to get your color. This makes it more forgiving and easier to blend in if you get heavy or light spots. Spray the dye directly on the prep sanded wood, do not wash coat fist.

You should be spraying the dye so it is just barley wet, if done correctly it will flash off quickly and will not get blotchy as long as you go easy and don't flood it on. In your case you are not trying to get a lot of color with the dye, so you probably could thin the dye quite a bit to make what I call a sap dye - just strong enough to bring the color closer to the color of the sheet goods. One tricky part that you will have to get used to is that the dye dries very fast and looks darker when clear coated than after it is sprayed, so it takes some trial and error to learn how much is enough and not too much. After you have your dye to the color you want it, then spray your wash coat, lightly scuff when dry and apply your wiping stain.

If you find that you still need more color after washcoating and staining, do not try to wipe or spray dye directly onto the sealed surface but instead make a toner by adding a small amount of dye to your finish. Just test to make sure they are compatible and go easy with how much dye you put in, depending on the type of dye 2-4 oz. per gallon is usually plenty. I tend to thin the finish out quite a bit so I can add color without too much film build. When you are happy with the color proceed with finish coats of clear.

From contributor V:
I agree with previous posts about multiple schedules on one set of cabs. However I do regularly use dyes, but I always mix dye into my shellac washcoat then lightly sand, then stain. Itís one less step, no problems so far.

From contributor L:
The issue is the difference in color of the two cherry woods. I usually have this problem with plywood verses solid wood. I have sun darkened cherry. A project took an average of 12 hours to get the correct color. It seems that it would be best to adjust the color with the stain mix and not the sealer. Although the sealer dilution would affect the color intensity, it is easier to dilute or re-tint the stain to match different woods no matter which stain or dye is used.

From contributor X:
Try sanding the darker pieces with 180 grit sandpaper and the lighter ones with 120 grit (or something similar). That should even things out some. That's how I deal with veneers. They always stain up darker if you don't sand them with finer grit's than you do with hardwood lumber. You will just have to experiment to see what grit to use without causing swirl marks.