Finishing mahogany

Producing the dark color expected of mahogany. February 12, 2003

Can anyone give me some guidelines about finishing mahogany to the dark color everybody thinks it is? I see blotching even with a wood conditioner pre-coat. Also, the old dark color is a reddish brown, but it appears to have more of a brown tone than red. Even with the conditioner, the stain appears to soak into the heavy grain areas.

Forum Responses
(From WOODWEB's Finishing Forum)
From contributor M:
Are you trying to match a color or are you trying to create a color? Are you using dyes or pigments? Maybe you need a second coat of conditioner? Have you tried first wetting the wood with the same solvent as the stain, then wiping in the stain, then wiping it dry?

From contributor W:
Conditioners are nearly useless. Washcoating is much better. A good washcoat consists of about 13 percent or less solids. I prefer vinyl sealer reduced 5 parts lacquer thinner to 1 part sealer. Apply a good wet coat, scuff with 320, stain. For a dark color you might try spraying a dye stain on the raw wood first, then washcoat and stain.

From contributor M:
Some conditioners are based on the same premise as boiled linseed oil. Most use about the same ingredients. Maybe a thinner formula.

From contributor D:
Wood conditioner on mahogany? That's a new one to me. You must be using Philippine mahogany? It's the cheapest and most difficult to finish (basically solid luan). I would try a dye stain first, say one part cordovan to one part mahogany, and maybe a bit of brown to get the color you describe. If this doesn't give a satisfactory color, then washcoat over the dye, and use a wiping stain to get the color the rest of the way there. Still, this is a poor substitute for using a better wood like African or Honduras mahogany.

From contributor M:
He was using the conditioner to prevent blotching. He stated that the stain was soaking into the deeper grains. I then mentioned that conditioners are similar to BLO when some finishers use as a sealer or to pop the grain in some woods. I mentioned using a second application to seal off the woods, before he stained. That is his way of finishing. There is more than one way of staining.

I've never seen Honduras mahogany blotch. It's the easiest wood on earth to stain. Are you using luan? Contributors W and D are hitting the nail on the head. I see no benefit to using a linseed oil based wood conditioner ever. Under solvent stains I use Franklin or Custom-Pak’s Glue Size and under waterborne on splotch prone woods like cherry and alder I go with a natural acrylic stain base like Fuhr 155 or natural EF stain from General Finishes. Dye stain followed by a vinyl sealer washcoat and then pigmented stains would be my chosen line of attack on mahogany to get depth of color.

If someone were to ask me what the best wood on earth from the standpoint of finishing was, I would respond without hesitation "Honduras mahogany." Walnut is great, too, once you sap stain it, but I know of no wood that stains better than Honduras mahogany. This stuff is a dream.

From contributor M:
This is exactly the same thing that is recommended by the gurus to pop the grain on woods. If you use BLO to do that on your finishes, you're using basically the same materials, except thinned out. That is what conditioners are intended to do - prevent blotching. I don't use them myself -they're just another product to sell, and they do sell.

I would also start out with a dye stain. I would also wet the wood to try to open the grain. In the end they may need to do some color shading to achieve their final color. I suggest making up some samples.

From contributor D:
I've never seen any mahogany get blotchy, not even Philippine. I've had some trouble with color consistency with Philippine mahogany, but not blotchiness. I'm not saying it's all in his head, just that mahogany is not a blotch-prone wood, in my opinion. If it's the deeper grain of Philippine mahogany that's soaking up too much stain, a grain filler is what's called for. Or here is something that's a bit of both: Benjamin Moore makes a wood conditioner that is not a linseed oil type product - it's more of a brush-on washcoat. It also partially fills grain and dries completely transparent. This stuff works almost too well sometimes - it can be hard to get the wood to take enough stain afterwards, but it will completely eliminate blotchiness. It used to be called Neutral Blender, but now they have jumped on the bandwagon and call it wood conditioner.

From contributor M:
I agree with you, but one never knows with woods. I was just trying to answer the questions. This is why they use factory finishes - they eliminate a lot of finishing problems, and you always end up with a uniform color and finish on your woods.

From contributor O:
I often use both Honduras mahogany and Philippine mahogany on the same job. My doors can be made cheaper using Philippine mahogany and I almost always use Honduras for the veneer sheets, as they are always harder to stain.

My methods are basic as I am a cabinetmaker and not a finisher. I use a dye stain first to get near the color if it is to be a deep mahogany and then follow up with a pigment stain. I have also used multiple spray coats of pigment stain with *no* wiping for dark mahogany with good results. It makes it more difficult to sand the sealer without sanding through the stain as the pigment stain gets grainy when you don't wipe it off.

I still prefer not wiping as often as I can get away with it.

Actually, my very first preference is not to stain at all and, believe it or not, I sell probably 80% or more of my jobs with no staining at all and they look absolutely beautiful in the natural.

From contributor M:
You have to give the customers what they want, and not all customers want a clear coated finish. It's all about preference. Some woods do look better with color. I think most people prefer color in kitchen cabinets, and in their furniture. I'm very surprised that the pigmented wiping stain that you are not wiping dry is not blocking out the woods. This is a very common problem with pigmented stains. As long as you and your customers are happy with the end results, that's what matters.

From contributor E:
Drop the conditioner. Select your boards for uniform color and drop all the fiddling around with mixing colors, unless you have to actually match a color sample. Choose a dye stain that is described as brown mahogany or antique mahogany or antique cherry or even brown maple or antique maple, and try it on some sample boards. Sand your wood to 220 and apply the stain, let it dry and top coat as desired. J. E. Moser makes a multitude of dye stain colors in water, alcohol, and oil soluble powders. They are not the finest of anilines available but they are available in a tremendous array of color choices and I have used them with great success over the years. My source for these dyes is Woodworker's Supply and if you go to that web site, you can download a PDF file that will give you a color chart and description of these dyes. Tip - avoid any colors that state "red" in the description, as the red in these dyes is generally very bright and intense - way too bright for what you are looking to achieve.

Splotching is not a problem with "true" or Honduras mahogany, unless you are using a highly figured ribbon or crotch mahogany.

Philippine mahogany (luan) can be doctored to look indistinguishable from true mahogany but it just isn't the same wood. It contains larger and deeper opened pores and is considerably more brittle and prone to chip-out and splitting than true mahogany. It's uniformly lighter (in color and weight) and almost void of character. Luan is best suited for the backs of better grades of plywood, for filler plys and generally is a thoroughly sub-standard substitute for Honduras. We can all stain poplar to look like cherry but that doesn't make it cherry. I wish the distributors of this junk wood would call it by its real name, which is fake mahogany. Hell, it doesn't even make decent firewood - burns too damn fast. Sorry, I hate this stuff with a passion! I deal with many (furniture repair) customers that own this luan “mahogany” furniture, bought while they were on a tour in the Philippines. They all believed they were buying true mahogany furniture at a bargain price, compared to what they are familiar with in the United States. I don’t know when luan started being mixed and sold in the US as mahogany but I do know that 30 years ago, mahogany was mahogany and luan was not to be found in any of the lumber yards or distributorships that I frequented, even on the west coast.

From contributor O:

Contributor M, I have worked on developing a no-wipe system of my staining for years and have come up with mostly successful results even with pigmented stains. I am using more dye stains lately and like them better, as they are easier to control and don't mask grain as much, although there are many instances where masking grain is an advantage, as with natural woods such as cherry and maple. I have come up with some beautiful maple stains with spraying pigmented.

Over the last year or two I have been pushing clear coatings with my customers and for the most part they love the results and I have more than 80% clear jobs now.

I approach the customer by asking whether they like light or dark woods and proceed to suggest woods that finished naturally will give them the shading they like. It is surprising how easy it is to get them to consider clear. I believe customers go for what you are passionate about. My jobs really have turned out beautifully with clear finishes.

I just finished a clear walnut job and it was breathtaking! I think it is just assumed by most that everything has to be stained when that is not true and not always the most beautiful, in my opinion.

Our goal is to please the customer and not always sell a stain color. I have saved myself a *lot* of work this last year by implementing this new way of looking at finish - and that equals increased profits! Of course, I don't force things on them - any decisions they make are their own and I do still stain jobs.

From contributor M:
I love naturally finished woods myself. But it's difficult to do when you have mixed woods and woods with lots of variation in the color and appearance. Also, there are many woods that when only clear coated do not show off their grain as they do when they are stained. This is one reason why paste wood fillers are used - to accentuate the grain. Selecting woods for doing high-end work when doing only clear coats is more suited for the custom woodworking shops. It is a luxury that many shops cannot afford. Even furniture manufacturers cannot afford that luxury anymore - they use toners, stains, glazes, and shading stains. I'm a believer in using both dyes and pigments where the work calls for them.

From contributor J:
As everyone has already said, mahogany is one of the easiest woods to stain on earth. I use a combination of ML Campbell wiping stain and their spray micro stains and tinters to make what I believe is an excellent wiping stain, and without going through all the hullabaloo of washcoats, dyes, tints, toners and the like. It works for me.

From contributor M:
Very impressive.

From contributor J:
Thanks. One thing I always try and do is keep it as simple as possible.

From contributor E:
Very nice! The design is impressive and the finish is beautiful. I like your philosophy - finishing doesn't have to be complicated.

Questions: What is the width and depth of that diagonal corner wall cabinet? Must be over 24", eh? Is that a one piece or multiple piece top mounted crown? Is the section above the sub-zero usable?

I'm not a finisher by trade. I am a cabinetmaker and finish my own work. I don't believe it's possible for a full time cabinetmaker to be a fully competent finisher or refinisher, at least not at a level, and provide the diversity of specialty finishes, as do many of our regular contributors who are indeed professional finishers. That does not mean that I do not experiment with different finishes and finishing techniques, and give my best effort when I do finish my work. Over the years I've gained a fair amount of expertise that allows me to produce a quality finish for my customers. I recognize my limitations and am quick to seek advice from the true experts when I attempt something new.

As one contributor has often said, "this ain't rocket science" – though sometimes I wonder after reading some of his and other's contributions, who provide superior chemical analysis of finish products and physics oriented technical assistance of spray equipment.

From contributor O:
Beautiful job! I like your decorative touches on uppers. I'm assuming you are a frameless shop but notice your ends - are they veneered?

From contributor J:

The corner cabinet is 27” wide and about 15-7/8” deep, where the standard would be 24”x12”. This is so the splay of crown moulding on the adjacent cabinets had room to lie and didn’t interfere with the door.

The crown is a 4-1/2” single piece with a 3” flat 3/4” filler that lies on top of the cabinets and brings it flush with the doors. I really don’t like when the crown is set back from the doors . . . that’s just me.

The space above the Kitchen Aid was first designed to be useable, but during construction I just made it a panel. The client didn’t mind change.

I make whatever needs makin’. I’m working on a room now that’s all inset face framed. It has a nice quirk bead detail.

As far as the medallions, I purchased those, but designed and made the pilasters. The ends are all veneered and I hate to say it, I used WB contact cement under a page backed veneer under an oil base stain under a WB finish. Do you think I should run for cover now or later?

I have found that mahogany is easiest to finish by using two applications of Solar-Lux mahogany dye diluted 50/50 with Solar-Lux thinner and sprayed. Don't try to brush or wipe because it will aggravate the end grain any filler color. After the first finish coat, sand with 320 grit. If there are any sanding accidents, wipe on more dye full strength and proceed with finishing.

Mahogany is photo-reactive and will darken, mellow and equalize the color in a few months or a day or two in the bright sun.

From contributor O:
Heck, I still use solvent based contact cement for the few times I have to veneer an end or bottom and have for over 30 years. I still can understand the concern about the practice, though.

I hate to admit it, but if I have to veneer something it is usually because I made a mistake and used mel. instead of v.panel for an end or bottom - if my uppers have different depths or my bottoms have no light rail, etc.

I use applied ends everywhere that needs them.

From contributor F:
I veneer because it is less work for me. I use screws to put the boxes together and I epoxy the holes and have at it. It takes less time then making another panel and finishing it. This doesn’t mean that if a client wants a panel I won’t make it.

From contributor O:
Makes sense. It does take extra wood and time to always use applied ends - it sure is not for everyone and it's not for every situation.

I am finding as I use different size uppers and different depths, as is the current style, it creates many more small areas of side panels showing. I have been using veneer, as it seems a bit less work, but I may change my mind as time goes on.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
I've worked with mahogany for years and watched it gently warm up over time. Recently I was working with a large piece and needed to take it outside for the final stages. I worked in full bright shade. I wiped it down with 50/50 linseed oil and mineral spirits. After two days I brushed on blonde shellac. I eventually finished with lacquer. But by the time I sprayed it, the wood was already turning a deep red. Nothing like this ever came out of a stain can. From light tan to deep red. Oil, time and light.

Comment from contributor T:
One coloring process I don't see mentioned in your discussion of mahogany is using potassium dichromate. We routinely use a solution of 1/4 teaspoon potassium dichromate in 8 ounces water. It instantly gives Honduras mahogany the rich colors one associates with fine old mahogany furniture. It brings out the deep red brown, red violet, and golden highlights inherent in the wood without muddying up the finish in any way, since there are no dyes or pigments to get in the way of the wood. We go directly from the dichromate coat (once it's dry) to a clear oil sealer and lacquer or conversion varnish.

Comment from contributor U:
Philippine mahogany was used extensively in the Pacific Northwest as interior architectural trim from about 1900 to the late 20s. It was more expensive than oak at the time and considered superior in appearance. It refinishes nicely. I have no problems dying and tinting the finish coat to a dark reddish brown using dark red and dark brown dyes in a water base.

Comment from contributor B:
I would like to comment on one aspect of your original thread about the color laying to darken the grain. If this is a concern try using a gel stain. Since pigment stain by nature lays in the cracks you will get the darker result but with a gel stain the wood is colored very evenly and uniform. It has always worked well for me. As far as getting the dark color you desire - I use a color called Brazilian Rosewood on top of mahogany made by Minwax and get terrific results.