Fixing a Too-Dark Stain Job

A finisher tried to match a stain color, and erred on the dark side. Colleagues offer advice and suggestions. July 11, 2005

I will be the first to admit that I have a lot learn when it comes to matching stain colors. In this case, I have two pine doors that I had outsourced which I am finishing myself. The doors are to be color matched, as close as possible, with some existing cabinetry in a kitchen. I took a sample door with me to a paint store and matched, (so I thought), a dark walnut color to the sample.

After the doors were stained, I noticed that they were way too dark. I have tried everything, (peroxide wood bleach, etc.), in my attempt to lighten up the doors. Ordering another set of doors is not an option at this point and I am quickly approaching the deadline for the job. Any help would be appreciated.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor M:
Sand the doors back down to bare wood and start over. This probably isn’t what you wanted to hear, but it’s probably the only solution for too dark. Cut your stain next time around, and make samples before you stain the doors.

From contributor C:
You never mentioned it, but what’s the type of stain? Meanwhile, I would recommend trying some household bleach.

From contributor C:
Have you tried lacquer thinner, or acetone? I am assuming that this is a pigment stain. It may be enough to cut the color so that you can thin the stain and reapply.

From the original questioner:
I used a dark walnut Varathane penetrating stain. I guess I'll have to just knuckle down and accept the fact that I'll have to painstakingly sand the doors down to bare wood.

From contributor C:
To the original questioner: Was it just a stain, or a stain that is mixed into the Varathane? If it was is mixed into the Varthane, then you first must use a paint remover to take off the Varathane. Bleaching would not help, you first need to remove the Varathane to get to the stain. In some cases the stain may come off with the stripper.

From contributor G:
I've had good results with paint/varnish remover, followed by lacquer thinner. As mentioned above, the remover takes off the topcoat, and the lacquer lightens the stain. Be generous with thinner, have plenty of rags, good respirator, ventilation, etc., and keep wiping down the stain with the LT along the grain in long strokes.

From the original questioner:
Varathane is just the brand name. They have a full array of penetrating stains. This is what I used. I didn't use their finishing product, (i.e., varnish, etc.). All that was applied was the stain only.

From contributor C:
If you only applied a stain, did you try any of these solvents - Acetone, lacquer thinners, lacquer thinners and alcohol, Toulene or Xylene? Do you know what type of stain it is? Look at the label, it should tell you what solvent to use for cleaning up.

From contributor S:
To contributor C: Wouldn't you guess that it is a pigmented oil? Do you know a good way to test?

From contributor C:
To contributor S: Today, just about all of the organic and in-organic pigmented colorants are ground in one of the many synthetic alkyds. Changes are either Toulene or Xylene, or lacquer thinners should do it. Acetone has the highest solvent strength of all these solvents. I'm not really familiar with this stain - it could be part dye and pigments.

From contributor R:
Chlorine bleach will remove most dyes, though it might require several applications. Swimming pool chlorine is stronger and will work faster. For pigments, sometimes the stains own clear stain base will remove a fair amount of pigment. As others have stated try your various solvents, however in most cases I think it is the scrubbing action more than the solvent that is removing the pigment. Sanding is usually the last resort and often the most effective.

From contributor D:
When trying to go from dark to light, before you strip the project and start over, try toning with a yellow toner. I prefer pigmented toners; either French yellow ochre or a chromium yellow. This is the only way I know to try to go from dark to light. If this does not work for the project, you are trying to save it may work for the next project that you need to save. Then, you could always go the last resort and trip and start over.

I place no stock in letting a paint store match a color for stained wood. They match opaque colors. Stained woods have many colors in them. You need to match the look of the stained wood using stains that are in the family of colors that you want. That is a lot different than matching an opaque color.

Stained woods are a combination of the coloring steps and materials plus the wood. It is the various steps and application of those coloring steps which bring you the final coloring results.

From contributor H:
I've sanded doors many times and it really doesn't take long. I would recommend that next time you spray your stains on in very light coats (with lots of air and very little fluid), and sneak up on the right darkness. Each coat should dry instantly. Thin the stain between 50% and 75% and try it on a sample board first.

Keep your original sample close by. I use a gun of thinned dark walnut and another gun with thinned early American to match lots of different tones. The early American warms it up and has more red, and that helps dark walnut, which has more green.